concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Self (and 'selfishness')

The concept of self is widely used in both philosophy and popular speech, and is the basis of many unreflective moral judgements. Perhaps top of the list of these is the idea of "selfishness", and its dualistic opposite, "unselfishness". In Middle Way philosophy it is argued that we often use 'self' inappropriately, and that moral terms like "selfish" or "unselfish" are ineffective in capturing any basis of objective moral judgement. The assumption that we need to let go of is the assumption that the self is the ego. The ego here is our set of current identifications.

The confusion between self and ego is a confusion between a specific individual on the one hand, and the identifications that that individual happens to hold at a given moment on the other. A specific individual, their experience and interests are not captured by their identifications at a given time for several reasons:

Even the ego cannot be considered 'bad' : it is the assumption that it is the self - that what we think now is all there is to think - that is the source of 'evil' in the sense of entrenched resistance to moral objectivity. The ego can become more objective by stretching itself into wider identifications. If not even the ego is a source of evil in any straightforward sense, how much less is the self a source of evil. The self is just irrelevant to the basis of moral judgement, as whether I make progress depends on how much I stretch my egoistic identifications, not what those identifications are with. In some cases my identifications may be with myself as an individual, in which case it is better to stretch them into more identification with others. In other cases, however (and this seems particularly often the case for women), one's identification may be far more towards others at the expense of oneself as an individual, and it is a definite advance in moral objectivity to extend identification more to oneself. The relationship of moral objectivity to concern with oneself is entirely contingent.

The effects of this confusion about self can be seen reflected in widespread moral confusion. This is the confusion of those who think that mothers who are narrowly attached to their children's welfare are 'unselfish' and therefore good because of it, or of those who think that martyrdom, in which the self is sacrificed for an ideal, is the highest good, because the ultimate good is conceived to be anti-self. A similar confusion affects the other side of the coin, when those who meditate or do solitary retreats to pursue a spiritual discipline are assumed to be 'selfish' because they are choosing to spend time focusing on their own experience. One of the most basic initial remedies for this moral confusion is just to banish 'self' and its associated terms from our moral lexicon, except for critical purposes.

Confusion about the self is also found in the philosophical traditions of the West in other areas. Wittgenstein's private language argument assumes that symbols based on private experience only accessible to oneself are meaningless, because of prejudices about the necessary subjectivity of the self. The flip side of this is the assumption that public verifiability or public approval necessarily mean greater objectivity. Again, the role played by the self and the idea of experience internal or external to the self is entirely contingent, and tells us nothing about objectivity, since objectivity depends on integration and the avoidance of metaphysics rather than being 'outside the self'.

Similarly, psychology is not confined to the investigation of the states of a particular self, because it deals with the relationships between identifications and potential identifications at any level, whether individual, social, or political. The concept of integration is not about states of the self, but about stretching of the ego into the psyche wherever there are current or potential identifications held by any individual or group.

Overall, the concept of the self has largely been a disaster for Western thinking (which does not mean this disaster is properly rectified in Eastern thinking either). It is a piece of metaphysics which we need to constantly beware of, neither accepting it nor its opposite: since what we actually experience is not self but ego, and beyond that psyche.

Links to related discussion

Personal relationships (from 'A New Buddhist Ethics')

The psychological basis of belief (from thesis)

Descartes (from thesis - scroll down to section ix)

Hume (from thesis - see section iv on the denial of the self)

Wittgenstein (see section iii on the private language argument)

Critique of Buddhism on the self (from 'The Trouble with Buddhism')


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