I often complain that people don’t understand altruism. So I might as well clarify what it actually is. There are three necessary elements:
1. Significant personal cost to the altruist
2. Correct diagnosis of the recipient’s real needs
3. Significant benefit to the recipient
These three elements rule out a lot of the things people attribute to altruism.
Virtue signalling is not altruism because it doesn’t involve significant personal cost. The modern practice of “volunteering” is not altruism because it is considered a high-status behavior and you can put it on your resume to get a high-paying job. That’s just investing. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
Pathological altruism is not altruism because “pathology” means it’s a maladaptive behavioral artifact that persists in the absence of effective results. So there is often a significant personal cost, but altruism requires the intelligence and social perceptivity to be effectively helpful. Pathological altruism is driven more by solipsistic personality features than by keen observation, and the motivation may be selfish if the pathological altruist receives an endorphin rush for their self-sacrifice.
Enabling bad behavior is not altruism because it doesn’t benefit the recipient. This is typically an excuse by weak personalities to avoid the conflict that is necessary for tough love. Many enablers are emotionally dependent on the people they enable. The rest are typically pathological altruists who are “helping” because it gives them the endorphin reward.
There are also cases where other behaviors masquerade as altruism. Subversion often uses real aid to consciously weaken the target’s ability to fend for himself. For example, foreign aid is often used to undercut other countries’ production by lowballing them on price for manufactured goods. If the Chinese government uses tax revenue to finance a Chinese company’s car factory in India, the Chinese company can sell their cars at factory cost and drive out their domestic competitors. Afterward, the Indian car industry is dependent on Chinese capital.