Ego and other possibilities


The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.



Today, people are marching in support of science. It is Earth Day. Being a scientist herself, Dr. Bossypants hastens to make her avid and complete support of scientific inquiry crystal clear. Of course, Dr. Bossypants’s branch of science is often called behavioral science, or more broadly, social science. There are complications to deal with in even the simplest science experiments. Was the beaker clean? Is the flame the same temperature this time? Did someone bump the petri dish? But then, step out of the nice, clean, laboratory, with conditions as controlled as possible. Step into the hustle/bustle, bazillion-facetted, multidimensional, wildly spinning natural world, and things get exponentially more difficult. Then, throw in humans, likely the most complex, loving/hating, honest/duplicitous, creative/doltish species yet known on earth, and one might be quite justified in saying, “OH MY.”

Humans fool other people every day. And admit it readers, you fool yourselves every day as well. After many years of study, Dr. Bossypants knows that humans are a posturing, phony, frightened bunch of loving, generous, often-well-intended creatures. A quick Google search tells us that science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” To date, science is one of our proudest human accomplishments. It is the endeavor we undertake to STOP FOOLING OURSELVES. While we cannot guarantee absolute objectivity, we have become smart enough to admit it, and to bracket our values and beliefs in the service of discovery–discovery of replicable facts and truth.

People, listen up. This is important. Yes, scientific findings occasionally fall prey to politically-motivated interpretations. If you suspect this is the case, you must ask yourself what the motive might be for the false or skewed interpretation. Dr. Bossypants believes that the earth (and life on earth) is in terrible trouble, primarily from human failure to keep things clean and neat—human failure to pay attention to and learn from nature’s way of doing things. Why would someone be motivated to do false science, or question basic results about coal, oil, pesticides, and so on? Humans can be quite greedy and lazy. Is it more profitable to continue extractive industries? Is it easier? Profit and ease are powerful human motivators.

Are those nut-case tree-huggers, those Greenpeace radicals, those everyday environmentalist-composter-organic-buying-solar-panel extremists being made vastly richer by their actions and beliefs? Are their lives made easier? By their actions and beliefs, are they endangering your lungs? Increasing your chances of getting cancer? True, they might be messing with your pocketbook—but they are messing with their own as well. There are prices to be paid. Ultimately, we will not avoid a steep payback to earth. We can begin the payments now, and perhaps have something nice to hand down to the kids. Or we can let our children make the excruciating payments that will, by then, be so overdue it might be tragically impossible to pay, and earth herself will reluctantly have to foreclose on the human race.

Go Earth Day. Hang in there Science. Dr. Bossypants says this: Fellow humans, contain your greed and fear as best you can. Strive to be honest with yourselves and others. If you sense you are being played, as yourselves what the hidden motives might be. Have the courage to change allegiances when the facts line up. Denial feels great. It is our deadliest drug.


(Thanks to the internet for the image and the definition)

Ethics. Bioethics. Health Care. Oh My.

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Being human, we’re accustomed to eating contradictions for breakfast. Even if we eat little else. We intend to behave quite a bit better than we usually do, and we squabble over what it means to be moral, or to live a good, fulfilling, worthy life.

Even if we agree on a moral rule, or make a law, we might observe the rule or obey the law for radically different reasons, or break the law for reasons we believe to be moral. Yes, indeed, dear readers. Dr. Bossypants knows it’s difficult to sort this all out, even though she has tried mightily to blog about morality and ethics in a most intriguing and approachable manner. Now, we have one more lens through which we might view moral decision-making, and then a bit of a summary, so those of you determined to put these ethical thoughts into ethical actions might do so. Right away. Please.

In the late 1970s, bioethics became a recognized specialty as hospitals and healthcare providers grappled with ethical decision-making in the increasingly contentious, conflicted, expensive world of healthcare.

Tom Beauchamp and James Childress identified four  guiding principles in the first edition of their influential book Principles of Biomedical Ethics:

  • Autonomy (Human beings should have authority over decisions affecting their health and well-being.)
  • Beneficence (Decisions should be made on the basis of doing good and being of help to others.)
  • Nonmaleficence (People should strive to do no unjustified harm.)
  • Justice (All people should be treated equally and benefits and burdens should be distributed fairly.)

Principles don’t offer concrete answers, but provide a framework to begin the hard work of ethical decision-making in the face of competing needs and limited resources.

Robert Bellah said “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants.”

Listen, dear readers. Right now, we are engaged in a monumental conversation in our culture. We’re talking health care. Is it a basic human right? If so, how much health care should we make available in a world of apparently limited resources? Who should profit in the provision of health care, and how much profit is justified? Who should pay, and how should that duty be distributed?

Should we provide abortions to those who do not wish to be pregnant? Should we provide viagra to those who wish to have a pharmaceutically-assisted erection? Should we provide a means by which someone suffering, or near death, could choose to die with medical assistance? Oh, the inflammatory and politically-loaded questions just go on and on. They require deep thought. They require wisdom. These matters are seething with ethical quandaries.

Kant reminds us we should never treat people as a means to an end, nor deny anyone rights we would wish for ourselves.

