I see and hear various media/articles and people's view which insist others to commit altruistic acts. Sometimes to the extent that it is no more persuasion but force.

Why is that right or wrong and what philosophy motivates them to force this principle?

  • 2
    It is in their own interest to incite you to act in an altruistic way, so why do you need a philosophic motivation to explain it? Please reformulate your question.
    – Phira
    Jun 7, 2011 at 21:15
  • 6
    By definition you can't actually compel someone to be altruistic.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 7, 2011 at 23:16
  • @thei, Could you explain what is in their own interest? I think the answer to that would explain the philosophy behind it.
    – Pradeep
    Jun 8, 2011 at 6:02
  • 1
    @Pradeep If everyone helps others in need, chances are, that I will be helped if I need it.
    – Phira
    Jun 8, 2011 at 8:57
  • 1
    You'll need to provide examples for this question to get off the ground
    – mfg
    Jun 8, 2011 at 16:13

7 Answers 7


Any moral theory can be interpreted as 'forcing' you to do altruistic acts as far as it can be said to show you why you should always act with the good in mind, where what is good is determined by that specific theory - and therefore to always put the good above self-interest.

So if you are a Kantian idealist, you may say that your rationality 'forces' you not only to act altruistically but also to enforce altruistic behaviour upon others. But that is no more than to say: enforce the categorical imperatives without letting your interests be a factor in your decision.

Similarly, if you are a consequentialist, you may say that consequentialism forces you to be altruisitic by forcing you to renounce self-interest when the consequences so dictate.

But all these are no more than just 'notational' variations. I believe the question is not a valid question. I will explain why. As I see it you are asking the following question:

Which theory of moral philosophy forces others (sometimes by coercion) to act altruisitically?

Now a 'theory of moral philosophy' could, by definition, be taken as a certain set of beliefs that promulgates a certain 'conception of the good'. Altruism is, by definition, a type of selfless behaviour that aims to promote the good of others. With these definitions in mind we can rephrase the question as follows:

Which conception of the good forces others to behave in such a way that their sole concern is the good of others?

And the answer to that question is: Those conceptions of the good that make such behaviour good. Which is to say: Those conceptions that make it good to determine behaviour according to the good of others. But here you can see that we have reached an impredicative definition: the 'good' is part of both the definiens and the definiendum. So no such moral theory can be provided wherein the forcing of good is considered good - without, that is, lapsing into incoherence.

I think your question looks like a valid question - but take care to unpack the definitions and you will see that it makes no sense to argue or demand such a position without becoming incoherent. Which, I guess, is confirmation that this idea comes from the mainstream media.

  • First, this answer helped me a lot. I agree that the question that I intended to ask could have been rephrased as suggested. Specifically "Which philosophy compels others to act altruistically?" To which the proposed answers are Kantian idealist and consequentalist. I prefer this rephrasing of the question to the 2nd one. Or more likely I would prefer to keep the word altruism in the question as I am more concerned about the word "force" with respect to "altruism". Could you also explain what this means "enforce the categorical imperatives without letting your interests be a factor in ..."?
    – Pradeep
    Jun 20, 2011 at 11:56

There no way of "forcing" you to be altruistic. Instead, the society merely compels you to be altrustic, by having demonstrated altruism to be a moral virtue.

And of course, behind the scenes, there are the influences of Christianity ever-present in the Western civilizations. Altruism is the secularized version of the theological virtue of Charity. After all, God is not dead at all.

  • 1
    Altruism in moral theory has nothing to do with societal coercion or religious belief - the point of the question is which theory in moral philosophy promotes the coercive imposition of altruistic behaviour
    – Chuck
    Jun 10, 2011 at 15:10
  • The difference between force and compel in this context is trivial. If you are unsatisfied with the word force, substitute compel and the question still stands.
    – dimo414
    Jun 10, 2011 at 22:06
  • 1
    By definition, altruism can't be imposed. That's no altruism, it's duty. And yes, there are an important diference between "forcing" and "compeling". The society tries to convice us to be altruistic, it's quite different to forcing. The proof is that someones are in fact immune to that persuasion. Jun 14, 2011 at 0:19

If you are talking about the sentencing of "community service hours" then there are several reasons

  • By giving back to the community the criminal is investing a part of yourself into the community and is less likely to transgress against
  • The criminal will be exposed to elements considered constructive to society rather than those which may have led to transgressions against it.
  • As a punishment it is more effective than a fine as the criminal are forced to perform the duties them selves and the punishment equally disruptive to the lifestyle of wealthy as the poor.

