When we ‘do good,’ is it for ourselves or others?

When we “do good,” is it for ourselves or for others? Etymologically, it can be both, our language columnist writes.


“Effective altruism” has been in the news, as Sam Bankman-Fried ostensibly founded his cryptocurrency firm FTX (now collapsed) to put its principles into practice. Let’s look at altruism and other words in its lexical field, to see what etymology can say about how we think about doing good. 

The word altruism was coined around 1830 by French philosopher August Comte, as the opposite of egoism. The root of egoism is the Latin first person singular pronoun ego – “I” – fitting for a philosophy that makes self-interest “the supreme guiding principle of action,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Comte identified “the great human problem” as “teach[ing] ourselves to live for others.” He named this desirable state altruism, from autrui, a French word meaning “to or for the others” (which in turn comes from alter, “other” in Latin).  

Several related words also put the emphasis on others. Philanthropy comes from the Greek phil- (loving) + anthrōpos (humankind) – etymologically, a philanthropist loves people, and makes an “active effort to promote human welfare,” often through charitable donations, according to Merriam-Webster. (This sense of philanthropy appeared in English in the 17th century. Old English had earlier borrowed philanthropos, but as a botanical term for goosegrass and agrimony, whose burrs “love mankind” so much that they stick to clothing and are hard to remove.) Humanity is the root of the 19th-century word humanitarianism.

Other words in this lexical field, though, have etymologies that stress more selfish instincts, along the lines of egoism. Kindness, for example, is related to kin – both derive from *kunja, the Proto-Germanic word for “family.” Etymologically, then, kindness is what you feel for your relatives, to whom you have an obligation. By the 1300s, though, the idea of “kindness” had expanded beyond kinship, and even strangers could be the focus of its compassion and sympathy.  

Eleemosynary is an infrequently encountered word that means “of, relating to, or supported by charity” – Bill Gates, for example, has “an outsized eleemosynary influence here in the United States and overseas,” according to an article in Nonprofit Quarterly. The word is related to the better-known alms, “something (such as money or food) given freely to relieve the poor.” Scholars debate how these two words originated, but one theory holds that they derive from a naked declaration of self-interest, the ancient Greek eleleû: “Woe is me! Alas!” From a personal call for help, these two words came to be applied to helping others.    

When we “do good,” is it for ourselves or for others? Etymologically, it can be both.

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