Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Impermanence, Anatta, and the Stability of Egocentrism; or, How Ethically Unstable Is Egocentrism?

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Impermanence, Anatta, and the Stability of Egocentrism; or, How Ethically Unstable Is Egocentrism?

Article excerpt

Ever since the beginning of philosophical time, egoism or egocentrism has suffered a bad reputation. That is not to say it has lacked defenders, but the bulk of opinion has consistently been against it. A number of strategies have been employed to discredit it, but perhaps the most common is to argue that it precludes ethical conduct. Thus, the egoist is presented with the following rather unattractive option: either he can be egocentric or he can be ethical, but he cannot be both. Of course, nothing prevents one from opting for egoism over morality, but I have often wondered whether the egoist must concede morality in the first place. Might the question, "Can one be ethical and yet solely preoccupied with self concerns?" be an open one?

Opting for egoism over morality raises the common "Intro to Ethics" question: "Why be ethical at all?" The answer typically involves an inquiry into human nature, the "self" in a general sense, and the demands of social living. Such inquiry usually concludes that it is irrational not to be in some way other-regarding. This is, one cannot plausibly be egocentric without caring about the good itself, a flourishing life, universal suffering, the demands of social role-playing, or the mysteries of Dharma. Thus, one cannot be said to be good, virtuous, caring, or dutiful unless one has concerns that go beyond the self and extend to others. But is this so? Or is it that we simply assume that ethics is unselfish and that these concerns of ethics are matters that are always other-regarding? In other words, why can't someone be good, virtuous, caring, or dutiful and pre-occupied with himself? I well imagine that one could be ethical and care about more than oneself. But must one?

To see what I mean, consider the views of a philosopher who accepts the possibility that egoism can be ethical, or that egoistic ethics can exist, J. L. Mackie. In his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Mackie argues that there can be a perfectly good sense in which egoism is ethical: a "variety of egoism which says that everyone should seek (exclusively or primarily) his own happiness" (84). Ethical egoism, then, is a form of universalization. That is, "proper names and indexical terms, as constants, play no essential part" (84). Obviously, if they did, there would be nothing at all universal about the rule, which means it would not be a rule in the sense of being "committed to taking the same view about any other relevantly similar action" (83). Further, Mackie explicitly claims that "Moral judgments are universalizable" (83). By contrast, I'm asking whether that is so. Can the egoist who reasons using statements where proper names and indexicals figure as constants be moral or ethical? Of course, Mackie thinks not. The reason seems to be that we cannot think of morality (or ethics) as an institution without "rules or principles of action" that guide the actions or behavior of those within the institution (80). And without being an institution, it seems, morality cannot be prescriptive or binding. Because a rule requires some level of generality or universality, proper names cannot play an "essential part." But does morality or ethics have to be an "institution," or does this assumption rather bias the issue that I am trying to raise? An institution is necessarily interpersonal, but the question I am raising challenges that. Must, in a prescriptive sense, one be institutional? Mackie doesn't think so as a matter of "general logic" (cf. 80ff). Such subjective considerations cannot count, in his view, as moral or ethical at all.

One might ask exactly what I mean by "morality" or "ethics" when I ask the question. Is there any way for me to use these words meaningfully and avoid entailing an interpersonal aspect? Mackie is not alone in thinking that I cannot. Bernard Williams also argues in his classic Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy that the question "How ought one to live?" is "the best place for moral philosophy to start" and that this question "naturally leads us out of the concerns of the ego altogether" (4). …

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