The term altruism was coined by the 19th century sociologist Auguste Comte and is derived from the Latin “alteri” or "the others”. It describes an unselfish attention to the needs of others. Comte declared that man had a moral duty to “serve humanity, whose we are entirely.” The idea of altruism is central to the main religions: Jesus declared “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” and Mohammed said “none of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”. Buddhism too advocates “seeking for others the happiness one desires for oneself.”
Philosophers, Psychologists, and Evolutionary Biologists have all tried to explain altruistic human behaviour. For evolutionary psychologists altruism is a major problem: why are we so nice to each other? Darwin argued, in the words of Tennyson, that the natural world was 'red in tooth and claw': all that mattered was survival and reproduction. If this is true how can evolutionary psychologists explain why people help others who are not biologically related? This is at the heart of the nature-nurture debate.

The link below will take you to 'In Our Time' a radio four programme that discusses the concept of altruism from a range of different perspectives. It is useful for the unit 3 topic: aggression. It is also very useful for the nature-nurture debate.

In Our Time: Altruism

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