does doubting the existence of the self tame the will?

I like the following argument, versions of which can be found in many traditions from different parts of the world:

  1. A cause of many kinds of suffering is the will (when it is somehow excessive or misplaced).
  2. Gaining something that you desire does not reduce your suffering; you simply will something else.
  3. However, one’s will can be tamed.
  4. Generally, the best way to manage the will is to focus one’s mind on other people instead of oneself. Thus,
  5. Being ethical reduces one’s suffering.

In some traditions, notably in major strands of Buddhism and in Pyrrhonism, two additional points are made:

  1. The self does not actually exist. Therefore,
  2. It is irrational to will things for oneself.

Point #7 is supposed to provide both a logical and a psychological basis for #4. By realizing that I do not really exist, I reduce my attachment to my (illusory) self and make more space to care about others, which, in turn, makes me happier.

Point #6 is perfectly respectable. Plenty of philosophers (and others) who have considered the problem of personal identity have concluded that an ambitious form of the self does not really exist. (For instance, David Hume.)

But if the self doesn’t exist, does it really follow that we should pay more attention to other people? We might just as well reason as follows:

  1. The self does not really exist. Therefore,
  2. a. Other people do not really exist as selves. Therefore,
  3. a. It is irrational to be concerned about them.


  1. The self does not really exist. Therefore,
  2. b. It is impossible for me to change my character in any lasting way. Therefore,
  3. b. There is no point in trying to make myself more ethical.

Striving to be a better or happier person is not a sound reason for doubting the existence of the self. This doubt may do more harm than good. If there actually is no self, that is a good reason not to believe in one. But then we are obliged to incorporate skepticism about personal identity into a healthy overall view. The best way might be some version of this:

  1. The self does not really exist. Nevertheless,
  2. c. I would be wise to treat other people as if they were infinitely precious, durable, unique, and persistent things (selves).

I think it is worth getting metaphysics right, to the best of our ability. For example, it is worth trying to reason about what kind of a thing (if anything) a self is. However, I don’t believe that metaphysical beliefs entail ways of life in a straightforward way, with monotonic logic.

Any given metaphysical view is usually compatible with many different ways of being. It may even strongly encourage several different forms of life, depending on how a person absorbs the view. Thus I am not surprised that some people (notably, thoughtful Buddhists) have gained compassion and equanimity by adopting the doctrine of no-self, even though the same doctrine could encourage selfishness in others, and some people may become more compassionate by believing in the existence of durable selves. In fact, many have believed in the following argument:

  1. Each person (or sentient being) has a unique, durable, essential being
  2. I am but one out of billions of these beings. Therefore,
  1. It is irrational to will things for myself.

The relationship between an abstract idea and a way of being is mediated by “culture,” meaning all our other relevant beliefs, previous examples, stories, and role-models. We cannot assess the moral implications of an idea without understanding the culture in which it is used. For instance, the doctrine of no-self will have different consequences in a Tibetan monastery versus a Silicon Valley office park.

We cannot simply adopt or join a new culture. That would require shedding all our other experiences and beliefs, which is impossible. Therefore, we are often in the position of having to evaluate a specific idea as if it were a universal or culturally neutral proposition that we could adopt all by itself. For instance, that is what we do when we read Hume and Kant (or Nagarjuna) on the question of personal identity and try to decide what to think about it. This seems a respectable activity; I only doubt that, on its own, it will make us either better or worse people.

See also: notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism; Buddhism as philosophy; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon. And see “The Philosophic Buddha” by Kieran Setiya, which prompted these thoughts.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.