Self and ego

A new talk edited from the 2014 retreat. It discusses how we need to distinguish the ideas of self and ego – to avoid beliefs about the self whether positive or negative, but nevertheless work with the experience of ego as we find it.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

2 thoughts on “Self and ego

  1. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for this talk. It was helpful for me. I can very well relate to the idea of ethics as integration of different desires. What I was missing is the social aspect of ethics. Haidt asserts that individuals generally act from their intuitions. This might amount to your idea that desires are so the speak the foundation of actions. In your account, you seem to start with individuals and their desires, whereas Haidt takes intuitions to be derived from the judgement of others. What role does the social setting play in human desires according to you? Does ethics not require the presence of ‘social’ desires
    Moreover, Haidt claims that humans only seldom engage in reasoning in a way which reconsiders their intuitions (the idea of the primacy of strategic reasoning). Only in some social settings, individuals are able to do so. It requires the awareness that one must give an account of one’s choices to a public that is well- informed though its position with regard to the issue is unclear. Does the practice of ethics as integration not also require a similar social setting, while agents otherwise tend to act upon unreflected, non-social desires?

    1. Hi Sebastiaan,
      Good to see you on the site! Re. Jonathan Haidt, you may have seen my review of his book on this site, and I also use his six foundations in my new book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief’ when discussing political beliefs. I think his foundations are a very useful way of categorising types of political value, but where I disagree with him is in his assumption that these are values for ethics in general, which reduces ethics to the socio-political. This assumption unfortunately undermines the last section of ‘The Righteous Mind’, and even leads him to assert that meditation is a manifestation of the ‘hive mind’, when anyone with experience of meditation could tell him the opposite, that it enables greater levels of awareness with which we can challenge the hive mind!

      To get to the crux of your question, I don’t think that desires are intrinsically either social or the product of isolated individuals – they are both. Our individual representations are very often also social, and our conceptions of our own desires are usually expressed in terms of others and their role in our lives. But that does not justify a reduction to the social. Socially expressed desires can also be understood in terms of individual conditioning and individual judgements. There’s an issue of supervenience relationships here between the individual and the social, where I think it’s important to avoid the dogmas on each side with the accompanying assumption that one type of explanation is all-encompassing.

      You could see human judgement as working with socially-derived intuitions, but you could also see it as working with individual experiences. The relationship between the two can be understood in the traditional terms of macrocosm and microcosm, where judgements at each level affect the other. I don’t agree with Haidt’s assumption that reflection must come from others. It can do, but greater reflectiveness also often arises from solitary thinking where we are withdrawn from the group. The relationship between the two levels is complex, and I think it’s a great pity that someone as balanced and insightful as Haidt can’t accept that complexity and insists on reducing it to one level of explanation. This may be another effect of disciplinary boundaries – his work has to be peer reviewed by other social psychologists, no doubt, but not by, for example, philosophers or students of religion who might question these assumptions.

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