What is the source of bad action, the root of our doing wrong or being worse than we should? I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s dense and rich Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, in which she most frequently identifies this source with ego. Attachment to ourselves is what makes us do wrong. The view has fairly obvious Buddhist affinities. Suffering, we are told in the Pali Buddhist texts, comes from craving and ignorance; this craving is often specifically identified with craving for selfish things, ignorance with belief in a really existing self or ego. Śāntideva states the view most explicitly: if we knew what the self really was, we wouldn’t act in selfish ways, and then we’d be the bodhisattvas we should be.
There is something I find worrisome about this position – something I think Ken Wilber has managed to catch. It relates to a point I made in a previous entry: that it can be wrong to avoid insisting on what is rightfully yours. Sometimes, it seems to me, we act wrongly because we are not egoistic enough. Again, sociological evidence seems to indicate women typically have this problem more than men; but men are far from immune to it.
Wilber catches this point through the generally developmentalist thrust of his philosophy: awakening proceeds in stages. First we must build a healthy ego for ourselves; only then can we transcend it. Wilber refers in this light to the “pre-trans fallacy”: someone who has not developed proper ego boundaries seems a lot like someone who has transcended them, because neither have strong egos; but that does not mean the two are the same. Something like Śāntideva’s meditation on the exchange of self and other – designed to break down a sense of ego and identify ourselves with other people – seems very much like a “snake wrongly grasped” if it falls into the hands of the meek and servile.