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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 5b - Integration and desire)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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b) Integration and desire

i) Frustration[1]

Desire and its nature is the starting point of the psychological model I am using here, as already indicated in chapter 2. Desires are taken to be the most fundamental constituents of the psyche, capable of organising themselves into communities of interest in a similar fashion to the way in which the body is described in biological terms as a community of cells. Such a reductive explanation of desires is not necessarily scientistic because it does not necessarily involve the adoption of such “fundamental psychic constituents” as a privileged level of explanation which assumes the self does not exist. Instead it can be used as a provisionally-adopted tool to enable us to understand how egoistic understandings of desire (and similarly, of meaning and belief) can be transcended, since both the ego and the psyche can provide forms of explanation which each serve the function of revealing the limitations of the other.

As explained in chapter 2, communities of desires may be seen as forming in relation to particular ends, because these ends are more easily achievable through an association in which the energies associated with each separate desire are pooled to contribute towards the achievement of some commonly acceptable end. Whilst the totality of particular desires associated with a particular individual form a psyche, those more immediately engaged with a particular end form the ego: a federation within a confederation. The ego employs rational dualities as a means of prioritising and achieving its goals, for the resistance it meets in achieving them can only be achieved by the effective subjugation of the psychological interference created by any desires which have not been recruited to the current focus of the ego. By concentration of the desire available all the mental and physical resources of the individual can thus be mobilised to achieve the goal.

But what is the goal, and when has it been achieved? This is also a matter for definition by the ego, which interprets the indefinite impressions of the senses in terms that are structured by the requirements of its desires. Fundamentally, this means that it understands the world in terms of objects, because it is only discrete objects (whether concrete or abstract) which can be readily made into goals of action and accepted or rejected as part of the means to a particular goal[2]. For example, perhaps I set off to walk to the station. To get to the station is my goal, and thus I experience my environment primarily as a route. I accept one route as quicker and reject another. Perhaps on my way I may be diverted by other goals, and start to experience the street, not as a route but as a place for looking at flowers in people’s gardens or meeting people, but if I remain strongly focussed on my goal I will experience the street only as a means of reaching the station, and a slow old man who walks in front of me, blocking the pavement and slowing me down, will be an obstacle for impatient rejection. If I am in a particular hurry I will be forced by my more specific goal (of reaching the station in time) to subjugate other goals (such as looking at flowers) to the main one. When I reach the station, I will have achieved my goal as defined by the ego, of reaching the station, but I will not have achieved the subjugated goals, such as looking at flowers. It is only because I have structured my conception of my activity in a particular way that I can claim to have been “successful” and achieved “what I wanted”.

But from the viewpoint of the whole psyche, I have failed to fulfil my desires whenever I achieve an egoistically-defined objective through the subjugation of other desires. The objects of the other desires, which may have briefly appeared in my consciousness or remained unconscious, remain unfulfilled. It is this egoistically-defined contrast between the satisfaction of the ego and the dissatisfaction of the remainder of the psyche that I will call frustration. It accounts for two common experiences which at first sight may appear contradictory: the feeling of satisfaction at having achieved something, and the feeling of dissatisfaction which may subsequently appear as our identifications gradually shift away from the initial objective. Although we wanted the thing, when we get it, it turns out not to be quite as we envisaged. For this reason we are frustrated in our continual search for satisfaction, for no other reason than that the desires which activate that search do not remain dominant[3].

The whole notion of satisfaction is thus a function of the ego, defined against a repressed dissatisfaction. Likewise the egoistic dissatisfaction with a rejected object can only be defined against a repressed satisfaction: when I give the old man in my way an impatient shove I subdue the desire I also have to recognise him as a fellow human being and act in a more friendly fashion. It would thus be dualistic to think of either satisfaction or dissatisfaction as complete explanations of the outcome of my desire-processes, but more accurate to think of them as constantly frustrated by the limitations of the ego. Within the terms of the ego, I can be satisfied, but given the dualistic nature of those terms, I cannot.

