The Catholic Pauls, it seems clear to me, oppose ethical egoism in strong terms. Interestingly, however, they do not spend much time attacking it; instead, they attack a kind of altruism that is very different from their own. And their positions interest me greatly because of the way it highlights differences among philosophical concepts of altruism.
Ethical egoism of some description – say, as advocated by Epicurus – is a perfectly respectable philosophical position. One can say that one’s reasons to benefit others are all ultimately based on benefit to oneself, if one’s own self-interest is rightly understood. Neither Paul has a great deal of sympathy for this position, as far as I can tell, but it is not what they take as a target for their attack.
Rather, they reserve their greatest ire for a position that derives other-orientation from ātmanism – or at least from nondualism. Though Śāntideva is the last to believe in an ātman, he, like Vivekānanda, nevertheless gets to altruism by deconstructing the self, saying the differences we perceive between selves are not ultimately real. Śaṅkara and Buddhaghosa would likewise have taken the first step and deconstructed the self, saying the different human selves we perceive are; but what they would not have done would have been to take this as a justification for altruism. As with Epicurus, our primary goal needs to be our own liberation from suffering. This conclusion, the Pauls take as logically acceptable, though they disagree with it.
But the next step that Śāntideva and Vivekānanda take and Śaṅkara and Buddhaghosa do not – to say that Epicurean egoism is not acceptable because the individual self it defends is unreal – is a step too far, in the Paul’s eyes. For by deconstructing egoism, they reason, Śāntideva and Vivekānanda also effectively deconstruct altruism. (Williams’s chapter is entitled “How Śāntideva destroyed the bodhisattva path”!) If there is no self, there can be no other about which to be concerned; nor can there even be suffering to be prevented.
But neither Paul says this because they wish to advocate an Epicurean egoism, to take us back to the egoistic nondualism of a Śaṅkara. They want us to be altruistic – but only on the right grounds, and these grounds are grounds of encounter. For there to be real altruism, there must be real others; and therefore altruism must come out of encounter and not out of ātmanism or nondualism.
And while up to now I’ve discussed this issue in the sectarian terms of Catholics attacking Buddhists, I think the distinction made here also shows up in contemporary analytical ethics. Derek Parfit has argued for altruism on grounds which even he identified as analogous Buddhist non-self – the self is not a real entity from moment to moment, and so we should not privilege it over others. Mark Siderits has recently taken up, at book length, the similarities between Parfit’s view and those of Buddhist thinkers like Śāntideva.
I used to think there were close similarities between Parfit’s (and Śāntideva’s) view and that of Christine Korsgaard, who – like them – argues that full-blown egoism is not rational. But the Catholic Pauls pushed me to see the differences between them. For Korsgaard criticizes egoism in a very different way, one that they could endorse.
Korsgaard, it turns out, does not deconstruct the ego itself – only egoism. The self, on her account, is quite real; but its reasons for action are not fundamentally egoistic. In everyday life, “We do not seem to need a reason to take the reasons of others into account. We seem to need a reason not to. Certainly we do things because others want us to, ask us to, tell us to, all the time…. We respond with the alacrity of obedient soldiers to telephones and doorbell and cries for help.” (The Sources of Normativity 140-1) Korsgaard tries to argue that reasons for action are public in their very nature; each individual’s reasons for acting are not separate from the reasons of other individuals. And one of the fundamental ways in which reasons apply to others is obligation, which comes out of respect for others’ humanity or personhood. If I am blithely torturing a stranger (Korsgaard’s example, derived from Thomas Nagel) and the stranger asks “How would you like it if I did that to you?” I can continue to torture the stranger, but not in the way I did before, for the stranger has now obligated me.
There are very strong echoes here – possibly uninentional – of Emmanuel Lévinas, the Jewish archetypical philosopher of obligation and encounter. Obligation is not a concept that shows up in Śāntideva – or, for that matter, in Aristotle. Korsgaard’s own introduction notes that it was the Christians – surely under the influence of Jewish law tradition – who began to move the mainstream of Western philosophy away from concepts of excellence (or virtue) and toward concepts of obligation. And this obligation always seems to be an obligation toward someone irreducibly different from oneself. The Advaitic ātman might have good reason to reduce its own ignorance, but it is not obligated to do so.
So, leaving aside egoistic philosophies for the moment, we can draw boundaries between two quite different justifications for altruism, two different ways in which egoism can be considered an error. In Korsgaard, Lévinas and I think the Catholic Pauls, we get an encounter variety of altruism, where each separate and individual self is in part constituted by binding obligations to others (whether other people or God). Whereas in Śāntideva, Parfit and Vivekānanda, we get a nondualist variety of altruism, one based on the idea that the selves themselves are not really real. The Catholic Pauls attack the second because they wish to move us toward the first.