Altruism doesn't really exist. Even if you are doing something that is helpful or charitable for others, you will still reap the good of that action. The idea that one should do things for altruistic purposes is wrong and can lead to the downfall of society, as Ayn Rand wrote about in AtlasShrugged. If one portrays that they are doing something completely for others benefit and has no self interest, that is when you should question thier motives. Why do they wish to appear so benevolent? When one does for other people at least there are good feelings that arise and right there, the theory of altruism is defunct or never existed.
The foregoing view is known as psychological egoism and is widely dismissed by philosophers, for reasons that somebody ought to explain.
There's not a lot to explain; there is plain and simple empirical evidence of people doing altruistic acts. People sometimes do generous things even if it makes them unhappy. Of course you could say this is to get one's conscience to leave you alone, but since a conscience is darn close to an AltruismInstinct, that's pretty weak.
People evolved to have empathy towards others and do altruistic things because that's good for everybody in general, though not always in specifics. Whether altruism makes any sense, of course, is a different matter, though I wouldn't personally say it doesn't.
When you say widely dismissed, do you have anything to actually back that up? What philosophers have dismissed this idea? I would like to know how you can substantiate your criticism.
You can find it dismissed in any of many dozens of general philosophy textbooks as well as books about ethics. Here is just one example. It is hackneyed, among professional philosophers, to say that psychological egoism is untenable. By the way, in saying that it has been dismissed, I don't pretend to be making a criticism--just pointing out a fact.
Actually, I was asking that someone else take the time to make the criticism plain.
Also, I'd say that this discussion should probably be removed to the psychological egoism page, because it presents that view, rather than discussing altruism itself. That's just my opinion, I'll leave it up to you. -- Larry Sanger
How about this for a definition of altruism? I think it needs some revision, but perhaps it is a useful start.
The view that one ought to be motivated solely or primarily by the interests of others rather than the interests of oneself. Altruism is then viewed as a conclusion, rather than a foundation or argument -- presumably some meta-ethical argument would be needed in order to explain why we ought to be altruistic. --Jimbo Wales