The relationship between desire, satisfaction and consciousness also needs clarification. If the ego is a federation of desires adopting dualising tools in the attempt to achieve satisfaction, consciousness can be understood as one of those tools, understood primarily as the method by which we concentrate effectively on objects in order to manipulate them and obtain objectives. Consciousness itself is not necessarily dualising, however, but rather consists in a vaguely-defined sphere of attention[4]. We can be conscious, unconscious, or semi-conscious of particular objects, and it is the manipulating identification of objects which usually attends consciousness (and is dependent on it), rather than the process of awareness itself, which introduces the dualising tendency. Some indication of this can be gained from our capacity to be conscious of vague “objects” which we have not yet individuated.

One of the advantages of this account of desire and consciousness is that it does not introduce a discontinuity between animals or infants and mature human beings (just as it also avoids discontinuity between more and less morally developed human beings). Animals also have consciousness, which enables them to focus on their objectives: even if they do not use representational language as a tool to manipulate the objects of their environment, they nevertheless have dualistic responses of selection and rejection. Popper writes, for example, of the selectivity of a cat’s eye as it scans its environment for objects relevant to its survival[5]. Animals, too, we may surmise, thus have egos, and have evolved the strategy of subjugating some desires to others: a evolutionary explanation of this suggesting that this improves the chances of survival and thus being a quality bred by natural selection[6]. Conceptualisation (as I shall elaborate in the next section) is merely a sophisticated development of this selective tendency. Animals are thus also subject to frustration, since even between simple needs which are necessary for survival and propagation there may be some conflict and need for subjugation. Among many examples of “frustration” in the more everyday sense, which we take to be due purely to external conditions, there are examples of this. Thus a cat which has adopted an “owner” as an effective survival strategy (since this person regularly provides food) is left mewing piteously one day when the owner is absent at the usual feeding-time. Here the cat’s overriding survival strategy (the relationship with the human being) conflicts with its immediate one (the desire for food). It may take a while before the cat gives up and goes off to look for food elsewhere: at which point the dominant desire will have shifted from food provided by the human being to other sources of food. Whilst the cat remained certain of its usual source of food, it may even have rejected other sources which confronted it.

In the case of a creature which does not yet have any discriminating ability, and is thus entirely passive in dependence upon its environment, however, we can safely say that no ego has yet developed and thus no frustration is possible. Similarly, however, no psyche has developed in the sense of a totality of desires, for no desires can be taken to yet exist. Such a creature is pre-egoistic, for it has not yet developed the capacity to be either integrated or unintegrated: an example of this may be an embryo or foetus (human or animal) in its mother’s womb[7]. Without the initial development of desires (as I shall explain further later on in this section) no integration is possible. A pre-egoistic state must thus not be confused with a post-egoistic state of complete integration, since although both share the characteristic of the absence of frustration, the presence of integrated desire in the latter gives it an entirely different experience and role to the completely undifferentiated state of consciousness in the former, since the integrated being has developed the practical capacities of the psyche to their furthest point[8], whilst the pre-egoistic being has not developed them at all.

ii) Papańca as evidence of frustration

Some of the clearest evidence for the presence of frustration in our experience can come from meditation, even of the simplest and most prefatory kind. A very simple mental experiment can be attempted even by those with no experience of meditation: sit still, close your eyes and attempt to hold your attention on one simple object for a few minutes. The only qualification for the “simplicity” of this object is that it must not be of any immediate relevance to any further purpose in which you feel currently interested, so this probably means that it should not have much conceptual or sensual complexity (at least at first glance). Traditional examples of such objects are a coloured disc, a candle flame or the breath[9]. Unless you have experience of meditation or are otherwise unusually concentrated, your attention will probably wander within a few minutes. Either through a chain of associations beginning with the object, or through distraction from it to a matter of more habitual concern, you will find yourself thinking about something else.

The distracting influence is known in traditional Buddhist terminology as papańca, a term I leave untranslated because it can best be paraphrased as meaning “the flow of distracting mental influences”[10]. Papańca is the kind of obsessive flow of associated thoughts that we might particularly encounter when unable to sleep: often we cannot turn off the flow even when it goes against our intentions. Confusion can result, however, if we think of the experiencing self substantively, as something distinct from the papańca which we experience “against our will”: this merely institutes an hopeless dualism. A much more effective understanding of papańca can be gained from considering it as consisting simply in the changes of allegiance of desires. As we begin with an intention to maintain attention on the object of meditation, the ego identifies with this goal and subjugates other desires in order to do so. However, as the process continues and no clearly identifiable goal appears in the process to attract and retain desires, they begin to desert the current focus. Habitual desires beyond this chief egoistic identification reassert themselves, and with their new allies win the day and take over the ego, so that they now have the power to divert attention elsewhere.

