19. On the Self and Selfishness

This post is still being written:


On the self and selfishness, and how our understanding of the self relates to utilitarian and pantheist ethical worldviews:


There are volumes that could be written about the concept of the self. In this essay we will simply touch upon how the concept of how the self is dealt with in utilitarianism and pantheism, and why the pantheistic approach is more useful. Let’s begin with an overview of the concept of the self in via the pantheist mandala and “Meanings of life ” circle, and how it explains and resolves confusion the following diverse but related topics:  (first explain why the mandala IS pantheism, and why it’s so archetypal and explanatory. i.e. the human situation/predicament/being IS the self engaging with reality) (rearrange the # order below to be more logical)

1. You have to take care of yourself, first. -  Physiology and Psychology (physical and mental health and Maslow’s hierarchy)

2. Eastern introspection of the self versus Western observation of external reality – Cultural world views: pros and cons similar to#5

3. On Evolutionary psychology – the selfish gene

4. Sci. pan. on Utilitarian conundrum’s of self and family versus “the greater Good”.

5. Left wing political “altruism” versus Right wing political “personal responsibility” – “enlightened self interest”/reciprocal altruism ( the left is typically more into introspection/spiritual paths = altruistic collective synergetic socialistic politics, and the Right into survival/awareness = personal responsibility individual creativity capitalistic politics) Note though, that introspection is by definition subjective and self centered, whereas survival/awareness is objective and world centered. Thus, though the left general reaches altruism as the top goal of Maslow’s hierarchy, they start with selfishness (thus there is balance), and the right finds balance from a reverse approach: selfless world centered objectivity leading to personal responsibility. The mandala shows that both approaches are valid and necessary, but as the plains Indians (Lakota) observed for subjective inherited and environmental reasons, different individuals, and different cultures, tend to be more comfortable on, and feel pulled towards respective positions on the mandala/”medicine wheel”.)

6. Everything is a mirror (of the self) – The Naive American Medicine wheel

7. God and Jesus’s one commandment

8. What is the self? Neuroscience And, transcending the self with meditation

9. Love – effective love is “selfless”, but effective love is good for the self << Zen logic


6. The Self/Reality mirror

It was Einstein who said the self was, “a kind of  optical delusion of the consciousness”. Or, in the full quote, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe.” He experiences himself, his thought and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to the affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
As you might expect from this quote, he expressed a great deal of sympathy for the pantheism of Spinoza; that is to say that for Einstein “God” was apparently roughly synonymous with reality. So, from the quote above we might conclude that Einstein would agree that the self’s dialectical relationship with the rest of reality was probably akin to the Lakota idea that everything is a mirror; what we think of our-self is a mirror of what we think of reality. And of course conversely what we think of reality is a mirror of what we think of ourselves. i.e. If, for example, you generally think of reality, or life in this reality, as beautiful or wonderful, or alternatively as ugly and full of pain and strife, that probably is a reflection of your self image.

How do we best organize our egoistic sense of self (and self interest) with regard to:
  • our physical needs,
  • our evolved psychological dispositions,
  • our mental and spiritual health,
  • our fellow humans,
  • the rest of earthly life, 
  • with regard to the rest of reality?

This subject of how to have an ego, or sense of self, that is appropriately balanced with reality has many facets, and one (<ha!!) can get lost in the details. But let’s discuss eight of perhaps the most significant ones, and try to understand and organize them as best we can:

1. You have to take care of yourself first. – Physiology and Psychology (mental health and Maslow’s hierarchy)

In this natural reality virtually everyone agrees that a basic level of selfishness is necessary. Generally you are the individual who is naturally far and away most responsible for your own breathing, consumption of food, peeing, defecating, dressing and cleaning yourself, keeping your body fit by exercising, etc.. That is rather unarguably because it’s naturally generally physically easier for you to do these things for yourself directly, then it is for anyone else to. Almost all of us would or course surely agree that it is actually more selfish to expect others to take care of your basic needs then it is for you to selfishly attend to your basic needs.

Regarding our mental health surely the same argument applies. If we aren’t healthy mentally, how can we expect to be able to help or improve the larger world, even if there is an unassailable ethical argument to do so?

Fine. But then an issue arises: the boundaries between oneself and the rest of the world are fuzzy enough that one could make the argument that it is acceptable to spend one’s entire life taking care of one’s own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. And thus that it is fair to never concern oneself with the larger world, but of course that attitude then sounds pathological to the point that it could possibly be called the very essence of evil.

