Common but unhelpful assumptions 7: The identification of ego with self
Since the terms 'ego' and 'self' are used in all kinds of different ways, it is important to stipulate some meanings at the outset. By 'ego' I mean an individual's current set of identifications - my ego is all the desires and drives that make up my idea of myself. By 'self' I mean the essential features of an individual. The very idea of a 'self' is metaphysical, because it involves the idea of what is essentially me rather than just what I experience as me. The use of this metaphysical idea is the source of a great deal of moral confusion in Western thought, from the philosophical idea that morals are relative because judged by the individual, to the popular idea of 'selfishness'. If there was ony one thing we could do to clarify our moral ideas, to eliminate the terms 'selfish' and 'selfless' would, in my view, be top of the priority list.
The belief in the self has been criticised by Hume and by the Buddhist tradition, and though there is an important issue as to what they are offering in its place, their basic point is a strong one. When we look at our experience and try to identify a 'self', all we find are a lot of thoughts, feelings, observations or other mental events. I assume they are my thoughts and feelings, but this is just an assumption I am making without further justification. Of course, I can focus in on one thought, and like Descartes, reflect "Aha, this thought here must be mine, because there must be someone having this thought and that someone is what I call me!". If our experience was only one of static abstraction (see assumption no 4) this argument might be fair enough, but even if this reflection is true for one moment, we cannot show that the same essential self thinks the thoughts we identify with from one moment to the next. I assume that I remain the same, not because of evidence, but because of desire - I want to be the same self.
This wanting to be the same self, using wishful thinking to paper over the cracks in the argument, is what I call 'ego' as opposed to self. However, the central mistake common in Western thought is to reduce the ego to the self. Philosophers, obsessed with ontology, have primarily asked whether the self exists or does not exist, and what it is, rather than accepting that its 'existence' is a construction of the ego, much as the 'existence' of a beautiful woman in a movie is constructed by our minds out of a set of pixels. We need to remain clearly agnostic on this metaphysical issue - we do not know either that the self exists or that it does not exist. What we experience is not the self, but the ego.
This confused philosophical picture is clouded further by the confusion between selves, egos and individuals. By 'individual' here, I mean one particular example of homo sapiens - one person with one body and one brain. However, the ego only contingently identifies with the individual with which it is most closely associated. Sometimes we identify with others (particularly with lovers or children), sometimes with bodies such as groups, institutions or nations, sometimes with inanimate objects, and sometimes with ideas. Sometimes we also do not identify with our own bodies. Not only do we not know whether any individual has a self, but we also do not know whether any given ego identifies mainly with an individual at all.
All this confusion starts to have a practical effect when it becomes the basis of moral thinking. It is probably a universal, or near-universal, experience to find the ego morally problematic. Whenever we feel guilt, or develop a bigger moral view from the one we had before, we feel that our identification with a previous view of things was mistaken. I feel that "I" have done wrong. This has often led thinkers (particularly, but not only, in the Christian tradition) to believe that it was the self that was wrong. This self is also identified with the individual. Thus we get the concepts of sin, of a flawed human nature as in St Paul's letters, and even of the punishment of an individual body in retribution for this sin, whether on earth or in hell. This is all deeply confused and unhelpful, as the problem lies not with the 'self', or with the individual, but with the ego's over-identification with the desires of a particular moment. Just as unhelpful is the opposite reaction, to continue to believe in the self but to assume that it is absolutely good or ultimately pure. The whole direction of most Western thought, whether religious or secular, is to try to freeze the ego and treat it as a self that can be conveniently blamed or praised. But if the ego is either squashed or indulged on the assumption that it is an ultimately good or bad fixed quantity, the result is only unnecessary conflict.
There is an alternative, which can provide us with a psychological model of moral objectivity without any of these unhelpful assumptions. We need to regard the ego simply as energy which can flow in a variety of directions and be concentrated or dispersed in more less helpful ways. The ego is the source of our values, yet if we assume that the ego is a fixed self and forget its dynamic and changing form, the values of one moment may remain in conflict with those of another. It is the integration of the desires identified with by the ego over time that incrementally creates more sustainable values, that become associated with beliefs that address conditions. Whether or not I identify with my individual body and its interests, the more I can bring those identifications into harmony with each other, with each desire recognising its limited assumptions, the more objectivity I will develop.
Thus it is not 'selfishness' that is morally blameworthy, but the desires of the ego being channelled too narrowly and ignoring important conditions around. Those conditions might be those of one's welfare as an individual, or they may be social or political. Nor is 'selflessness' necessarily good, when it can be practised for the narrowest of reasons, as we find with martyrs who give up their lives for dogmatic identification. The Christian ideal of Jesus' 'selfless' death, and also the idealisation of 'selfless' femininity in the Christian tradition are responsible for much narrowness - of martyrs, holy wars, and self-sacrificing women - but this kind of confusion has also worked into many other traditions and other quarters of Western thinking. Even Buddhism talks far too frequently of destroying the ego rather than integrating it. The concept of integration needs to become the basis of thinking about moral goodness, but it can only do this if we can succeed in the first place in replacing our preoccupation with 'self' with a recognition of 'ego'.
Links to related pages on this website:
The Middle Way and psychology (introductory page)
Self and ego (The Trouble with Buddhism)
Human relationships (A New Buddhist Ethics)
The psychological basis of belief (thesis)
The psychological basis of the Middle Way (thesis)
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Seven common but unhelpful assumptions in Western thought: