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  In a biological context, altruism (from Italian altrui, ‘someone else’) describes any act by an individual which causes it to expend energy, but which brings it no direct benefit. An altruistic act usually enhances the chances of survival of another, genetically-related individual and rarely results in the death of the altruist, though some risk is often involved. A good example is the bird which gives a warning call upon sighting a hawk: it thus alerts its offspring while attracting the attention of the hawk to itself. It is probably incidental that the altruist, in this case, also warns any other potential prey, but John Maynard-Smith, in his book The Theory of Evolution, suggests that there is even a kin selection benefit in warning quite distant relatives.

Some authorities dispute the existence of altruism in instinctive situations: the concept of the selfish gene, a term coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins, ascribes an act of apparent altruism as beneficial to the gene if it protects copies of itself carried by relatives. For example, a worker bee that sacrifices itself to defend the hive is protecting its only chance of furthering its genetic line as it is sterile itself.

In philosophy, altruists believe that when we decide how to act we can, and should, take the interests of others into account as well as our own interests. They believe, for example, that we can, and should, sometimes give money to charity because of our concern for others, and not just because we wish to be thought well of by others, or to think well of ourselves.

Altruism contrasts in philosophy with ethical egoism. Ethical egoists (from Greek ethikos, ‘of one\'s disposition’; Latin ego, ‘I’) think that we should not take the interests of others into account when we decide how to act, but should simply pursue our own interests. They may even insist that this is all we can do, that those, for example, who think they give money to charity because of their concern for others are simply deluding themselves. In reality, people only ever give money away for self-interested reasons. RB AJ

See also group selection; hedonism; morality; natural selection; sociobiology.Further reading Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; , T. Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism.



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