The experience of papańca, then, is a more closely-observable form of frustration. By turning the ego away from its usual objects of interest, the frustration encountered by any overriding intention to maintain a particular focus of concentration is accelerated, so that its process can be observed within a shorter time-scale. Although the original intention may then return (indeed, we will not realise that our attention has wandered until we have re-experienced the original intention), this indicates merely another change in the allegiances of desires, which unceasingly flow one way and then another, like fickle children dashing between rival attractions at a funfair.

Analytic philosophers have understood this overriding rational intention in terms of a “second order” intention[11]. Such a distinct intention may indeed be said to exist somewhere in the psyche, in the form of the desire with which it is associated, even when it is no longer dominant. But the type of explanation which takes this intention to still be in some way dominant (because it is “mine”) but weakened (and thus present in “me” at the same time as the first order intention which has taken over), fails to explain in what sense this intention is still “mine” when I have no identification with it at all and am not even conscious of its existence[12]. The impersonal account of the ego and its frustration that I have offered here much more clearly explains the phenomena associated with papańca and other instances of “weakness of the will” without positing more than one order of desire or intention.

Nevertheless this account has no metaphysical justification. If the theory of frustration appears to consistently and coherently explain our experience, then this heuristic value is a starting point. Its pragmatic justification, however, arises from its capacity to account for moral prescription as well as descriptions of immediate psychological experience. It is through the possibility of overcoming frustration through integration that the former kind of justification arises, and it is to this that I now turn.

iii) Integration of desires

The possibility of the integration of desires is probably the most crucial point on which the argument in this book stands or falls. A dualist may conceivably agree with my analysis of ego and psyche, but nevertheless maintain that they remain inevitably opposed. She might claim that frustration is simply a part of our lives to which we must resign ourselves. In one sense this is correct: it may well be the case that we will always experience some frustration. To claim otherwise would be merely speculative, since a life without frustration is so far beyond our experience that we have no way of reaching objectively justifiable beliefs about its possibility.

But this belief depends upon a dualistic approach which I have already identified, namely the dichotomisation of absolute and relative. Because of the impossibility of making an immediate step to an absolute moral position, or gaining an absolute epistemological guarantee, the dualist assumes that incremental progress is impossible, despite our widespread experience that it is possible. If the attainment of moral objectivity was a matter of reflecting the moral state of a universe beyond ourselves, we could indeed argue that our experience of progress could be wholly illusory: that we might be building a merely coherent picture which may be totally abolished by the next new paradigm. Yet the attainment of moral objectivity, consisting in the uniting of ego and psyche, is something we cannot be mistaken about in the same way, because each successive stage of integration brings with it new psychological experiences as the ego gradually extends itself. Although we could mistakenly believe that we have achieved greater integration when we have not, and we could likewise believe that others have done so when they have not, a significant actual achievement of greater integration changes the nature of our assessment of experience itself in a fashion which is unmistakable, by increasing the confidence (in the specific sense I shall explain in 5.d.iii) with which we approach it. This epistemological claim is one to which I shall give more support in chapter 6[13], but I go on now to describe its psychological basis.

The integration of the ego with the rest of the psyche occurs by the incremental extension of the ego. The ego thus remains the driving force, the seat of value throughout the process of integration, but it nevertheless must become open enough to understand its interests in terms of federation with opposed desires rather than conflict. The ego is thus not called upon at any point to deny itself or even to avoid its efforts to subjugate opposed desires: rather it reduces the intensity of the conflict by gradually incorporating more of the opposed desires into its federation.

The metaphor of the ego as walled city, which I have used previously[14], may be helpful here. The walled city does not give way to the opposed desires besieging it, but persuades them to join and throw in their lot with the ego. The walls of the city can then be demolished and rebuilt further out. The new walls will be lower and weaker, both because the remaining hostile forces are weaker, and because they are further from the city, so that the inhabitants will feel less threatened by a breach. The more friendship is cultivated with neighbouring groups, the more the inhabitants of the city can relax and prosper, even if there are still possible threats further away.

