A welfare function of altruism and its biological rationale

Shmuel Amir, David Bigman

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3 Scopus citations


This article contends that an explanation of the biological emergence and preservation of the phenomenon of altruism requires an inspection of the simultaneous operation of forces on more than one level of organization. The scope of individualistic interactions must be extended to include the struggles between communities themselves in addition to the struggle of individuals within isolated communities. In light of our observation that altruistic characters are not necessarily preserved by the differential reproduction and survival of communities, a mechanism relying on the continuous change in the properties and composition of existing communities is proposed. This change is intensified by the migration of altruists to new lands whenever conditions within existing communities severely deteriorate. The suggested mechanism, moreoever, eliminates the need to postulate group selection mechanisms to account for the survival of altruistic characters. The article discusses the well known Kantian argument, which maintains that it is reasonable to obey moral commands by showing that the moralistic approach is based on evolutionary grounds. To act altruistically is presumed to be irrational only when the shortsighted egoistic view is taken as a point of reference. Thus it is shown that moral principles are not confined to human populations, but are widespread over the biological world where they may be genetically coded and culturally reinforced. This observation suggests, furthermore, that abstract compensations do not constitute a general incentive scheme capable of explaining why altruism has not become extinct. If survival is endangered, an abstract incentive cannot constitute a compensation for an altruistic act if it is unaccompanied by higher reproduction rates. The biological roots of altruism then have to be found in the relative competitive advantage shared by members of a cohesively maintained altruistic community. In such a community, the maxims of the members become universal laws thus enabling individuals to effectively devote their time and energy to specialized expansion of their resource base instead of wasting dear resources in sterile struggles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-66
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Social and Biological Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 1980
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (all)


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