Authored by: Judith Lichtenberg

The Routledge Companion to Humanitarian Action

Print publication date:  March  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415844420
eBook ISBN: 9780203753422
Adobe ISBN: 9781135013936


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There’s a lot of undeserved and remediable suffering in the world. I shall take it as obvious that acting to alleviate it is typically a good thing. There are many ways to do that. A person can donate money, volunteer in charitable organizations or lobby governments for reforms that benefit poor people, whether in the domestic or international arena. She can change her own behavior, and attempt to get others to do likewise, in ways that will help people in need. For example, since the worst effects of climate change will be on the poorest people in the world, a person can reduce his or her carbon footprint and attempt to get others to do so as well, either individually or through political, collective efforts. Which are the best or most effective means of aiding other people is not a question I shall address here (but see Lichtenberg 2014: Chapters 8 and 10 for discussion and for the perils of aiding). Instead, I shall focus on some fundamental questions about altruism itself. Is there such a thing? Does it matter if people act from altruistic rather than self-interested motives? To what extent can we count on altruistic motives? Is the distinction between the two kinds of motives sharp?

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