The evolution and stability of helping behaviour has attracted great research efforts across disciplines. However, the field is also characterized by a great confusion over terminology and a number of disagreements, often between disciplines but also along taxonomic boundaries. In an attempt to clarify several issues, we identify four distinct research fields concerning the evolution of helping: (1) basic social evolution theory that studies helping within the framework of Hamilton’s inclusive fitness concept, i.e. direct and indirect benefits, (2) an ecological approach that identifies settings that promote life histories or interaction patterns that favour unconditional cooperative and altruistic behaviour, e.g. conditions that lead to interdependency or interactions among kin, (3) the game theoretic approach that identifies strategies that provide feedback and control mechanisms (protecting from cheaters) favouring cooperative behaviour (e.g. pseudo-reciprocity, reciprocity), and (4) the social scientists’ approach that particularly emphasizes the special cognitive requirements necessary for human cooperative strategies. The four fields differ with respect to the ‘mechanisms’ and the ‘conditions’ favouring helping they investigate. Other major differences concern a focus on either the life-time fitness consequences or the immediate payoff consequences of behaviour, and whether the behaviour of an individual or a whole interaction is considered. We suggest that distinguishing between these four separate fields and their complementary approaches will reduce misunderstandings, facilitating further integration of concepts within and across disciplines.