Altruism is defined as the principle or practice of “selfless care or dedication to the welfare of others”. In other words, it is the opposite of self-interest. It is also a compassionate reaction to another in desperate circumstances due to feelings of empathy and a desire to help. By definition, altruistic acts require people to disregard their own concerns, and help others without expecting reciprocation or reward.

A scholarly article has expounded on the links between the concept of altruism and volunteerism (two intricately connected behaviors) across four disciplines: psychology, sociology, economy and socio-biology. Not every volunteering act is altruistic, and not all altruistic acts are volunteering. However, scholars have debated about the definition of altruism for a long time. Some believe that pure altruism does not exist, and every altruistic act is egoistical. Others believe that altruism is behaviour that promotes others’ welfare without conscious regard for one’s own self-interest.  

In this week’s article, we will explore the concepts related to altruism in order to gain a better understanding of this philosophical question: can we be truly altruistic?

Is volunteering altruistic?

In most cultures, altruism is seen as a virtue to cultivate. It is deemed good for society to cultivate kindness so that people will help each other out organically. There are many ways to cultivate compassion, perhaps through the volunteering opportunities where people can give time or resources to help those in need.

To most students growing up in Singapore, volunteering means doing activities that benefit the community, in return for the Community Involvement Project (CIP), or now, Values in Action (VIA) hours that may or may not be mandatory in order to graduate. According to the scholars, there are four main components of volunteerism: free will, no monetary reward, aimed to help strangers/ beneficiaries, on a long-term basis or in a formal setting. Whether or not volunteering for hours to graduate strictly meets this definition raises questions based on these four features.

There is the perennial question of whether people volunteer because they truly want to help without any form of reward, or they actually volunteer for benefits that come with the altruistic act. Psychologists believe that there are various motivations for people who volunteer, and there can be both altruistic components and egoistic components. Both need not be in competition, but co-exist to feed each other. In a world where goodness can cause a ripple effect, it is perhaps acceptable to have both egoistic, and selfless, motivations.

‘Egoistic Altruism’

In this video, the creators concisely explain the concept of egoistic altruism – how we should help people because it is for our own good. Economic growth changed the nature of society from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game. It is argued in this video that because of this shift, there is a counter-intuitive consequence of our positive-sum world. The base argument for egoistic altruism is that it is in our personal self-interest that every human on this planet is well-off and prospering. The more people are well off, the better your life is. By uplifting people to have better lives, more people are able to demand for innovation, and also produce innovative ideas. This idea brings to mind the old adage: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Can we then say that we are truly altruistic if our motivations are based on self-interest? Perhaps that depends on the definition of altruism you believe in and how narrowly or broadly defined it is.

Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. Do you believe that true altruism exists?
  2. To what extent is volunteering altruistic to you?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘reciprocal’: given, felt, or done in return
  2. ‘confederate’: a person one works with, especially in something secret or illegal; an accomplice

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Medium: An alternative view to Kurzgesagt’s video on its claims and funders, and interesting counterpoints to the alternative view are found in the comments section.

“Kurzgesagt cleverly avoids ever uttering the words “capitalism” in their video, but their argument is essentially that capitalism produces innovation through market-based incentives, and therefore creates a rising tide that lifts all boats. The man who invents the new smartphone because it will make him a profit produces a commodity that benefits others who are able to invent things themselves for profits that produce more commodities and so on. It all sounds perfectly lovely, a utopian world where we can all comfortably just pursue self-interest assured that doing so will help rather than harm others.

The one problem: it is completely false. It is such a widely perpetrated falsehood that Jacobin, a Leftist magazine in the U.S., has dedicated an entire issue to it as well as several article before and since. As Tony Smith wrote, it was public research, not remarkable individuals, that laid the scientific groundwork for things like agricultural biotechnology, modern GPS, and even the ubiquitous iPhone (a nice thing to point out the next time someone claims your use of an iPhone to criticize capitalism is “ironic”).”


  1. Atlantic: Volunteering is found to improve people’s health.

“When she describes this research to people, their initial reaction is sometimes skeptical. Of course, unhealthy people volunteer less because they are unable to volunteer. But then another of course, having spent much of her career researching associations between health and volunteering, Konrath has thought of this. So in addition to isolating sociodemographic factors like age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, educational attainment, financial wealth, and health-insurance status, Kim and Konrath controlled for health behaviors, social integration, stress, positive psychological factors, personality factors, chronic illnesses, and health status via two measures of baseline health, including a 23-item measure of functional status and an index of major chronic illnesses.

“The research on smoking is not experimental; it’s the exact same quality as the studies of volunteering,” said Konrath. “It’s based on following people over time and seeing what happens to people who choose to smoke or choose to volunteer. Yet doctors have no trouble telling us to stop smoking. What they ignore is that most of the context of our day-to-day lives is embedded within relationships. The number and quality of those relationships strongly influences health. I’ve been looking at this for years now, and I haven’t found a study where volunteering didn’t affect health positively in some way.””