Morality and the Self

Porter Clements

Personally, when I think about what it means to be ‘moral’, the first thing that comes to mind is the quality of the interactions between myself and others. In a basic sense, being a good person means, for me, acting in a way that benefits others, even when (or perhaps particularly when) doing so goes against my own short-term self-interest. Immorality, on the other hand, immediately connotes acting in my own self-interest in such a way that leads to the harm of others.

At first glance, this all seems fairly straightforward. It’s even tempting for me to think of this logical framework as something universal. Surely everyone would agree with this as a basic layout for morality, right?

Well, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that these axioms are actually somewhat culturally specific. To me, these ideas present themselves as common sense. However, when juxtaposed with different systems of moral thinking, they can instead be viewed as rooted in the distinct tradition of Western moral philosophy. There exist systems for thinking about morality that take alternative points of departure.

In my example above, an understanding of morality depends on the notion of separate self-hood. Because ‘I’ exist separately from everyone and everything else, it is possible for ‘me’ to act for the benefit or to the detriment of ‘others’. Regarding this topic from a Buddhist perspective, meanwhile, it would be tricky to view morality in these terms. In Buddhist systems of thinking, a fundamental point of departure is the notion of illusory selfhood (variously known as ‘non-self’, anatta, or the unity of self and other). This could even be framed as the essential ‘thesis’ of Buddhism. Basically, the idea is that there is no permanent aspect of me or you that exists independently of anything else. You exist as a part of me, and vice-versa: delineations between the two are arbitrarily imposed. This somewhat confuses the aforementioned ‘self-based’ framework of morality. If there is no ‘me’, how can ‘I’ act morally or immorally?

To begin to answer this question, it is first necessary to trace the implications of the notion of ‘non-self’. It is widely held across the various interpretive schools of Buddhism that people’s ignorance of this proposed fact of existence is a fundamental cause of life’s suffering. Rather than being something which we inflict upon each other, suffering becomes something we inflict upon ourselves, by going through life with the fallacious assumption that we exist as individuals and as such are separate from everything else. True contentment is only possible through identification with others.

As a result of this, Buddhist thinkers often take an approach to the question of morality which can seem unorthodox, particularly as it pertains to the idea of ‘selfishness’. Whereas it is widely held in Western moral thought that selfish behaviour is a cornerstone of immorality, a Buddhist would be more likely to characterise such behaviour as ignorance. For Buddhists, because there is no delineation between self and other, the only way to truly act in one’s own self-interest is through selflessness; the ‘collective good’ and the ‘individual good’ are the same thing. Selfishness isn’t shamed or demonised so much as considered a misguided habit, which can be overcome with time. Selfishness as such is less fittingly described as ‘immoral’, because this term carries with it the connotation of deriving profit or gain for oneself at others’ expense. This formulation doesn’t really make sense when the ‘self’ is viewed as an illusion, and the spoils of selfish behaviour are recognised as fleeting mirages.

So, without a delineation between self and other, what might a Buddhist system of morality look like? The topic of ethics (śīla) is traditionally one of the central concerns of Buddhist religious practice, and there exists a broad compendium of well-developed perspectives on this issue across the many Buddhist traditions; my thoughts on this are only my opinion. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is attempting to embody the idea of non-self. If it is indeed the case that distinctions drawn between the individual and the rest of the world are both arbitrary and harmful, then it seems logical to start by learning to see oneself as comprised of others and to seek happiness in working for collective betterment. Doing so might help to weaken the pervasive view of self-distinction. If Buddhists are right about ‘non-self’, then this behaviour should naturally lead to peace of mind, which could inspire others to do the same.

One of the nice things about approaching morality from this angle is that it resolves any fundamental conflict between one’s own interests and the interests of others. In many thinking traditions, particularly those which I grew up with in the US, immorality is thought of as being inherent in human nature. For me, this is one of the ways in which Buddhist thought has provided a radical departure from deeply held assumptions. In this view of the world, we are essentially empty of a separate self, and thus ‘by nature’ inclined toward acting in each other’s best interest. Behavioural patterns like selfishness, jealousy and malice are not necessarily implicit but rather more superficial. They are something we are capable of overcoming.

Using this as a point of departure, ‘morality’ in a Buddhist light can provide a pleasant contrast to Western philosophical frameworks. A ‘Buddhist moral philosophy’ entails ease, light-heartedness and sustainability. I can certainly say that for me, this falls in stark contrast to my accustomed way of thinking about morals, which have always seemed to carry with them a certain weightiness, conflict and constraint. If it’s really ‘in our nature’ that we are existentially intertwined with one another, then it should only be natural for us to act ‘morally’, as such. In the end, maybe morality isn’t only about grit and strength of character, but also being pointed in the right direction. Maybe, in these matters, there’s a role to play for perspective and intentionality.

Porter is a co-founder of Interfaith Exchange and has range of interests that includes Zen Buddhism, Hispanic literature and Critical Race Theory. He currently lives in New York.

Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay on

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