But this political metaphor does have its limitations. It might be assumed, for example, that, following the common political pattern, the besiegers can only be brought to throw in their lot with the city either by a compromise or by the ever-present threat of overwhelming force. In either case it is possible that the new allies could still feel resentful and remain unreliable: a scenario which is not consistent with the psychological account which the metaphor illustrates, where the feelings represented by the different desires are all at the same level and thus transparent. A feeling of resentfulness would manifest itself directly by the withdrawal of co-operation. It also needs to be borne in mind that the desires of the ego are constantly shifting, and the metaphor represents a consistent pattern in these shifts in the form of a stable alliance. Perhaps we have to imagine city walls which are constantly being re-manned by different bands of mercenaries with different strategies and priorities, only united by the shared belief that they must fight the adversary (even though some of them may have recently been in the adversary’s employ).

The key difference between a typical city-state and an ego, though, is that in the former case the issues fought over may be substantial, whereas in the latter the source of the conflict is nothing other than distrust. Once this distrust has been overcome, it turns out that both sides wanted the same things and the war was over nothing. To revert to my earlier example of walking to the station: it may appear that my egoistic desire to get to the station on time, and the opposed desire to look at flowers in people’s gardens, are irreconcilable. But if the desire to look at flowers is slightly generalised as a desire to look at beautiful objects, I may recruit those desires to support the need to get to the station on time by forming the intention to visit an art gallery later that day, after the appointment which I need to catch the train to fulfil is completed. If I am not so strongly inclined to repress my contrary desires, my desire to get to the station will also not need to be so narrowly focussed, and I may reflect that although it is desirable to catch such-and-such a train, catching the next one might not be quite so disastrous as initially thought. When the old man gets in my way I then might be a little more patient and civil. This example of integration is not merely one of compromise between desires, since I have actually become concerned for the needs expressed by the desire to look at flowers and to be friendly to the old man as well as those expressed by the desire to get to the station on time. The two desires have become genuinely unified, even if only temporarily.

The example of the old man also indicates the way in which integration of desires is the key to altruism. I have already argued that not all our egoistic identifications are with ourselves as individuals in any case: a mother’s identification with her child, for example, may be just as egoistic as the self-interest of a young unattached businessman, given that each may be equally narrowly focussed on particular interests and opposed to what lies beyond those interests. However, it is also evident that our identifications do cluster around ourselves as individuals. Whilst in some cases the integration of desires may lead us to consider ourselves more rather than less, on the whole this clustering implies that altruism will increase roughly in proportion to integration.

Integration does not necessarily imply the overcoming of our mental[15], physical, or economic limitations and the effect this has on our capacity to help others, nor does it overcome the epistemological difficulty of knowing exactly what others’ needs are: these must therefore be clearly distinguished from the effects of integration. Nevertheless, where our representations of others lie outside the range of identification of the ego (which they very often do) integration will enable them to be included. We remain situated in space, time and social position, yet within those constraints an incremental extension of our identifications can break down conflicts with others, increasing friendliness and generosity (from the psychologically-conditioned point where we started), because our desires begin to incorporate the needs of others and take them into account. The actual desires of others remain, as far as we know, ultimately unreachable. We can form theories of the desires of others which gain increasing accuracy, confirmed by experience, but we cannot know their desires for certain or directly incorporate their desires into ours. However, by incorporating our representations of them into our range of identification we go as far in altruism as it is possible for finite beings to go.

The incorporation of altruistic desires into the extended ego, like the incorporation of other desires, does not result in a compromise so much as a resolution of aims between the represented self and the represented other. This is the distinction between the alienated altruism apparently offered by eternalism, in which the represented self must be sacrificed for the benefit of others or for the greater good, and the genuine altruism allowed by the extension of identification, in which the ends of others are understood as identical to one’s own. Just as in the example of walking to the station, the unification of two desires which are mainly concerned with myself (the desire for aesthetic pleasure and the desire to catch a train) are unified when each of the desires which are thus concerned become more broadly concerned with the greater whole, so desires concerned with my own interests (if these are clearly differentiable) become unified with my desires to serve others’ interests when each of these desires become similarly concerned with a broader end.

