Selflessness

There are few areas where ethics and metaphysics overlap so clearly as in the subject of selflessness. You can take it as a quality of moral action, or you can take it literally, that is, metaphysically: there is no such thing as the self. Often you find the curious view (based on a disciplinary pun) that if you but once could glimpse the metaphysical truth of selflessness, your behaviour patterns would be transformed, and you would become saintly overnight. That's not how most of us spend the dark hours.

It is wise, I suggest, if only from precaution, to keep some distance between the two meanings, to resolutely resist the pun. Certainly there have been many selfless persons who maintained a metaphysical belief in individual eternal existence. Any Christian this side of heresy, in so far at least as they believe all that talk of the enforcement in the final days of individual moral accountability, would seem to be bound to the metaphysical existence of a personal self. To believe that there exists (in a literal, that is, a true sense) a Self behind our actions surely does not render impossible a life of unselfish concern and service. I say, trust the deed, not the word.

We tend to overvalue the philosophical positions people take, as if every stance adopted expressed a considered opinion, a willful judgment, a final perspective. Put aside the issue that often a philosophical stance is adopted more or less for show, for purposes of public view, to be seen to believe. In point of fact, our view of the world is more or less forced on us, at least for any earnest thinking person. Even if it isn't really, it still feels that way. Nobody need believe the world is full of suffering on the authority of some spiritual master. One's own eyes testify to it, if only one will open them. Of course to see all that suffering, to stare it in the face, is to know a painful truth, and it is often more polite simply to look away. To the incurably suffering, it can help to distract their attention, and bring it to more pleasant matters. The hard truths force themselves on us, and we are entitled to the occasional vacation of an illusion as a break from the perpetual grind that is our dysfunctional reality. And yet, if we love the truth, we also have to make the effort to observe the mess we find here, however disagreeable the task. We think people are expressing themselves when they express their philosophy. And perhaps they are, when they are not simply doing so to appear in a certain way. But otherwise they are often to be found to be merely reporting what they have been driven to.

This brings me to different kind of defence of the above pun, or play on the two meanings of selflessness. For it can after all happen that the truth transforms our thoughts and behaviour. But simple facts suffice, a whole new worldview is not necessary. As an example, I was once planning to meet a friend at a certain place and time, and I begged them not to be late, as I had some highly time-dependent task to do after our brief meeting. I am not one to nitpick about punctuality, and I tolerate as much tardiness in others as I do in myself, which is quite a lot. Since this friend was well aware of my laxity in such matters, and took reciprocal liberties, I felt it was important to stress that, in this instance, no such dilly-dallying was tolerable. My friend happily agreed to my condition, so I was justly annoyed when, fifteen minutes after the appointed time, they had still not shown up. My waiting showed no sign of patience, and I angrily swore at my friend in my mind: "Did I not stress to you how important this was to me? Did you not expressly acknowledge and accept my insistence? Why would you so selfishly disregard my needs?" My friend did arrive, and reported having just been involved in an bicycle accident and, but for a split second, almost killed. Once this single additional fact became known to me, though all the other facts of my case retained the same urgency, I felt all my anger immediately evaporate in concern for the safety of my friend. The truth can set you free.

In like fashion, I do not doubt that a fresh insight into the depth of the human condition might well totally reorient our self in regards to our moral relations with others. But when we fish for ethical insights in the pond of metaphysics, we are liable to catch what lives there, which is to say entire schools of impotent abstractions. Instead of a meal, we may reel in a rubber boot. All praise to the intellect, but when did its tinkering ever untie let alone tune the heart strings? I don't wish to be dualist about thought and feeling, but much thought is thoughtless thought, and utterly fails even to seek to unbind or make whole the miserable heart. Facts make a difference in morality; but morality makes no difference to fact.

