Buddhism, Hume & the Ego: Commentary on Ratanakul

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 146-7.


As an Israeli I could easily identify with Pinit's statement: Though the present constitution does not make it compulsory for every Thai to follow the Buddhist beliefs and practices, for the majority of the Thai population one cannot be a true Thai without being a Buddhist. In some cultures there is an ideology which says that a state should be secular, with no preferred religion. In the United States they have a clause in their constitution prohibiting the "establishment of religion." This clause was a consequence of the American revolutionaries' opposition to the power of the Church of England. The disestablishmentarianism movement was based on the assumption that there can be no freedom of conscience and faith unless religion and state are totally separated. But Israel and Thailand, both apparently similar antidisestablishmentarianist states, understand that it is quite possible to have a state whose atmosphere is primarily influenced by one specific religion, and where steps may be taken to ensure that that religion will always be the dominant one, while at the same time recognizing the rights of religious minorities to conduct their prayers and ceremonies as they see fit, and just so long as they do not interfere with others and recognize the rights of others to the same freedoms.
I want to thank Pinit for the informative introduction to Buddhism in a relatively brief format. I think I will use it as required reading in my "Health in Eastern and Western Philosophy" course, which I teach to Master's and PhD students in the various health sciences. I would like to take him up, however, on a point on which he has not convinced me. I refer to his exposition of the "no-ego" idea in Buddhism, an idea which is surprisingly similar to David Hume's denial of the "self", which is so well known in Western philosophy. I wonder, in fact, whether Hume's doctrine of no-self is not one more example of the international impact of Asian bioethics through the ages.
I am not, however, convinced that his doctrine is true. Pinit writes: there is no substantial ego. The apparent sameness seen in life is actually the continuity of preceding causes and subsequent effects. An analogy would be a process of filming in which projections are made of a series of running movements by many people to give the appearance of the action of one running person. The unity arises from continuity.
It is the spectator who perceives this series as a single person.
The idea is that there is a continuity of causes and effects in human experience, which leads to an illusion of unity, of a continuously existing self. But how can there be an illusion unless there is someone, some conscious being, who is deluded? I am reminded of Descartes' assertion that if he is deceived then he certainly must exist. Indeed, how can there be an illusion that an event at one time and an event at another time are somehow related unless some conscious being has been aware of both events? But wouldn't this mean that some conscious being existed at both of these times?
Of course one or both of the two events might be imaginary. While I perceive one, I only think that I remember the other, but I do not really remember it. But Buddhism, as Pinit explains it, does not say this. Pinit writes as if both the earlier and the later even actually took place, and the illusion is in my thinking that both are experienced by one self. But their both having been experienced by one self contradicts the "no-self" doctrine.
Again, Pinit writes: Despite this plain fact of experience people still believe in ego-consciousness, clinging to the fallacy that there is a permanent, abiding substance of Soul in and behind consciousness. But if there is no abiding substance, what are these people who persist in believing? It seems to me that "people who persist in believing" and "abiding substances of soul" are simply two ways of saying the same thing.
In my humble opinion, there is a very noble motive behind the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. Pinit writes: By negating the self in life Buddhism tries to eliminate the vanity caused by self-absorption. In another part of the same article, he writes about a liberating wisdom that would free himself from the clutch of the illusory Ego and its selfish desires I can agree totally with the motive. One of the highest goals of bioethics is to strive (and it is not easy) to free ourselves from our slavery to our selfish egos. Think of how much hatred and violence is caused by puffed-up pride, by our desires to have more than the other guy, to be more powerful, and to be better liked.
Think of how much valuable time we waste by pursuing goals whose only purpose is to puff up our egos and make us look stronger or richer or more powerful than others. In a lecture which I have often given to my students, comparing Maimonides' Jewish philosophy with Buddhism, my favourite text is a statement by Maimonides that we should in all things follow the path of moderation: except for humility. With respect to humility, he says, we should be extremists.
In my opinion, by the way, the reason why women are doing much better than we men these days, in the contributions which they are making to good things in the world, is that they are freer than men are from enslavement to the ego. Being relatively free of the ego, they are better able to listen humbly, to learn more, and then only after they have learned deeply and systematically, to take charge quietly and humbly and to make their own great contributions. I wonder if I will draw more fire than I am asking for if I go out on a limb and assert that the flaw of feminism has been to try to burden women with the ego which has been such a flaw in men.
Another side-point, but perhaps an important one, is that although David Hume, in 18th Century Scotland, held a version
of the "no-self" doctrine which is hard to distinguish from the Buddhist version as Pinit explains it, the doctrine does not seem to have made Hume into an egoless paradigm of humility. In fact the desire for literary fame seems to have been one of his main motives in his work. It seems also quite possible for people who believe in the existence of the ego, or self, to be quite humble people. So belief in the philosophical or religious "no-self" doctrine seems to be neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for humility. Hume, moreover, seems in spite of his ego to have been quite a good person. His acquaintances called him le bon David. The reports of his exemplary behaviour during his terminal illness, written by Adam Smith and James Boswell, should be required reading for bio-medical ethicists. So humility may not be a necessary condition for being a good person. The question whether humility is a sufficient condition for being a good person should also be discussed, but I have no firm opinion on it as yet.
Humility is nonetheless a noble bioethical cause. Think of how much less we would pollute if we cared less for material possessions. Think of how irrelevant so many questions of distributive justice - in medicine and elsewhere - would be if we were to think more about giving than about taking. But I have difficulties with philosophically fallacious arguments (such as the arguments against the existence of the self) even when we are using them to defend good causes.
On the other hand, and after further thought, I wonder whether my insistence on philosophical, logical precision is not itself a kind of egoism. In entering into a debate with Pinit about his philosophical statements, is my goal truth and goodness, or is it victory in a contest of philosophical sharpness? In the Western philosophy in which I was educated, there is an ideology of logical perfection. Is this a noble ideology, or is it merely an expression of egotistical pride in the human intellect? Or let me put it another way. Which would be the better way to improve life in this world and (if they exist) other worlds: (I) to strive to free ourselves from our selfish egos, or (II) to strive for philosophical, logical, perfection?

Go back to EJAIB 14 (4) July 2004
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet:
http://eubios.info/index.html