Preventive Medicine Column

Dr. David L. Katz

I was privileged and honored to deliver the keynote address recently at a local high school graduation.  I reiterate my congratulations to these- and all- graduating members of the class of 2012!

My marching orders were to deliver a generally inspiring exhortation on being selfless and giving back in 7 minutes or less.  I adhered to these parameters quite strictly- but for one thing.  I advised selfishness, rather than selflessness.  Or, more accurately- I recommended both.

There may, in fact, be no alternative to selfishness.    Evolutionary biologists have wrestled most diligently with the topic, endeavoring to account for such apparent tendencies as altruism and cooperation.  By and large, their analyses suggest that these behaviors serve the same basic purpose as selfishness, namely, fostering the “interests” of the organism in question.  In the context of evolutionary biology- nature red in tooth and claw, if you will- that interest is survival.

In human context, things of course get more complicated.  We have the expanse of culture and conscience to refract the crude intentions of biology into new designs.

But there is a case to be made that even so, we cannot be other than selfish.

While our great altruists- Mother Teresa springs to mind- are undeniably giving, that does not obviate selfishness.  One may presume that if being generous and altruistic made Mother Teresa feel badly rather than gratified about herself, she might well have done otherwise.  And if being altruistic did, indeed, provide her the greatest return in gratification- well, then, it was…selfish.  Doing what makes us feel good is selfish.

This can, I suppose, seem a bleak epistemology.  But that’s only if “selfish” is bad.  There is nothing bleak about it if “selfish” is merely inevitable, with choices about good or bad to follow.

Graduation is a time to admonish, exhort, and advise.  And in general, we admonish selflessness.  Even as we convene to celebrate the advancement of our son or daughter- even as we feel a somewhat selfish pride- we admonish selflessness.

But if there is no such thing, we leave our young people with a choice.  Do as we advise, even though it’s impossible.  Or, renounce our advice and be selfish instead.  I don’t like these options, and think there is another.

To admonish doing good while denying the influence of selfishness is like endeavoring to fly while ignoring gravity.  We can fly, but by overcoming gravity, not by denouncing it.  Similarly, we can send young people out to make the world better not by renouncing selfishness, but by reconciling doing well for oneself with doing good for all.

As a culture, we allow for doing well without doing good.  In fact, the greatest measures of success are things like landing more 3-pointers than anyone else and scoring an endorsement deal to peddle soda nobody should be drinking in the first place.  What our culture reveres on a daily basis says far more to our young people about what matters than any litany of graduation platitudes.

It is all well and good to speak to young people of selflessness- but for the fact that everyone wants to do well, and advising to the contrary does little good.

The very best among us are as selfish as the very worst- it is the sources of gratification that diverge.  And the origins of these reside in cultural imperatives we fashion, and propagate.

On a day when a young person is acutely focused on self- what has been accomplished, what lies ahead- we should be honest about that.  We should validate the legitimacy of selfishness.  Further, we should encourage young people to look out for themselves (who else will do it half so well?), and do what they love.

But then it is up to our culture to make clear that the only selves worthy of such selfish devotion are good selves.  We should convey, not by annual rhetoric but daily example that the only ways of doing well that genuinely qualify involve doing good.  We should allow for being selfish, while affirming that the self is part of something larger than itself.  It is the choice of a culture to reserve its greatest reverence for those who do well only by doing good- or otherwise.

And so, I was honest with the graduates out of hope, not cynicism.  We will not eradicate selfishness any more than we will eradicate gravity.  But we manage, nonetheless, to fly.

And so I hope they do- one, and all.




Dr. David L. Katz;