We often hear about the Buddhist teaching of no-self. But what does it actually mean to live without a self? In his new book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, scholar Jay Garfield argues that shedding the illusion of the self can actually make you a better person. Drawing from Buddhism, Western philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience, Garfield explains how the notion of self is not only wrong but also morally dangerous. Once we let go of this illusion, he contends, we can lead healthier and more ethically skillful lives. In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Garfield to talk about the ethical perils of the self illusion, the freedom that can come from moments of selflessness, and how we can let go of our selves to reclaim our humanity.
James Shaheen (JS): Your new book is Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self. Can you start by sharing a bit about the book and what inspired you to write it?
Jay Garfield (JG): A central doctrine of Buddhist philosophy is that we don’t have selves, or that we are selfless persons. That doesn’t mean that we don’t exist; it means that we exist in another way. We don’t exist substantially or intrinsically or independently; our existence, like the existence of everything else, is interdependent, conventional, and constantly changing. In the book, I try to draw the reader’s attention to what we instinctively take ourselves to be and then to reconstruct what we actually are in order to refute that innate misconception without falling into nihilism and without failing to construct any kind of positive account of our own identity as persons.
JS: You write that the illusion of the self contributes to an attitude of moral egoism that obscures our own identities from us. What are some of the ethical consequences of a belief in a self?
JG: This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s one thing to think abstractly about the metaphysics of bodies and minds and persons. But it’s quite another to think about who we are and how we ought to think about our interactions with other people, particularly in ethically charged situations—and most of our lives are ethically charged in one way or another. In game theory, rationality is defined as the disinterested pursuit of our own immediate self-interest. In other words, I’m rational if I adopt a strategy that makes sure that I’ve got more chips at the end of the game than anybody else, and I’m irrational if I undertake behavior that takes other people’s utility into consideration when that utility doesn’t affect my own. That’s a recipe for a very narrow kind of egoism whereby the first thing I’ve got to do is care about myself. Everything we do, we do because we rely on our interactions with others and what others have done for us. And anything that could possibly increase our own happiness is something that should also be increasing the happiness of others, or we fail to recognize our profound interdependence. When we focus on the self as an independent, substantial thing different from everything else, that gives us permission to take our own narrow self-interest as motivating and to ignore the demands of morality. That’s an extraordinarily pernicious thing, and I think that it has visible and obvious consequences in our culture. It generates a kind of competitiveness, a view of life as a kind of zero-sum game, and it also justifies some of the worst aspects of consumer capitalism including income inequality, racism, and other forms of oppression. I believe that a lot of inequality is honestly traceable to the self illusion and to the way that this self illusion is not only accepted but endorsed and encouraged.
“If you’re a character in a play, your existence and your reality depend upon all the other characters.”
JS: You suggest that we are persons rather than selves. What do you mean by “person,” and how is a person distinct from a self?
JG: A person is in some sense a substitute for the self. That is, it’s a more realistic way of thinking about our identity than the self is. Persons are constantly evolving sequences of psychophysical processes, interpreted as real through the social, political, and biological conventions and ways of behavior that we have. I argue that persons are more like roles than like actors. Now, that doesn’t make them unreal. Hamlet is a real role. But Hamlet can be played by Sir Laurence Olivier or by Benedict Cumberbatch, and we don’t suddenly have two different Hamlets. We’ve got the same role, and it’s a role that’s constituted by a whole set of conventions: by norms of the theater, by scripts that have been written, by ways Hamlet has been played in the past. As persons, we’re governed by complicated sets of conventions and interpretative practices. We exist only because those practices exist. As biological members of Homo sapiens, we’re responsible to genetics. As persons, we’re responsible to culture and to others, and we are constantly changing, open-ended phenomena, not isolated, self-existent phenomena. We are part of a spatial, temporal, and social complex, not standing outside of it in a dualistic relation. We’re interdependent with one another, and so our domain of concern includes all other persons, just as if you’re a character in a play, your existence and your reality depend upon all the other characters in the play. We couldn’t have Hamlet as a one-character event. We need Ophelia and Polonius and all these other characters to make the role of Hamlet possible.
JS: You write that persons live on the “cusp of fact and fiction,” poised between the biological, the psychological, and the social. What does it mean to live on the cusp of fact and fiction?
JG: Fact is cognate with factory, and it refers to things that we make. Fictions refers to things that we make up. It’s easy to forget that fictions can constitute kinds of facts. It’s a fact that Hamlet is a fictional Danish prince. When I think about fictions, I think of things that humans bring into existence. Among the things that humans bring into existence are human beings, or persons. We’re brought into existence by the network of social and biological conventions in which we participate, by the narratives that we construct for ourselves and that are constructed by others around us. So the social, the biological, the factual, and the fictional all come together in personhood.
JS: So how does seeing ourselves as persons rather than as selves inform how we can live a moral life?
JG: Once we see that we are not solo improv stand-up players but rather members of a vast improv collective, we recognize that the only way that I can succeed is if we succeed. The only way I can be happy is if we’re happy. And the only way my life can be meaningful is if our lives are meaningful. I think the recognition that our identity is co-constituted and the only kind of identity that we have is interdependent allows us to respond to others with gratitude, with care, and with friendship. And that’s the moral attitude that I think we ought to be encouraging. No matter how egoistic we may be, I think each of us will find that we’re happier when we shed our egoism and discover that the world is full of sources of happiness, and most of them aren’t me.
Listen to the full interview from our podcast series Tricycle Talks here: