The allegory of the cave can be interpreted in many ways, but I’m wondering if anyone would agree that one interpretation would be to overcome being self-centred and become more altruistic ?

For bonus points on the topic of altruism, do think people can become to altruistic and not do enough for themselves ?

  • 1
    You've not said how your interpretation would look like, only what one would conclude from some interpretation which, well, we could only guess. So far all that can really be said is that it can be read politcally and that the prisoner that left the cave wants to go back in order to bring others out which seems like an altruistic act. Now, how that tells us that we should in general be altruistic you'd have to explain. Remember: if he tries to drag the others out they will kill him because they think they will become "blind" as well.
    – Marc H.
    Dec 25, 2017 at 16:29

4 Answers 4


"For bonus points on the topic of altruism, do [you] think people can become to[o] altruistic and not do enough for themselves ?"

[Altruism: the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.]

Yes it is most definitely possible, and occurs frequently with self-sacrificing people who habitually subjugate themselves for others (or another). However, usually such people are not masochists, but rather actually *believe (often falsely) that if they are patient enough, they will receive some sort of worthy reward eventually.

Likewise, altruism generally is very rarely pure in spirit, because most "altruistic" people are seeking some sort of reward for their work. Most often it is to bolster their self-esteem or their reputation / image in the eyes of others (seeking love and/or attention). And often enough, there are also ulterior materialistic motives for apparent altruism (needy or greedy).

That is because most social relationships are of some transactional nature.

Therefore, I'm convinced the allegory of the cave has very little (if anything) to do with the concept of altruism.

The allegory is more about using logic to free oneself from delusions (ignorance) and face reality (knowledge).

The cave-dwellers don't want to leave, because delusions (understandably) are often more (emotionally) tolerable for them than truth. Therefore the Cave (in many cases) is actually a psychological defense mechanism, a form of self-bondage or repression.

Whereas people who leave the cave voluntarily feel differently about it. They enjoy a rare freedom (and wisdom) that is bought at the cost of seeing things which might be emotionally unpleasant.

That is why wise people are often so somber or sober; and thus the saying, "ignorance is bliss". Yet the wise understand that bliss is not the same thing as freedom. Nor is bliss the same as Happiness.

And so, the fact that there is so much delusional thought and attitude attached to the subject of altruism, is confirmation enough that it is not what Plato meant to teach with the Cave allegory.


The philosophers, who would rather follow a life of contemplation of the Forms, return to the Cave and govern the city since this is an obligation they owe to the kallipolis (the ideal polis) which has educated them or at least created the conditions for their education.

This altruism, this regard for the interests of others, namely the non-philosophers, is required of the philosophers and accepted by them. It is also true that the philosophers have a prudential or self-interested reason for governing the city - for returning to the Cave - since if they do not rule, government of the city will pass to others less competent, even to the enemies of philosophy.

Can one be too altruistic ? Yes, in two respects.

  1. One can be altruistic, other-regarding in one's behaviour, to the point where one seriously damages one's own interests and prevents oneself thereby from helping others in future. Excessive altruism is altruism which impairs or destroys one's capacity for future altruism.

  2. There is no guarantee that altruism, merely as other-regarding, other-benefiting, behaviour will improve the allocation of resources. Altruism, heedlessly and undiscriminatingly pursued, may diminish social utility and leave the group or community worse off.


I'm no philosopher from the academy, and no expert in English communication, but i'm quite used to observing the mind. By using critical transcendental thiking answers to respond it, I could have the possibility of silencing my thoughts, and that made me understand a whole different world.

I reflect upon myself that this is the meaning from the cave for me, our mind is the cave. We have to transcend it to help others still in the dark, that are seeing only with their blinded mind, blinded by all false truth that make human see everything in a dualistic self created logical way.

We with the truth, can show others by communication and exemplifications, ways to free themselfes. Like Plato at his existing time, greatly inspired by Socrates and now other new age phisolophy genius, some that come from weird spiritualistic rituals such as umbanda...

There is a line of studies going on here in Brazil, they teach a practical way of reaching unity. It is like this: nothing created by the mind is the real truth, so silence it to hear the wordless word of truth, existence itself. The real altruism is observing that we are all minds, some blinded some not, helping each other to see more clearly in this short film that is life. I introduce you to yourself, as you introduce me to myself.

The real knowledge is not knowing only that you don't know nothing, but not knowing everything that the mind proposes to you, untill you start getting a whole diferent way of thinking without words. Practicaly be aways observing the mind in a philosofical way, understad that every thought is based on the four anchors, so respond to it, when you feel it's going to think: I DONT KNOW, MIND, that's just what you think. This is the polishing way.

Sorry for the bad english, i'm from Brazil, just started in this stackexchange...

  • Welcome to Philosophy Stack Exchange. To help others, please divide this answer into several sentences. And correct the word that begins with “Alien”. Dec 25, 2017 at 19:27
  • Thanks, I did it and got more information in... If anyone see any errors, please point, so I can correct it for better understanding.... Peace!
    – P.SiQ
    Dec 28, 2017 at 22:53

One could interpret a person trying to lead others out of the cave into the sunlight as altruistic. This person would be providing a benefit to others and be at risk for trying to do so. It would qualify as altruism since the individual potentially suffers and the group wins.

Peter Singer’s “The Most Good You Can Do” describes “effective altruism”. To make this effective there are various ways to maximize the good that one can do. If there is something to maximize there are scenarios where what one does is not as good as it could be. For example, if one wants to maximize the amount of money one gives away over one’s lifetime, giving so much away initially that one cannot earn more money later would be a way to be too altruistic in terms of the ultimate goal of giving away a maximum amount of money.

However altruism is a relatively recent idea. David Sloan Wilson in his “Does Altruism Exist?” writes in the introduction that it originated with Comte in 1851. It counters to some extent the selfishness in Darwinian evolution and it is not recognized by traditional religious groups who do not understand why the individual as a member of the community should not benefit when the community benefits.

One could look at selfishness and altruism as individual-focused approaches to goodness. The traditional approach would be communal-focused where the individual would be expected to benefit from any good the individual performed since the individual was part of the community. From that perspective there is no way someone could do too much good and there may be nothing special the good person needs to do to benefit the community.

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