In my book on altruism (yet to be finished!), I’m thinking about including the following as a way to begin reflecting on the question of whether anything like “pure” altruism exists (where someone acts entirely for the sake of another with no benefit at all for the self).  Let me know your thoughts.


One might think that “altruism” is a non-problematic term.  It comes from the Latin word “alter” which means “other,”  and so refers broadly to actions that benefit someone other than oneself.  It stands in contrast with “egoism,” based on the Greek word “ego,” meaning “I” or “myself,” and therefore referring to actions that benefit oneself.

That all seems simple enough: the terms differentiate between doing things for others and doing things for ourselves.  But it turns out that in practice it is difficult – possibly impossible – to establish clear boundaries between altruism and egoism.  As a result, philosophers, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists perennially debate how to understand the terms.

I’ll illustrate the problem by telling a strange personal anecdote. Did it involve an act of altruism, egoism or, somehow, both?

It happened in 1974,

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