Altruism and moral motivation

Humans and non-human animals are capable of spectacular as well as ordinary helping actions. Can these actions or their underlying behavioural tendencies be described as altruistic? Some will and some won’t, and the answer will greatly depend on one’s definition of altruism.

Altruism, broadly conceived as unilateral giving behaviour, has been investigated by disciplines as different as psychology, philosophy, sociology, neurosciences, economics, or biology. However, a close analysis readily shows that these disciplines conceive the phenomenon of altruism very differently. As a consequence, the same action or behaviour may fall under the altruism category in one research area but not in the other, which leads to major misunderstandings across disciplines. Do these disciplinary specificities impede a full understanding of the general phenomenon of human altruism or do they each shed an original and irreplaceable light on the phenomenon? In this project, we aim at investigating the latter hypothesis.

We start with an explicitly broad concept that we label “ordinary altruism”, which is close to the common sense and moral use of the term. Human ordinary altruistic actions fulfil the tree following conditions:

  • They result from actors’ intention to help: i.e. the helping does not come about as an unplanned incidental effect while the actors are doing something else.
  • They are produced voluntarily: i.e. actors can choose between various options (e.g. to help or no to help) and are not pressured by obvious external constraints while forming their intention to help (e.g. threat of punishment against non-helpers).
  • They are “prima facie disinterested”: i.e. there is no obvious evidence that actors help only as a mean to obtain external rewards such as personal reputation or expected benefits from future cooperation.

We will recruit interdisciplinary knowledge in order to highlight the phenomenon of ordinary altruism from (1) an evolutionary ultimate point of view, (2) a mechanistic proximate point of view, and (3) a phenomenological points of view.

On the basis of this conceptual and empirical work, we will extend our investigation to practical issues. In which areas of action is ordinary altruism most likely to occur? Which environmental and psychological features do facilitate (or impede) the production of altruistic actions? Is it ethically appropriate to promote altruism? What practical measures could be applied in order to promote altruism in contemporary societies? More particularly, how could altruism be encouraged in medical contexts?

This project is conducted by Christine Clavien