Why Love and Compassion Are Not, at Their Root, Egoistic Acts

As a philosophy student I encountered several people who appeared to be convinced that, at the heart of things, human are ego-centered beings, and that every action we take is in some sense directed at the gratification of our own ego.

I do not believe this. As an example, let me talk about the idea of love, which I’ve heard people say is really just intended for one’s own happiness. The train of though goes like this: Love desires to make other people happy, and the root of that desire is that the other person’s happiness makes the person who loves them happy, and so really it’s all about just making yourself happy, with whatever  love you happen to need in order to accomplish that.

This train of though ignores a few important aspects of the whole situation. First, if someone else’s unhappiness is itself enough to make you unhappy, then you have already started to dismantle the “self vs. other” boundary. If that person’s happiness then causes you to be happy, this is further evidence of the same. So instead of promoting your own happiness by making someone else happy, you are really promoting the happiness of a two-person emotional unit composed of both your emotions and those of the person you endeavor to make happy. It serves more than simply the self.

Second, by breaking down the self vs. other boundary (at least emotionally) you are in essence expanding your ego to include other people, making their happiness of equal weight to your own, and making them a part of your emotional self. This is really a kind of incredible thing, and it forces a redefinition of traditional “self vs. other” models, which means throwing out the idea of Egoism (which itself is the epitome and total culmination of such models, claiming that self and other are totally dichotomous).

So to love, when we think of loving as striving to make others happy (and I believe this is just one aspect of love, among many, many more), serves not to gratify the ego or the self, but to actually begin to dismantle it and build connections between people.

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4 Responses to Why Love and Compassion Are Not, at Their Root, Egoistic Acts

  1. Pingback: What is Joy? | Accelerate Compassion

  2. John Dunham says:

    Two thoughts:
    First, I have read three different books in the past six months which propose incidentally or primarily that the ego’s predominance in members of western culture is a dangerous sort of insanity that is socially taught and which severs the connections between ourselves and others intentionally (because, were those connections to remain intact, we would be incapable of acting without compassion).
    Second, in a world so interconnected and interdependent, might not the very concept of a “self vs. other boundary” be an ego-driven construction? In other words, the very existence of that concept might be nothing more than an ego-driven rationalization of my first thought.

    • cmdrquack says:

      Something I might add to that analysis is that we tend to build connections, especially more recently, between ourselves and inanimate things like jobs, money, cell phones, and other things, so that we can’t see ourselves as being “whole” without them. A so much more amazing world would be one where we cannot be “whole” without other people, plants, animals, rivers, etc. Or more accurately, one where we KNOW we can’t be whole without these things. I believe it’s true, but we don’t want to admit that we’re just a really power-hungry part of a much larger system which we are exploiting, and which will eventually kick us out (extinction or some other means) once we deplete it of everything we can use it for.

      The one reason I have faith that we’ll wake up and realize what many indigenous tribes have known for millennia (that we are intimately connected with all life, and the planet), is that once a person builds these connections, either accidentally or on purpose, we miss them if we go away. I have witnessed what I believe to be a widespread yearning on the part of industrial civilization, and I believe that yearning is to return to a simpler, healthier, more compassionate, more loving, and more community-based way of life. We just need the opportunity to figure out that that is what we’re longing for.

      • John Dunham says:

        You are 100% correct; our relationships with inanimate things (or, I should say, non-natural things, since I consider a relationship with a mountain, a rock, or a stream to be quite fulfilling) are born of our yearning for those same relationships our ego makes impossible.
        I have faith that, given enough time, we will wake up. I have faith that, shown they have the choice to live simply and happily with the natural world instead of raping it into nonexistence, most people would choose that. Even, perhaps especially, those who have tasted the lack of fulfillment power brings. If their egos didn’t get in the way. And if there was enough time.
        I don’t think there is enough time. We’re out of oil, we’re out of healthy ecosystems, we’re stuck in a system that rewards selfishness and destruction, and our system kills or dispossesses those who disagree. On a global scale. And if we walked away from every factory and industry and corporation RIGHT NOW and went and sat in the forest, the 2% of it that is left, we are probably so far gone that the ecosystem, and most life on earth, would die anyway.
        But we still have to try.
        (Also, Morgan says Hi.)

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