Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 125-140

First online:

Altruism across disciplines: one word, multiple meanings

  • Christine ClavienAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne Email author 
  • , Michel ChapuisatAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne

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Altruism is a deep and complex phenomenon that is analysed by scholars of various disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, biology, evolutionary anthropology and experimental economics. Much confusion arises in current literature because the term altruism covers variable concepts and processes across disciplines. Here we investigate the sense given to altruism when used in different fields and argumentative contexts. We argue that four distinct but related concepts need to be distinguished: (a) psychological altruism, the genuine motivation to improve others’ interests and welfare; (b) reproductive altruism, which involves increasing others’ chances of survival and reproduction at the actor’s expense; (c) behavioural altruism, which involves bearing some cost in the interest of others; and (d) preference altruism, which is a preference for others’ interests. We show how this conceptual clarification permits the identification of overstated claims that stem from an imprecise use of terminology. Distinguishing these four types of altruism will help to solve rhetorical conflicts that currently undermine the interdisciplinary debate about human altruism.


Reproductive altruism Psychological altruism Behavioural altruism Preference altruism Experimental economics Evolutionary anthropology