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Is it okay to be selfish?

Dr. David L. Katz, MD, MPH
Preventive Medicine
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, 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.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.