Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty and duty. Altruism focuses on a motivation to help others or a want to do good without reward, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (for example, God, a king), a specific organization (for example, a government), or an abstract concept (for example, patriotism etc). Some individuals may feel both altruism and duty, while others may not. Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition.
The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought, and has more recently become a topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. While ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields lead to different perspectives on altruism. Researches on altruism were sparked in particular after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, who was stabbed during half an hour, with passive witnesses withholding themselves from helping her.
For illustration of this, Knox (1999) describes circumstances which he terms as "the volunteers folly". In his example a lawyer volunteers his time on the weekends to help build low cost housing - professing that his motivation to do so is to help provide housing for the needy. However, Knox identifies that this is not the proper way for a lawyer to serve that particular interest. Since the lawyer's work as a lawyer generates far more money than his work on the building site is worth, Knox suggests that he should simply put in more work as a lawyer and donate the proceeds of that work. This would serve his professed purpose to a higher degree, since that money would afford the project several times more work than he himself could provide to the project directly.
Some may find this logic disagreeable or counterintuitive as an ideation of altruism, because it seems to require that martyrdom — or fatal sacrifice for a greater cause — be the only actualization of altruism.
Psychological egoism can be accused of using circular logic. For instance, an egoist would not disagree with the following syllogism: "If a person has willingly performed an act, then he/she has manifested such intent in the form of that act. Fulfillment of one's desires is the primary requisite of satisfaction. Ergo, a person can only willingly perform acts that result in his/her personal enjoyment." This logic is sometimes viewed as circular or presumptuous. Specifically, egoism leans on the assumption that satisfaction is synonymous with self-satisfaction. Such a precept automatically sidesteps counterpoint, however, and remains unfalsifiable. Thus, until empirical evidence favors one view or the other, egoism must acquiesce to uncertainty.
Humans are not exclusively altruistic towards family members, previous co-operators or potential future allies, but can be altruistic towards people they don't know and will never meet. For example, some humans donate to international charities and volunteer their time to help society's less fortunate. It can however be argued that an individual would contribute to a charity to gain respect or stature within his/her own community. Beginning with an understanding that rational human beings benefit from living in a benign universe, logically it follows that particular human beings may gain substantial emotional satisfaction from acts which they perceive to make the world a better place.
The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.
Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D'Or Hospital Network (J.M.) provided the first evidence for the neural bases of altruistic giving in normal healthy volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006, they showed that both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food and sex. However, when volunteers generously placed their interests of others before their own by making charitable donations, another brain circuit was selectively activated: the subgenual cortex/septal region. These structures are intimately related to social attachment and bonding in other species. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
A new study by Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, US, is seen by some as breathing new life into the model of group selection for Altruism, known as "Survival of the nicest". Bowles conducted a genetic analysis of contemporary foraging groups, including Australian aboriginals, native Siberian Inuit populations and indigenous tribal groups in Africa. It was found that hunter-gatherer bands of up to 30 individuals were considerably more closely related than was previously thought. Under these conditions, thought to be similar to those of the middle and upper Paleolithic, altruism towards other group-members would improve the overall fitness of the group.
If an individual defended the group but was killed, any genes that the individual shared with the overall group would still be passed on. Early customs such as food sharing or monogamy could have levelled out the “cost” of altruistic behaviour, in the same way that income taxes redistribute income in society. He assembled genetic, climactic, archaeological, ethnographic and experimental data to examine the cost-benefit relationship of human cooperation in ancient populations. In his model, members of a group bearing genes for altruistic behaviour pay a "tax" by limiting their reproductive opportunities to benefit from sharing food and information, thereby increasing the average fitness of the group as well as their inter-relatedness. Bands of altruistic humans would then act together to gain resources from other groups at this challenging time in history..
Altruist theories in evolutionary biology were contested by Amotz Zahavi, the inventor of the signal theory and its correlative, the handicap principle, based mainly on his observations of the Arabian Babbler, a bird commonly known for its surprising (alleged) altruistic behaviours.
Altruism was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. From biblical to medieval Christian traditions, tensions between self-affirmation and other-regard were sometimes discussed under the heading of "disinterested love," as in the Pauline phrase "love seeks not its own interests." In his book Indoctrination and Self-deception, Roderick Hindery tries to shed light on these tensions by contrasting them with impostors of authentic self-affirmation and altruism, by analysis of other-regard within creative individuation of the self, and by contrasting love for the few with love for the many. If love, which confirms others in their freedom, shuns propagandas and masks, assurance of its presence is ultimately confirmed not by mere declarations from others, but by each person's experience and practice from within. As in practical arts, the presence and meaning of love become validated and grasped not by words and reflections alone, but in the doing.
Though it might seem obvious that altruism is central to the teachings of Jesus, one important and influential strand of Christianity would qualify this. St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, I:II Quaestion 26, Article 4 states that we should love ourselves more than our neighbour. His interpretation of the Pauline phrase is that we should seek the common good more than the private good but this is because the common good is a more desirable good for the individual. 'You should love your neighbour as yourself' from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 22 is interpreted by St Thomas as meaning that love for ourself is the exemplar of love for others. He does think though, that we should love God more than ourselves and our neighbour, taken as an entirety, more than our bodily life, since the ultimate purpose of love of our neighbour is to share in eternal beatitude, a more desirable thing than bodily well being. Comte was probably opposing this Thomistic doctrine, now part of mainstream Catholicism, in coining the word Altruism, as stated above.
It was under the tutelage of the Guru that Bhai Kanhaiya subsequently founded a volunteer corps for altruism. This volunteer corps till to date is engaged in doing good to others and trains new volunteering recruits for doing the same.
It is claimed by some Sikhs that Bhai Kanhaiya's successors who continued the tradition of serving others and who committed their lives to service of the sick and wounded lived longer than usual life spans. Bhai Kanhaiya’s successors were not related genetically in order to account for their exceptional longevity. Rather they were volunteers from the Sikh organizations who committed their lives to serve the sick; first they did it themselves and then they recruited others to do the same. All of them defied the recorded longevity norms of the time for a long span of over three centuries.
Longevity is determined by many factors, freedom from disease and stress are two such factors. The altruists were certainly observed to live calm and tranquil lives. For Sikhs, altruism was made an act of faith by their founders.
Monk-Turner, E., Blake, V., Chniel, F., Forbes, S., Lensey, L., Madzuma, J.: Gender Issues, Helping Hands: A Study of Altruistic Behavior, Fall 2002, pp. 65-70