Question of the week: Selflessness

Many of the most often quoted contemporar pagan moral principles, such as the Wiccan Rede, Crowley’s Law, and the like, are principles of self empowerment and personal freedom. The concept of Will, which appears in both of those aformentioned moral statements, suggests that the pagan point of view on ethics emphasises the needs and purposes of the individual self, first and foremost.

My question for this week concerns the possibility of selfless acts and selfless choices. Is there any space at all in a pagan point of view for an action which is completely oriented to benefit and respect others, with no concern for one’s own interests at all?

One answer might be “no”. Any act or choice intended primarily for the benefit of others, so the argument goes, always has a “return of investment”. it might be a material reward. It might be something immaterial too, like the good will towards oneself which the recipient of one’s beneficence might show. It may even be something internal, like a feeling of pride or pleasure in the thought of one’s good deed, and in the sight of the consequences of one’s actions. Some even claim that to adopt a social ethic, one which puts relationships first and emphasises one’s membership in communities, is still an individual choice.

Another answer might be “yes”. Especially from the time that the pagan movement developed its environmentalist dimension most explicitly, there is a lot of pagan ethical thinking that emphasises an ‘expanding’ or a ‘broadening’ of the self, such that the interests of the singular individual self become incorporated into the interests of a larger ‘global’ or ‘cosmic’ self. One acts with a view not for the pursuit of one’s private interests (in competiton with others), but “with a view to the maintenance of the world”, to quote the Bhagavad Gita. I described just such a position in my first book, “Dangerous Religion”. On this point of view, acts are not exactly “selfless” but the notion of the “self” is radically changed. Furthermore, as the philosopher Charles Taylor observed, the individualist view is actually a social one, since the very notion of individualism, and the signifigance of individual choices, depends greatly upon a shared acknowledgement and shared recognition of the value of individual choices. That shared acknowledgement forms what he calls a ‘horizon of meaning’ which transcends the self.

Well, which is it? Or is there some third possibility between them? What would an example of a fully selfless yet fully pagan value?

This week’s question suggested by my friend V.M., in Switzerland. By the way: I have a list of future questions planned, but feel free to email me with suggestions!

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