Ethical altruism

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Ethical altruism is the philosophical doctrine of living for others rather than for oneself. In its most extreme form, altruism calls for self-destruction for the sake of others, but most altruists adhere to Auguste Comte's moderate beliefs. Ethical altruism is more extreme than "normal" or layman's altruism because it does not value the self except as a way of helping others. In common language, altruism is simply any act that helps others out of generosity rather than for one's own interests.

Sensible ethical altruism[edit]

He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away.
—Raymond Hull[1]

People who take ethical altruism to the extreme risk self-destruction. If you push yourself to the extremes trying to do the maximum amount of good, then you're likely to become physically and/or emotionally exhausted, and then you won't be able to do much good for anyone. As the saying goes, "you can't pour from an empty cup."[2]

A rational ethical altruist will need to meet their own basic needs before helping others if they want to be effective. This means taking ensuring that they get adequate sleep, nutrition, relaxation, and social interaction. Once all needs are met, remaining time can be spent helping others (Bonus points if you can find a way to help others that meets your physical or emotional needs in the process, like an ethical perpetual motion machine). An efficient altruist should also stay mindful of their needs so they can take breaks as necessary and avoid burnout.[3]

An efficient altruist should also consider using their strengths to do maximum good. For example, if you're an excellent writer with no carpentry experience, then your skills would probably be better put to use writing on wikis than building potentially unsafe houses.


Altruism is criticized a lot for its serious subjectivity: in a society where one values oneself only as a means for other people, who in turn value themselves as means for other people, then nobody will appreciate the help they get and nobody will "receive" the benefits of an exclusively altruistic society. Altruism is also criticized by people who feel the opposite: that one ought to live exclusively for oneself. Most people are neither egoists nor altruists simply because neither philosophy is very practical.

See also[edit]