Egocentrism and Narcissism

There are two conflicting views of the world, one that I will call egocentric and another that I will call narcissistic. Both of these views have associated urges – deep-rooted reasons related to the functioning of our minds that might drive us to instinctively adopt one view or the other. These views seem to me to have some explanatory power in the realm of politics, as they affect how we view the world. Everyone engages with both of these views to some degree, but I think each end of the political spectrum favours one over the other.

The egocentric urge comes from the need to connect with and understand others, and from our limited ability to comprehend the inner workings of other minds. When we try to understand the lives of others, we do not imagine being them, rather we imagine being in their place. Thinking in this way suggests to us that a person and their place can be separated, and that therefore place is not an integral component of a person. We might imagine having someone else’s physical traits, or their wealth or whatever else, but to imagine having their tendencies and their values and their thoughts is somewhat beyond us. This kind of thinking therefore suggests to us that a persons mind is the only innate part of their being, and also that all minds are very similar to our own.

The narcissistic urge comes from the need to justify ones own existence, it is innate to us all as a source of self-worth. We find the most useful source of self-worth to be the virtues we possess that others lack, as a virtue held by everyone is of little value. We try to find points of distinction, ways to distinguish ourselves, and this is inherently judgemental. As it is incredibly unlikely that we are the best in the world on any given axis, this judgement often leads to separating people into groups, those who are exceptional in the same ways as us and those who are not. If we consider ourselves particularly intelligent we will divide the world into smart and stupid, if we think of ourselves as driven and successful we divide the world into winners and losers. If we are really pushed to find exceptional traits in ourselves we might reverse the process and find groups to which we belong that are in some way exceptional. We might decide that our skin colour or our gender or our nationality confer to us some superiority over members of other groups. The narcissistic view is inherently divisive. It is of course not the only source of division, and it is both causally responsible for and reinforced by division.

The narcissistic view conceptualises virtue, or lack thereof, as being part of a person. Virtue is how we judge people and how we differentiate between groups of people. These thoughts suggest to us that a person cannot be separated from their virtues, and that therefore virtues are innate or inherent.

In the egocentric view, I am my own model for understanding other people, and so, intuitively, I seem strictly average. It implies to me that I am near the center of any given bell curve of human variation. Of course in reality it is hugely unlikely that I am average in every measurable way. In the narcissistic view, those traits by which we separate different groups come to dominate our thinking about them. The traits of the group come to define the individuals within the group. Where the egocentric view places us at the center of every bell curve, the narcissistic view assigns each group its own bell curve, non overlapping with the curves of other groups. Subtle trends become unconditional definitions. These views affect how we perceive the scope and scale of differences between ourselves and other people.

The egocentric view sees the world as driven entirely by chance. Since, under this view, all people are like me, and yet there is so much variation in wealth, fortune, happiness, all of this variation must be explained wholly by circumstance. The narcissistic view does not exclude the role of circumstance, but it seeks to explain success and failure by the virtues of the successful and the faults of the unsuccessful. The narcissistic view makes circumstance seem inherent to the person, their place of birth, their skin colour, their personal traits, all these are to the credit or disgrace of the person. These things must be thought inherent in order to maintain the idea that our own virtues are inherent, and thus to our credit.

The egocentric urge is about being part of a collective. The narcissistic urge is about being part of an elite collective.

The egocentric view will tend to lead to an optimistic view of humanity, assuming we have a reasonably positive view of ourselves. Ignoble acts are driven by untoward circumstances and evil only exists to the degree to which we see it in ourselves. The narcissistic view may lead to a pessimistic view of humanity, all of our collective failings are the result of inherently flawed or malicious individuals. In this view our personal virtues are not shared with all of humanity, rather we are divided into noble and ignoble persons, and often we, as part of the elite, are greatly outnumbered by cretins and fools.

The ends of the political spectrum are, I posit, divided on their preference between these worldviews. The left prefers the egocentric worldview, increasingly as a reaction to the right, whom they perceive to be unfair and elitist. The egocentric view appeals to the left because it appears to be egalitarian and non-judgemental. The right favours the narcissistic worldview. These views are relevant to the realm of politics because they colour our perception of the world and the people who inhabit it. In the egocentric view, we think all people are as decent and thoughtful as we are, and so the problems of the world must be caused by the faults we can see in ourselves, however minor. In the narcissistic view we are better than many other people and the worlds problems are caused by those who lack our virtues. The egocentric view tends to diminish the role of legitimately malicious agents, or seeks to explain them away, the narcissistic view blinds us to our own faults. The egocentric look inwards for blame, into their own society or behaviour, the narcissistic look outwards, beyond their own society, or into clearly delineated segments of it.

Both viewpoints are naive in their own ways, clearly not all people are equally good, at least not by every metric, but neither are our own virtues the only valuable ones, nor are they inherent to us. And we should not confuse minimal judgement with fairness of judgement. I think there is a fear among those on the left that any judgement of people starts you down the road to the same undeserved sense of superiority that enables racism, sexism, nationalism. The egocentric view, combined with this fear of judgment, leads to a conception of all people as not only equal, but identical.

Abstaining from judgement is not ideal if we seek the betterment of our world by some metric. Of course, we should not judge merely in order to glorify ourselves or denigrate others. In pursuit of our goals, and to decide them most clearly to begin with, we should judge as dispassionately, as rationally and as objectively as we are able.

Both views offer some utility in understanding and modeling reality. The egocentric view invites the thought experiment, “What would I do in their situation?” which is often a reasonable approximation for “What will they do in their situation?”. In situations where that thought experiment will not produce a reasonable approximation, especially when our interests are opposed, focusing on the differences between us can provide valuable insight, even if we perceive them, inaccurately, as innate differences. Can we do better than this? Is there a third view? Perhaps not, at least, not while retaining the concept of personhood. A person is defined by the boundaries between them and the world. Buddhists might insist the boundaries are arbitrary and fictional, and they may well be right. Unfortunately, this view, that there are no boundaries between people or between a person and the world, is likely of little utility in day to day life. As active agents in the world, we must have some functional, simplified abstraction for understanding other agents. Perhaps the best we can do is to acknowledge the shortcomings of the modes of thought we adopt, to scrutinise our motivations for adopting them, and to constantly tune our thoughts towards objectivity as much as possible within these limitations.

I have long been keenly aware of the tendency I have towards the narcissistic view, and how often it is merely an emotional reaction. Its effects are obvious and so easily avoided. The egocentric view is more subtle. It feels intuitively like a more objective view and so its effects often go unnoticed. Both of these modes of thought invoke our selves as a point of reference, and so are highly subjective. A more objective view would eschew the self and look in a more detached way at reality, to look at other people without either the urge to judge or the urge to connect.

“further, when your talk is about mankind, view earthly things as if looking down from some point high above – flocks, armies, farms, weddings, divorces, births, deaths, the hub-bub of law courts, desert places, various foreign nations, festivals, funerals, markets; all the medley of the world and the ordered conjunction of opposites”

-Marcus Aurelius

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