The Ego Is Not Selfish Enough

 

 

The problem with having an ego is that it may not be selfish enough.  

As I mentioned in my previous article, "A Defense of the Ego," the ego can be understood as an illusion, or more accurately, as a construction.  But that doesn't make it wrong.  (It doesn't even make it untrue, because social constructions are real.) 

The problem with the ego is not that it is too selfish (and thus evil).  It's just the opposite.  The difficulty with the ego is that it may come into conflict with your selfishness.  This problem may arise in various ways.  Let's look at some of the most common:

Let's say you are trying to eat as much chocolate peanut butter pie as you can.  That is your selfish motivation.  Now let's say there are many strategies for getting chocolate peanut butter pie: strategy 1, strategy 2, strategy 3, etc., etc..  You have landed on strategy number 54, and it's working pretty well.  But unbeknownst to you, there is another strategy, strategy number 349, which you've never tried, which is far superior to strategy 54, and would get you double the number of pies you're currently eating.  The selfish thing for you to do would be to stop using strategy 54, and to start using strategy 349.  But there's a problem: your ego is getting in your way.  Your ego is saying, effectively, "I have the best strategy, because I am the best.  No strategy could possibly be better than mine."

In other words, as I wrote in the aforementioned article, the best kind of ego is the most flexible ego.  The ego necessarily contains a little bit of... uncharitably, we could say "deception"... flatteringly we could call it "creativity"... let's be neutral and call it "fiction."  That's fine, but it can become an obstacle for ourselves, for our own selfish desires, in a number of ways - but perhaps they all boil down to this: it can become an obstacle for us when it prevents us from learning.  A certain minimum level of deception, or imagination, or play, is perfectly healthy and indeed necessary.  But self-deception can prevent you from achieving your deepest desires, from actualizing your own potential.  

The ego can make me become dogmatic, when I am sure that I'm right and everyone else is wrong.  I can become closed off to new information.  People often become this way when they are arguing.  Rather than having a conversation in which we examine concepts and try to arrive at the truth, it becomes more important to "win".  By the way, ironically enough, many of the people who are "against" the ego and consider it intrinsically immoral (I call such people liquefactionists) have dogmatically made themselves incapable of learning about the positive aspects of the ego because of their own pride.  They're unwilling to admit that they could be wrong.

Thus the ego can prevent us from pursuing our own rational self-interest.  And there's an inverse corollary: that in order to pursue my own desires, I may have to engage in some self-criticism.

To preserve my own fragile ego, I may have to block out the world, to deny material reality, to deaden my own senses - which will result in me having a less full, less rich life experience.  The truly selfish thing is to be open - to be open to every experience, to let it all in, to allow this experience to change me, to challenge me, to challenge my fundamental preconceptions and my most cherished beliefs.

There's nothing evil about pride.  But sometimes the most selfish thing is to put one's pride aside.

If egoism means that the ego is the be-all and end-all of all considerations, a kind of metaphysical ultimate, an infinite horizon of all possible meaning, the purpose and point of everything, then, for the reasons that I have outlined above, I cannot quite count myself as an egoist.  On the other hand, I think that the ego is a wonderful thing and worth defending, and I regard the demonization of the ego and of all egoists to be silly, confusing, and mistaken.  So maybe you can call me "egoish."

William Blake said, "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."  True - and I add, if the ego would only persist in its selfishness, it would become universal.

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