A true act of altruism is a choice made by an individual to serve the needs of others without thought of gain for one's self. Thus, if you are forced or coerced to commit an act for the greater good, then you are not yourself acting altruistically, but instead acting out of either duty or of a fear of reprisal. Regardless of the apparent benefit to one's self, it is more likely to be in the better interests of the coercer to push someone to an act of apparent altruism.

As for right or wrong, you might personally feel it is wrong for someone to force another person to behave in a particular manner, yet another person may feel it satisfies their own morality if they can provide a suitable justification for their act of coercion, or perhaps justification isn't required. Perhaps it is suits the coercer's morality to force an act of apparent altruism, simply because it can be done.

In the case however of the media publishing stories about the billionaires who are all standing together to persuade other billionaires to do some apparent good in the world, I suspect it may in part be that there are feelings involved of accomplishment, pride, and a need for a measure of validation for individual acts through the subsequent similar actions of peers. But in this case, we are perhaps starting to blur the lines between philosophy and psychology, and therefore the issue of morality may be irrelevant.


We act altruistically because we want to prove to ourselves and others that we are not selfish, bad, evil, inconsiderate or self-serving. Here 'others' also include God. In all forms, doing good seems to be a better option when we "can" do good. It is obvious to us that doing good is better not only for our society but also for our personal mental and spiritual health. We believe that it is the best way to safeguard our interests here on Earth as well as in heaven. The philosophy or religious teaching which motivates us to act altruistically does not matter here, for at different stages of our life we can be influenced by different philosophies. Thus no particular philosophy forces a person to act altruistically, but any philosophy that proves or persuades that doing good is the best thing to do while we are alive and capable of doing good.

  • The way I have answered this question is obviously logically flawed. I do not argue or put forth my position in a structured logical way, but merely state my opinions. If one is to arrive at a good answer that is logical and technically correct then first answer by Mr Chuk is the best answer. I think it leaves no room for any kind of confusion. Jan 21, 2012 at 15:37

Rather than a philosophy I think it has a darwinian explanation. Being altruistic towards your peers is an incentive for them to help you out when you need it.

  • 1
    It doesn't sound like altruism if you are expecting a incentive in return. That would be exchange of values isn't it?
    – Pradeep
    Jun 8, 2011 at 7:34
  • One might think that other have the incentive to repay unless they're Psychological Egoists.
    – Darius
    Jun 8, 2011 at 17:43
  • What we see as altruism may, in fact, be an evolution of what you refer to as "exchange of values". In a complex society some of these behaviors evolved over time and transmitted from generation to generation (e.g. memes).
    – zzzbbx
    Jun 9, 2011 at 18:37

Apparently it appears to no one that altruism is impossible?!

Because one cannot act (do something voluntarily) against one's own will, acting per se is always serving the one who acts. It may, in addition, serve others.

Hence, a "philosophy that forces others to act altruistic" can only be one witout logic.

For those of you fellow hobby philosopher who downvoted me, unable to respond, as the logic is unattackable, I have a nice aphorism to make you feel even worse:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value. -- Ayn Rand

  • -1 for claiming the logic is unattackable. Making an argument is fine, but that kind of certainty is not, especially when you're arguably wrong. You're using an unhelpful definition of altruism, since, as you note, it is impossible to actually do it. Altruism is more usefully (and conventionally) defined as doing something that you only want to do because it benefits others; if it did not, there would be no point for you to do it.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 8, 2012 at 11:44
  • @Rex, I don't really need this definition. I could restrict myself to pointing out that whenever men act, then they act selfishly. -- Btw, altruism according to your definition brings up the problem of arrogated knowledge (hope this is the correct term): From whence do you know what benefits others?
    – Ingo
    Jan 8, 2012 at 14:50
  • What do you call that subset of selfish actions which are nonetheless only done because of your perception of the benefit that they will bring others?
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 8, 2012 at 15:10
  • You want me to call them altruistic? Problematic, because 1) altrusitic is far too often used in the sense not selfish 2) Even if this were not so, I dislike the moral connotation that comes with it.
    – Ingo
    Jan 8, 2012 at 15:19
  • You can call them whatever you want as long as you can clearly communicate your meaning to others. Personally, I'm having trouble understanding what you mean by "not selfish", "altruism is impossible", etc.. In particular, I am uncertain whether you have chosen an unhelpful definition of "selfish", also.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 8, 2012 at 15:25

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