This “broader end” with its apparently fantastically open-ended aspiration towards universality of identification, becomes more credible when we consider that the actions which ensue from even the broadest of identifications will still be largely concerned with ones own existence, health and happiness as a human being. However broad ones identifications, one remains situated in a particular time and place and responsible for a particular tool which can be used to the common end: ones mind and body. Ones social and economic situation also place particular constraints on the activity which can ensue from altruistic identification: however great ones generosity, for example, one can only give away money, time or energy which one has left after fulfilling existing responsibilities (which may include meeting something of ones own desire for pleasure). Self-sacrifice is thus probably the worst possible model that could be adopted for intense altruism, a sign of disintegration rather than integration[16].

Highly integrated saints may thus be quite inconspicuous people (though not always). They may not be able to rush around performing acts of philanthropy of the more obvious kind, or may prefer to work in more subtle and long-term ways for the good of others. Conversely, high-profile altruists may be rather unintegrated, for example neglecting many areas of their own desires and allowing mental conflict to build up with disastrous long-term consequences. How exactly altruistic identification is related to effective judgement and ethical action is a major theme of the remainder of the book, but important components of the psychological basis of this discussion will be found in the next two sections, which deal with meaning and belief and the role that integration of each of these also has to play in moral objectivity.

A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix


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The Trouble with Buddhism

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[1] The best translation in my view of the Buddhist dukkha, often misleadingly rendered as “suffering” or slightly better as “unsatisfactoriness”. This subsection is little more than an exposition of this classic (and basic) Buddhist doctrine, the first of the Four Noble Truths. See for example Discourse on Right View, Majjhima Nikaya i .47-55.

[2] A continuity of ends and means is intended here, since any means can be seen as an end and any end as a means: but in either case discrete objects are needed to formulate the means or end.

[3] In traditional Buddhism this point is often put in the form of the truism that phenomenal objects themselves are constantly changing (aniccŚ). However, it is only in combination with the changeability and insubstantiality of the self (anatta) that this point becomes morally significant, since it is at least theoretically possible to remain egoistically attached to a changing object, even with a full recognition of its changing nature. We might even prefer it to be changing, as in the case of a child whose growing-up we look forward to.

[4] This point is quite distinct from the one made earlier (4.h.v) about the dualistic use of consciousness by thinkers such as Freud, who introduce dogmatism which is dependent on the dualistic distinction between conscious and unconscious.

[5] Popper (1972) p.72

[6] This should not be taken to imply, of course, that this evolved ego-dominance has any prescriptive power as a basis of ethics (a naturalistic position I have already attacked in 4.d.i).

[7] Too much significance should not be attached to this example, since I do not wish to debate the details of exactly when the ego develops or if it does so at one particular point: only to point out that there must be a pre-egoistic state. Discussion of the precise origin of the ego would quickly become as speculative as discussions of the origin of the soul, and no longer be relevant to the morally significant fact of our current experience of the ego.

[8] See 5.f.iii

[9] For a traditional Buddhist list of meditation objects see Buddhaghosa (1991) § III, 104 ff.

[10] The best canonical source for this is the Honeyball Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya i.111-2: “What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates. With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perceptions and notions tinged by mental proliferation beset a man with respect to past, future and present forms cognizable through the eye.” Here Ńanamoli & Bodhi translate papańca as “mental proliferation”: perhaps the best short paraphrase available, but not catching its meaning entirely.

[11] E.g. Frankfurt (1982)

[12] The language of first- and second-order intentions makes rather more coherent sense on those occasions when the two orders are not in any conflict, but the first is merely a means to the achievement of the second. Here the language refers merely to different ways of rationalising the same intention or desire.

[13] See esp. 6.c.ii

[14] See 4.a.iii

[15] “Mental” here means those conditioned aspects of the mind’s operation which exist in addition to the psychological conditioning exerted by the ego, e.g. innate mental capacities such as intelligence or capacity to learn maths, or acquired skills and knowledge. It is possible, of course, that integration will affect these limitations positively, but it is no necessary effect of it.

[16] Hence the dualistic error involved in the Christian use of Jesus’s self-sacrifice as a moral example: see 3.f.ii.