The definition of altruism according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is:

 1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
// charitable acts motivated purely by altruism.

But where does one use the word altruism as opposed to using selflessness or utter devotion? Does it find itself only in formal usage?

2 Answers 2


I'm going to leave an answer, largely based on your comment beneath Andrew's fine answer. You asked:

There's got to be some other difference between the usage of those two words right?

I think there may be some general differences between the two words. For example, I think selflessness can refer to a small, single act of kindness, whereas altruism alludes to a broader lifestyle or philosophy.

For example, at the lunch table at school, my son might notice his classmate has no milk because he left his milk money at home. My son might then offer his milk to his classmate. Most would regard that to be a selfless act, but it might be a bit of a stretch to call it altruistic.

On the other hand, if my son's compassion for the needy becomes so ingrained in his character that he does volunteer work for a local food bank and homeless shelter every week, that's something folks might regard as altruistic.

Put another way, all altruistic acts may be selfless, but not all selfless acts are necessarily altruistic.

It's a very subtle difference, and one would be in error to regard these as hard boundary lines. But I think selfless is a better adjective for relatively small acts of kindness whereas altruistic might be better to describe guiding principles and long-term overarching character.

It's interesting that many of Andrew's quotes came from giants who were describing deeply-seated character traits: King, Skinner, and Smith. My answer doesn't conflict with Andrew's; rather it supports it.


The meaning of words is in how they are actually used, not by what the dictionary says they mean. After all, that's how the dictionaries come up with the definitions in the first place -- by looking at all the ways the words have appeared in writing, and by coming up with a set of common descriptions.

So the easiest way to explore the meaning of something like "altruism" is to read it in action. Let's look at some quotes:

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Clearly we can assume, from this, quote, that the word has a positive connotation that contrasts with selfishness. So altruism must be somewhat synonymous with selflessness. Not much to go on, but it's a start.

I don't deny the importance of genetics. However, the fact that I might be altruistic isn't because I have a gene for altruism; the fact that I do something for my children at some cost to myself comes from a history that has operated on me. - B. F. Skinner

A different angle. Skinner (a renowned psychologist and behaviorist) says doing "something for my children at some cost to myself" is an example of altruistic behavior -- that altruism necessarily includes some measure of sacrifice.

Countries that intervene militarily rarely do so out of pure altruism. - Samantha Power

Wars are never fought for altruistic reasons. - Arundhati Roy

Again, altruism in both these quotes seems to mean, "the desire to do good at some cost to oneself". Power says that military intervention, no matter how well-meaning, is often done out of at least some measure of self-interest, and therefore altruism must imply the complete lack of self-interest and with good intentions.

Roy, on the other hand, suggests that violent conflict, even with good intent, can never be altruistic. Therefore her definition must include the admonition to do no harm.

And so on. We could continue to refine the definition through various other excerpts from written sources, but let me wrap up with this quote from the noted economist Adam Smith, whose "Wealth of Nations" is often said to be the first work of modern economics. But even he recognized that people often do things for reasons other than the purely monetary:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.

To paraphrase: Smith says that there is the fundamental desire in humans to enhance the well-being of others, even if the giver gets nothing from it other than personal pleasure -- which is, I think, as good a definition of altruism as any.

  • Your answer makes altruistic look like a word that is context dependent. Just like many other words. But wouldn't selflessness also fit in the your answer? There's got to be some other difference between the usage of those two words right?
    – penguin99
    May 9, 2019 at 18:59
  • 2
    @noorav I'm not sure why you feel there has to be a difference. Many words in English mean exactly the same thing. In any case, I suggest you consider that, at an advanced level in any language, there is no simple answer to this kind of question. You just have to look at how the words are used and come up with your own internal guide when to use one and when to use the other. It can be something as simple as saying "selflessness" is too long to write, or that "altruism" is nice because it starts with a vowel sound.
    – Andrew
    May 9, 2019 at 19:21
  • @noorav in this case my answer suggests that "altruism" embraces a larger philosophical ideal than "selflessness". But in most contexts one can be substituted for the other without any loss in meaning. Moreover, I, personally, think "altruism" sounds better. Again, I think any simple answer to this question would be an incomplete answer.
    – Andrew
    May 9, 2019 at 19:24
  • Downvoting because this answer takes 1000 words to not even answer the question. OP did not ask what the definition of altruism is, (s)he asked how it compares to other similar words. For all the explanation of nuances of the word's meaning, hardly anything is said of how it compares to other words, other than that it's "somewhat synonymous with selflessness," which isn't helpful. And personally, I find no meaningful difference in meaning between Power's and Roy's quotes (at least not without additional context).
    – cjl750
    May 9, 2019 at 21:47
  • @cjl750 - When I read Andrew’s opening paragraph, I had the same thought: “Wait! The OP didn’t ask for the definition!” As I read through the rest of this answer, though, I began to think my initial reaction was off-the-mark. And I think this does answer the OP’s question, albeit a little indirectly.
    – J.R.
    May 10, 2019 at 10:42

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