The concept of altruism began to be defined in the 19th century and termed as such by French philosopher Auguste Comte around 1850. Comte was a founder of the scientific study of sociology. The English pronunciation is a derivative of the French term altruism. It is not specific to humans, which is psychological altruism, but also applies to plants and animals in their natural cycles. Comte was also central in the development of the scientific methods of positivism, which has been utilized by multiple segments of society.
Altruism probably exists on the micro level most effectively and commonly in the nuclear family but is not necessarily restricted to smaller groups. Altruism is defined very simply as the feelings and behavior that show a desire to help others along with a lack of selfishness. It is very similar to charity but the motivations are often different. With charity, the lack of selfishness may not be a condition. Altruists act out of perceived responsibility.
Altruism can also easily be described as doing the right thing for the right reasons, regardless of outcome. It is effectively the opposite of ego. Altruism is often displayed best by financial philanthropists who can affect social advancements with supplied funding but this does not always meet the test of the definition. Philanthropists can do perceptively altruistic deeds as a means to a personally desirable end external to the desire to help others.
The common individual altruist generally exhibits a moral virtue characteristic similar to the Aristotelian definition which suggests that virtue exists in those of a particular state of mind, or hexus, making choices that are "lying in a mean." The individual then acts rationally according to reason and properly feels the emotions and desires associated with the action. The true altruist occupies the theoretic position of the Golden Mean. The individual who is driven by ego may not consider an action "reasonable" because of the lack of virtue.
Altruism is not always individual. It also has macro applications. Collective altruism can easily be observed in the various religions of world history. It is particularly central to Christianity as well as Islam and is the driving force behind both Buddhism and Jainism. Collective altruism exists in the scientific research community as well, as many individuals dedicate their careers to doing the work necessary to help society in general across all areas of research and funding. Technology has clearly impacted the need and call for more altruists in society.
Altruism is clearly a natural enemy of the operational methods of power, ego and greed among global economic actors. The money system alone is based on a competition theory that undermines altruistic concepts. The centralized money system is detrimental to the impact that altruism can have for the good of society because of the competitive nature of all relationships within the markets. The system routinely penalizes individuals substantially if they do not function according to the competition principle. Luckily, some altruistic foundations and entities are financially stable enough to maintain altruistic missions while still maintaining sound economic positioning.