The Middle Way and egoism

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The central claim of egoism is that human beings are innately selfish. Psychological egoism is the claim that all our actions are in some way motivated by our interests as individuals. Moral egoism goes further and claims that we should be acting in our own interests as individuals, perhaps in an "enlightened", long-term fashion recognising that we are dependent on others. The opposed view, altruism, claims that right actions are in some way self-denying, in favour of others where their interests clash with one's own interests as an individual. The assumptions of altruism seem to be reflected in the common use of the word "selfish" (at least in English) to refer to a morally wrong attitude or action, while egoists protest on the other hand that "selfishness" is actually good, or at least unavoidable.

This is one of the strongest examples of confusion in the widespread ways that people tend to understand ethics. Both egoism and altruism can be easily shown to be incoherent theories, yet we continue to base much of our moral thinking on them. The acceptance of egoism and altruism as ideas that even make sense is part of what condemns us to the conflict of absolutism and relativism, and prevents us from understanding the nature of moral objectivity. Egoism condemns us to relativism, to endless conflict with others to preserve our interests, and to an assumed hypocrisy in anything that seems like concern for others. Altruism, on the other hand, appears to demand both alienation of our innate instincts of self-interest and a masochistic desire for self-sacrifice. Instead, I want to argue that we should abandon this pair of polarised concepts completely, applying the Middle Way to ask what experiences lead us in the direction of objectivity, rather than relying on the unexamined dogmas of self and other.

Egoism is incoherent because it assumes that the individual self is fixed and unambiguous, when in our experience we can see that it is both contradictory and constantly changing. What I want, like what every other human being wants, can change from second to second, let alone from year to year. Different kinds of things that I want for myself (such as pleasure, wealth, security, and social status) can also conflict with each other. So if it is claimed that I am always self-interested, which self's interests do I serve? The answer is that I am inconsistent, veering between long-term and short-term goals; between pleasure, social capital, and propagation of my genes. Some kinds of "selfish" motives, such as favouring my children over others, could be seen as egoistic from one standpoint and altruistic from another. If it is not clear what it would mean to serve "my" interests then how could it be claimed that I am always self-interested? It makes even less sense to claim that I should be self-interested, when almost any action I do could be interpreted either as self-interested or as altruistic. Even acts of murder or torture could be performed in a spirit of service to others, and even acts of martyrdom could be seen as sources of masochistic pleasure to the martyr.

Altruism is equally incoherent, because it is merely a defiance of egoism. It is just as unclear which actions serve the right "others" as which serve myself. Some "others" could be supported at the expense of other "others", and the "others", like me, will change. The long-term interests of favoured others may also be different from the short-term interests. But the overwhelming question is also why I should be concerned for those others that I do not already identify with, without a powerful reason. In theistic religions, God's command provides such a powerful reason, but the belief that we have access to any such commands involves dogmatic metaphysical assumptions.

The practical truth recognised by egoists, which we can easily accept through experience, is that we have certain limited identifications. However, those identifications should not be identified solely with ourselves as individuals. Mothers may sacrifice their lives for their children, and soldiers may sacrifice their lives for their country: both are acting in accordance with their identifications, but not in their interests as individuals. We will always have limited identifications, because we act only in the interests of what we identify with. It is analytically clear, obvious, that we cannot identify with something we have not yet identified with. For example, we cannot literally love everyone, at least in any sense that leads us to act in everyone's interests. Just as we can only see or hear or think a few things at a time, we can only identify with a few things at a time.

We are stuck with our egos. No amount of fasting or praying, no Kierkegaardian leap or intense religious experience, will enable us to leap out of our skins and suddenly become egoless. In this sense the egoists are right. Where they are wrong is in dogmatically assuming that this means we cannot make moral progress by becoming more objective. We are not stuck with our egoistic identifications as they are at present, because those egoistic identifications can change and develop.

Whether our current identifications are concerned with ourselves as individuals, or with others, is completely irrelevant to moral objectivity. Moral objectivity consists in the stretching of those identifications beyond the point that they formerly occupied. The stretching may consist in recognising the interests of some others more than we did before, or in recognising our own interests more, or perhaps making our identification with our own interests longer-term and more consistent. These different priorities are morally indistinguishable from each other. So long as we are stretching the ego, it makes no difference how great or small our identifications were to start with, or who they are for. So long as we stretch the ego, we will be becoming more objective than we were before, and addressing more conditions than we formally addressed.

So, "selfishness" is of no moral relevance whatsoever, and we need to abandon any use of the term. If egoism refers to our identifications, rather than to our interests as individuals, then it is in a sense correct. However, it does not imply moral relativism, or the denial of moral objectivity. We are certainly not limited to our own interests as individuals, nor is it wrong to give priority to those interests. What is wrong, instead, is the belief that we cannot improve on our limited present identifications, a common rationalisation for accepting the limited concerns of a group or of ourselves as individuals when we could actually move beyond them.


Links to related discussion

The Middle Way and Psychology

The psychological basis of belief (from thesis)

The features of nihilism (from thesis)

The psychological basis of the Middle Way (from thesis)

Human relationships (from 'A New Buddhist Ethics')

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