There is one metaphysical belief which is often trotted out as a great goad to ethical or enlightened behavior. All is one. We are all kin. Everything is interrelated. All things are interdependent. Nothing is itself except through its relations to other things. All determination is negation. The forms of this belief are many, as colourful as its names: the jewel-net of Indra; the web of mother Maya; the flower-wreath doctrine; the identity of opposites; the pre-established harmony; the doctrine of mutually dependent co-arising; te, which is the virtue and power of the Tao, nurturing each after its own kind. Or the Grateful Dead will sing it to you: 'wake up to discover that you are the eyes of the world.' In its extreme form, the belief entails a denial of all boundaries and all centers. This vision of Identity relegates all difference to illusion, but a softer vision of Harmony retains real differentness while affirming all the more the mutuality of all beings. Mystics trip over themselves to articulate this view, not knowing how to begin to say a truth without a beginning. Stuttering, yet they are voluminous, but then they condemn every attempt to formulate truth as impartial and incomplete. Finally the great Oneness is expressed only by silence and a smile, presuming general agreement. Nothing is ever fully true, except the truth which cannot be said. What more can be said than that?

The question is whether a profound conviction in the commingling of all essential natures will make you a better person, say a better parent or a better citizen, more of a humanitarian, nobler or more enlightened. Who benefits from your conversions? When you realize your existence is only superficially separate, that you are part of something greater (be it ecological or divine or both), do you then love your friends and family more? Does the plight of strangers weigh any more heavily on your conscience? Are you more compassionate to the evil or needy now that you realize you are one with them? What is the moral payoff of your metaphysical realization? At what point does the acquired knowledge there is no self yield the selflessness of action? Is it not just so many words until it does?

There is a curious dilemma of selflessness lurking in this widely-touted metaphysical basis of ethics. Is self-interest to be overcome, defeated, utterly vanquished? Or is the basis of its self-regarding merely to be expanded, and made less narrow? Neither option seems acceptable. Let us examine. Grant the objective is to arrive at selfless behaviour, selfless action, the mark of compassion which, if true, is never idle. In this war against selfishness, one may either destroy the enemy or deceive them into supporting one's goals. The destructive approach involves a complete dismantling of the reflexively self-regarding behaviour that pits self against self, and divides the eater from the eaten. This is the high road to victory, and the problem is amassing enough firepower for the job without becoming corrupted and drunk on that power. Deceit may seem the better course, but it can only promise a cunning co-opting of the selfish response for a higher purpose. This it seems to me is the approach of the "all is one" strategy of metaphysical ethics. It invites us to go on in our usual selfish ways, except that now the self we are to serve and defend is not this mortal coil but the infinite web. I have not understood interconnectedness until I love each of the world's children as my own. I may (indeed I must) continue fiercely to protect my own, as much as any defensive or maternal instinct ever did, but now it is not me, or even my own child, that I defend, but my world, the great Mother ecosystem I have so wholly identified with. When I am one with the mother, my reflexive defences will protect her, even at the cost of my own puny life, a drop in her ocean. I may continue to lash out in greed, only now my greed is for the greater good, and all my private concerns are as if in a blind trust. How can I harm another when that other is myself? But how will I protect it if it is not myself?

So here is my dilemma: either my metaphysics destroys my self without pity, in which case it loses compassion on the way to compassion; or it deceives self-interest, thus dispensing with truth on the way to truth. Either way, I see nothing but pious hopes here and a will to do better. And that is fine, but it is not a case of metaphysics improving your character.

There is a famous teaching story from the time of the Buddha. Some wrangler had wandered in was badgering the quiet ambiance with metaphysical questions. The Buddha would not answer. Instead he asked how unwise it would be for one who was shot by a poisoned arrow to resist all treatment until it should be explained to him, the exact nature of the poison, who had shot the arrow, what kind of bow had been used, from which precise position, and so on. Such a quibbler would surely perish by the poison before their questions could all even be posed. Some metaphysical questions are profitless, and plenty of these pertain to selflessness. Is it any better than this to wait upon some all-consuming insight before loving the neighbour you do not know? The loving hand is quicker than the knowing mind.

You will have noticed that my essay may be suffering a little from the effects of such poison. My whole theme is the autonomy, as it were, of the ethical question of selflessness, in relation to the metaphysical issues. Knowing the truth of metaphysics is probably impossible. But thinking one knows is common enough. The question is whether adopting such philosophies will have any bearing on one's motivational structure. But I have spent my space warning you off the one, rather than directly approaching the other. Have I done more than name some poisons?

Pull out the arrow. Save yourself and your selflessness for philosophy. If philosophy is the poison, let more philosophy be the antidote.