Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.

How Ethically Unstable Is Egocentrism?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

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

Michael G. Barnhart
Kingsborough Community College/CUNY

Egocentrism has always been viewed as profoundly unethical, and thus a reason against ethical egoism. This paper examines the arguments for such claims and finds them somewhat wanting. It then considers the positions that egocentrism is psychologically untenable and that it is philosophically unstable. Though it appears true that egocentrism is a psychologically unappealing position for many, it isn’t universally so and may be adaptable to some dystopian situations. However, the claim that it is philosophically unstable may be more promising, and the paper turns to Owen Flanagan’s Buddhist-inspired discussion of the issue in his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain. Flanagan argues that the notion of anattā offers an important reason for not taking oneself seriously and thus fatally undermines the meaningfulness of privileging one’s own interests or concerns over others. The paper examines this reasoning, but concludes that Flanagan’s interpretation of anattā may be too weak to support his refutation of egocentrism. The paper concludes by suggesting a more extreme interpretation of anattā that Flanagan rejects and argues that it might both do the job and better resist philosophical criticism than its weaker cousin.

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