A martyr who dies for his fellows, a mother who does everything for her newborn child, and all the Gandhis and Mother Teresas on this planet have one thing in common: supposedly, they act selflessly. The only problem is: selflessness does not exist.
Many biologist argue that our morality and every selfless act is based on “reciprocal altruism”. That means to make life easier we agree on the policy, that if I I do something for you, you will do something for me. In order to make altruism attractive for us, nature equipped us with a brain that rewards us for benevolent and selfless deeds with hormones which make us feel good.
That might be true for the mother nurturing her child, but what bout the martyr who dies for his people? A dead brain does most likely not reward us with many good feelings. Nevertheless, even such an act of altruism cannot be entirely selfless.
Let alone the fact that if the martyr dies with the thought that he (which presupposes an ego) acted after what he judged to be imperative, there must be an I to make this decision and an I to act. Even though it was not a very egoistic act, it was not an act without the ego.
In a world which we perceive dualistically, we have to postulate subject and object in order to act. I cannot hold the spoon to feed my child, if I am no subject – even if I do not have to be aware of the ego in this moment.
If we now introduce the concept of ego and self on the bases of Hinduism, we could argue that no act in a dualistic sphere is without the ego, but always better when we reduce the ego to the modicum. Or like Shiva step on the ego-dwarf and suppress him.
Although certain philosophies such as some buddhistic interpretations claim there is nothing consistent on earth, not even a self, and everything is not-self, or anattā, I will presume the self for this theory.
The word Ātman (or self) has an obscure etymology: Initially it meant breath, or vital essence, and only later meant soul, or self. A famous quote of the Upanishads defines Ātman as follows: “When a man being asleep, reposing and at perfect rest, sees no dreams, that is the self.”
If we see the self or Ātman as defined as the holistic, all-encompassing world-soul, which exists in everything and everyone, it would be absurd to claim there is a selfless act. What we describe as selfless would rather be a less ego focused (but not entirely without the ego) deed which is concentrating on the self.
And this self can be myself that I see in the other person’s self, or the self of other person which I see in myself. If the self is the underlying quintessence that unites all of us, it makes perfectly sense that my altruistic action is being evoked by this self, since I do not see the sense of acting egoistically if we are all the same.
Therefore, I would argue that it is, on the contrary, of paramount importance to act for and with the self. Thus, I have to love myself, since if there is no love for myself there cannot be love for another self, which is essentially the same. Or as it is written in the bible: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. “ (Mark 12:31)
Lastly, I would not argue that it is not only logically impossible to act without the ego, but that it is not desirable as well – especially in a relationship. Honestly, who wants a partner who does everything for someone else, without having any justifiable demands?
This partner would not only be boring but also lacking self-worth. It is about reducing the ego, but not destroying it – at least as long as we live in a dualistic world, where we interact in human relationships.