Or is it? At least one prominent (or at least highly politically influential) philosopher, Ayn Rand, has argued it makes sense to basically only care about one’s self. That all care and effort that is focused outward is, and should be, ultimately self referential. But Rand’s attempt to defend this position outside of herself always appeals to the greater good. For example, her statement that, “Man’s noblest activity is productive creativity”, ends up adding to the greater good.  And her heroes see nature, at least locally, as something to be improved upon via said productive creativity. But if Rand were to be consistent, and true selfishness rules, and an individual could get away with destroying degrading nature rather than improving it, then what precisely for the truly selfish individual is wrong with that? Rand also points out that “moochers”, or non-creators, need others so that they (the moochers) can even live. But again, if Rand’s “selfishness” were to be consistent, why precisely should a truly selfish moocher care, if they need others or not, if they are clever enough to get away with mooching their whole lives? To a truly selfish person, “others” aren’t the self, and thus ethically aren’t fundamentally any more significant then any other part of the world that is external to the self.  Even the titles of Rand’s two main Books (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) give lie to her claim that selfishness is the chief virtue.

So then, is it even possible to proscribe guidelines for humanity as a whole for creating a healthy balance between the “needs” (or effort required on the part of of the self) and the “needs” or effort required on the part of the larger world?

Well, to start, at least we can say that, considering the basic selfishness reasonably required for physical and psychological health, it is understandable that people who consciously struggle with physical or mental disabilities, or people who choose careers in physical or mental health, will often stress that focusing on the self first is essential.  But that doesn’t get us very far .  .  .

2. East/self versus West/external reality – Cultural world views: pros and cons

East – Consciousness/self creates reality >> work on the self

First, ontologically there is a strong reductio-absurd-um argument against the idea that the consciousness creates reality:

It’s starts with the absurdity of solipsism; it the self creates reality, then does that mean I created you? And if that is so, then why can’t I do a better job of controlling you? So, if we then move from the absurdity of solipsism to the idea that you and I co-create reality, then where does that stop? Is it just human consciousnesses that co-create reality? And if so, what about chimps? And if chimps are involved what about cat’s? ants? amoeba? Where precisely and why does the consciousness’s ultimate creative power taper to insignificance? And if amoebas co-create reality with us, then what about rocks? Do they co-create reality with us? And if they do, then what is the difference between that idea, and the reverse (where reality creates us)? So, if reason is to be taken as a tool to discern reality, such that we can even have this discussion, then how is the Eastern position (on the consciousness creating reality) to work?

West – Reality creates the self >> do god’s will

Yes in the East there has been a lot of self centered navel gazing, a lot of gurus with begging bowls somewhat uselessly removed from the world. But, they have learned a lot about how to find peace and contentment and “Oneness” (which is sort of ironic, and yet enlightened), and surely that is useful.

And, in the West there has been a lot of unenlightened self righteous forced prescription to do destructive bullshit. But, the Western attitude, by putting God and the world outside and larger than the self, as the priority, has shown great ability to objectively improve the physical well-being of human kind (at least).

So. . .

3. On Evolutionary psychology – the selfish gene

It is true that evolution has rather ruthlessly programmed us (earth based lifeforms) with a disposition to be selfish. Because natural selection favors genes that survive. Genes that would cause an organism to be altruistic (make it’s own survival prospects secondary), would kind of by definition, be survived by selfish genes that cause an organism to prioritize it’s own (or at least it’s own gene’s) survival.

The fact that evolution rewards selfishness has been known since Darwin’s time. But (pantheistic-ally speaking) the two principle secular normative responses to evolutionary theory (the current selfish minority moral evolutionist or social Darwinist response, and the current altruistic majority utilitarian response), are both wrong. They are both wrong because they both think evolution is more important than it is. They think life is defined by evolution. So the social Darwinist makes the naturalistic fallacy, tautological, and teleological error, of concluding that, since “life is fundamentally that which biologically evolves”, then our human lives, should be, or unavoidably are, fundamentally that which evolves. And the utilitarian responds to this perception, and the brutal social ethos implied, by choosing to ignore what biologically defines life, and simply bootstrap an ethos for “the well-being of conscious creatures” because it seems it would be socially and personally more benign. But they a both wrong. The social Darwinist would be correct in pointing out that the utilitarian’s ethical system would be pragmatically incorrect, and would run into problems with reality, if they try to bootstrap an ethos to order human life altruistically in a way that is fundamentally out of accord with what life selfishly is. And the utilitarian would be correct in pointing out that the social Darwinist’s ethos would destroy human society/civilization, or at least make it dystopian.

So how is it that they are both wrong? How can one be in accord with what biological life fundamentally is (which obviously seems necessary), without being out of accord with society and civilization (which obviously seem to have been more benevolent for human life than social Darwinism would be, and has been). Couldn’t the answer lay, not in ignoring what defines biological life (as the utilitarian does), but in getting the factual definition of life correct; which neither the social Darwinist or the utilitarian has bothered to do?!

So, if, hypothetically, we were going to choose to make the jump from is to ought, from what Aristotle called the material, formal, and efficient causes for what life is, to the final, end, purpose, or teleological cause of what life ought to be, then shouldn’t we least get the scientific definition of life right? Life is: a metabolic process, or dissipative thermodynamic structure, that has become organized around the ability to creatively avoid its own dissolution. And note, evolution is not an essential part of the definition of life. Life creatively avoids its own dissolution via sensing and responding to its environment. And evolution is just one of the the tools in earthly life’s toolbox that allows it to sense and respond (via reproduction, mutation, and natural selection). The main tools for sensing and responding are the senses and responses of individual organisms. That’s why we can see (<ha!) those main tools employed everyday by ourselves and all other organisms, but why evolution is hard to see, and why it took humanity until very recently to even understand evolution. Even though, yes, the theory of evolution correctly explains all of the diversity of earthly life (including that which separates us as a species from the rest of life), evolution is secondary to defining what life is. That’s why it’s not in the definition. That’s why there are life forms on this planet, well adapted to sensing and responding to their environments in their niches, in accord with the definition above, that haven’t died out, and yet haven’t evolved appreciably since the beginning.


we could say we should do this, even though it may be out of accord with our evolved “selfish” proclivity to try to ensure our genes survival first. Because it would be in accord with the more likely survival of our genes, or life,
So the question then becomes (if we should care about preserving the metabolic process that move through us into the future but we don’t have to be Darwinistically selfish), how selfish should we still be, to be in best accord with the definition of life? How much should we care about maintaining the metabolic process that move through us personally, versus the process that moves through our kin, our species, our phylum, etc.? The answer is: be pragmatic.

4. Sci. pan. on Utilitarian conundrum’s of self and family versus “the greater Good”.

In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris discusses the well known tendency humans have to be more naturally empathetic to the suffering of a single individual than to a group of individuals. But beyond our innate psychological dispositions, he also speaks of the related problem that when one tries to rationally apply moral utilitarian prescriptions to individuals versus populations it is hard to work out how to proceed. He quotes the philosopher Patricia Churchland: “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of five hundred brain-damaged children in Serbia.”*

5. Left wing political “altruism” versus Right wing political “personal responsibility” – “enlightened self interest”/reciprocal altruism

Part of the reason the Left wing socialist leaning versus Right wing capitalist leaning debate is so interminable is that partisans on either side of the issue feel it is fair to accuse the oppositon of “selfishness”.

Superficially this debate can be somewhat resolved by striking the balance that we spoke about in point #1 above. That’s because the Right accuses members of the Left of not sufficiently taking personall responsibility for those needs and wants that most naturally, organically, and most efficiently come under the domain of self care. And the Left accuses members of the Right of the reverse: of not being altruistic enough to give to what is most naturally and efficiently the greater good.

6. Everything is a mirror of the self – The Naive American Medicine wheel

7. God and Jesus’s one commandment

8. What is the self? Neuroscience And, transcending the self with meditation

9. Love – effective love is “selfless”, but effective love is good for the self << Zen logic

Conclusion: Show the mandala. Avoiding utilitarianism’s tendency to short circular or tautological ethical and moral reasoning (that is thus out of accord with reality as a whole) is best, because such incoherence is bound to cause conflict. And in that conflict the larger reality (the universe or “God”) will win, because ultimately it is “infinitely” bigger and more powerful. And, since in general it is beautiful and good (and awesome and mysterious), why fight it? So, as long as you and I exist as a part of life in this reality we must subjectively start and return to our selves, but with the wisdom of recognizing our ultimate ephemeral significance, our task also starts and ends with learning to love, and then be in accord with the larger reality (God).

Other post ideas:

1. Why scientific pantheisim is a religion, and why “religion” is ok

2. Other moral codes (besides enlightenment/natural law and utilitarianism): Stoics, Aristotle, Epicurianism, Confusious, 4 nobel truths, Plains indians, Macintyre’s virtue ethics, Pyrrhonism, Cyrenaics, etc..


*Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape T (New York: Free Press, 2010), 68

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