In years past, the majority of college commencement speakers and honorary degree awardees have been of one mind: Commencement addresses should be brief, the briefer the better. These speakers say that they cannot remember what their commencement orators sermonized over, and they congratulate the graduates' parents whose kids are now on their own financially. All this is well and good, but what got my dander up was their fervent counsel, delivered with avuncular authority, that the graduates should lead their lives in the service of others, an exhortation with which I am in passionate disagreement.Robert Perloff is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Business Administration and of Psychology at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Live their lives in the service of others? I dissent vigorously.
The surest lodestar for pursuing success, happiness, the good life, the respect of friends and neighbors, a virtuous and rewarding existence, self-fulfillment, and for basking in the American dream is unalloyed self-interest. Self-interest, for good measure, will be, more often than not, efficacious for serving others as well, giving the graduate a bigger bang for his or her buck.
Serve yourself first, then others. This is metaphorically reinforced by the thousands of flights daily whence passengers are instructed, when necessary, to adjust their own oxygen masks first, and then, next, to help accompanying children or elderly parents with theirs.
Encyclopedist Emil G. Hirsch declared that "Weakness is not a virtue. The stronger the man the better able he is to render service." The shrewd maxim of Hillel, the Jewish sage and authority on biblical law, that "If I am not for myself who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?" efficaciously subordinates others to self.
In the annals of human experience, self-interest is a powerful model for guiding behavior, an imperfect model but a model, nonetheless, that works. Adam Smith, the paragon of economics, wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
Self-interest, as we struggle to survive in hostile environments, is freedom of choice. Self-interest is democratic. Self-interest respects individual differences. Self-interest is enlightened and if it is imperfect, so too is altruism. I would predict that the results from a scientific study examining systems or procedures or societies using self-interest as a guiding principle versus procedures or societies using altruism would show self-interest winning hands down. It would simply be no contest.
This is neither to derogate nor to abandon altruism, only to suggest that self-interest works and is more effective for and appealing to human beings and their institutions than the altruistic instincts trumpeted by commencement speakers.
When we advance our own interests first, we also help others. Taxi drivers who hustle for a buck by learning about shortcuts and efficient thoroughfares will, at the same time, get us to our destinations safely and quickly. Auto mechanics, plumbers and handypersons, by practicing and perfecting their crafts, will enhance the lives of people who drive cars, want their sinks and toilets to work, or see to it that their homes and offices are up to speed.
College professors striving onward and upward for their books to be published and their articles accepted by learned journals will, at the same time, benefit society at large by disseminating useful knowledge and technology for making people's lives better and more pleasant.
Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who work their fingers to the bone on their jobs day in, day out, thus enable ordinary citizens to savor tastier meats and baked goods and to have light when electric power is stymied by summer storms or excessively operated air conditioners. A businessperson or corporate executive driven to create, maintain or expand a profitable business is, at the same time, providing jobs, useful products and services and wealth for stockholders, many of whom are Joe Sixpacks and soccer moms, or widows dependent on robust retirement funds.
A novelist, poet, musician or painter galvanized by the quest for fame and fortune will, at the same time, enable people everywhere and under widely differing circumstances to find comfort, relaxation and inspiration from the words, music and brushes of self-interested scribblers, composers, painters, and performing artists. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and architects who endeavor arduously to burnish their professional capabilities and thus to afford luxurious BMWs, exotic vacations abroad and pricey private schools for their children will, at the same time, enhance the health, wealth and the nation's infrastructures and, as a consequence, do good and serve others.
Managers, politicians, administrators and other bureaucrats -- even obsequious apparatchiks -- who scratch and claw for power and influence serve others by creating benevolent policies and opportunities for each of us and by making the trains run on time.
So all this is to affirm the truth that by helping one's self first, one inevitably goes on to help others realize the American dream.
Those of us who do not explicitly seek to serve others and who do not ask what we can do for our country are not slouches, nor are we unpatriotic self-indulgent hedonists. While toiling unabashedly in our self-interested vineyards, we need not wallow in guilt over our explicit disregard for doing good.
Three cheers for self-interest as a force for making the world a better place for the high and mighty, the lowly and the rest of us mediocrities in between.