John Stuart Mill reminds us we should choose paths, practices, and laws that insure the greatest possible good (health) for the greatest number.

Aristotle urges us to find the golden mean, the balancing point between excesses. And to be generous, courageous, and prudent.

Feminists remind us of the huge, destructive problems that arise when power is used to abuse others, to deny basic rights, and to enrich the already-rich.

Those who practice relationship-inclusive ethics remind us that we must always consider the direct impact of our actions–and our goal should be to take the most compassionate action possible.

The bioethicists offer us principles to consider, though admittedly these principles might actually conflict with each other sometimes.

We do not live in a perfect world. It is our job to make it better, not to give up in anger or despair. The ability to reason, converse, and find common ground is a human attribute we should treasure. Courage, dear ones. Be good people.

The Feminist Critique


As faithful readers of Dr. Bossypant’s blogs, you may not realize how much restraint she has used writing about the moral/ethical information she has posted thus far. Regardless of the disparate views on ethics and morality summarized to this point, most originally shared a glaring omission. With the exception of the writings of John Stuart Mill, females were ignored, maligned, or “feminine virtue” was defined as women performing well in assigned positions of less influence and authority than their male counterparts. Aristotle believed that females were defective males, and punishment for doing badly as a man might be to come back as a female next time.

Taking his cue from Aristotle, St. Thomas of Aquinas wrote that in women, “reason flourishes very little because of the imperfect nature of their body.”  Freud believed that women lacked superego development, and were therefore morally inferior. Oh, sadly, there’s no shortage of such examples from religious and philosophical writings. For thousands of years with few exceptions, it has been morally permissible, or morally encouraged, to view and treat women as second-class, adjunct, inferior, and/or subjugated to men. As they say these days, Oh.My.God. What a load of hierarchical, wrong-headed bunk.

The truth is, since humans have been scratching ideas out on cave walls, women have been writing moral philosophy and psychology, often from a starting point very different from their male colleagues. But unless you take a course in the history of feminist ethics, the brilliant voices of these philosophers: Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard, Heloise, Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (to name but a few) are likely unfamiliar to you.

Of course, the current versions of the main ethical positions we’ve gone over in previous blogs have become, at least on the surface, gender-neutral. All humans are supposedly included. Further, feminist theorists and ethicists increasingly have a voice in the critique and evolution of moral philosophy.  And arising from Carol Gilligan’s pioneering research and thinking, feminists have added yet another lens through which we can explore and pursue moral lives. We’ll cover that one in the next blog, but for now, let’s consider…

The Feminist Critique

Over thirteen years ago, Harriet Woods wrote:

It is true that we still are far from fully represented in decision-making bodies and that politics remain a male game; but that’s no excuse for failing to use the power we have to make this a more livable world.

Dr. Bossypants is very disappointed to report that we still have a great deal of work to do to make this a more livable world.

In a word, the feminist critique of most traditional theories of morality is power.  Margaret Urban Walker wrote, “The most obvious way feminist ethics and politics connect morality and power is in examining the morality of specific distributions and exercises of power.”

The moral use of power is a complicated endeavor. This may come as a shock to you, but we don’t tend to select leaders based on their overall moral fiber. In an ideal world, those entrusted with power would be the more virtuous among us, and thereby freer from corruption, bias, and self-serving practices. The reality with which most of us are familiar is quite the opposite. The more power someone has to influence others and the social order, the more susceptible they become to misuse of the power.

Access to shared power is a global moral issue. In Beijing, at the UN Conference for women in 1995, Madeleine Albright stated, “Enter any community in any country, and you will find women insisting—often at great risk—on their right to an equal voice and equal access to the levers of power.” Still true. Still tragically costly. Holy ****, so very, very costly. Ok. Calm down, Dr. Bossypants. Social change take a very long time, requiring enormous sacrifice, enduring many regressions and backlashes….

So, dear reader, what is your experience with and attitude toward power? Have you seen individuals wield power in mostly positive ways or mostly negative ways? The need for power (or recognition or achievement) is a natural human need. Is it possible that racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” originate in the fear of loss of power? What is it like for you when you have power over others? What do you think is necessary so that power does not have a corrupting effect on people?

At this point in our “his” story, the earth is screaming for some answers and some new ways of being. We owe it to our species to get this figured out a bit better.

Character and Virtue


As promised, Dr. Bossypants is now going to drag all willing readers through a whirlwind of simplified moral philosophy. Why? Because it is GOOD to think about these things. And you can impress your relatives with some of the big words. And frankly, there’s a chance we’re regressing a bit on the moral front these days…

There are many ways to approach morality and we won’t cover them all. After dipping into a few, you might even want to make up your own theory or moral code. Potential ingredients will be readily available in my next three or four blogs.

For today, we’re talking character. How would we define a good person, and what does it take to become one? A lot of very smart people have taken a run at this, but Aristotle (born 384 B.C.) gets credit for a very thorough effort.

Aristotle believed that humans are meant to grow into their full potential, which will bring about what he called eudaimonia (roughly translated as so f**ing happy and fulfilled that you and everyone around you thrives. We can trust each other. You know who you are and why you were born. Life is good.).

So how do we achieve this state of happiness?  By becoming what we are meant to be, which absolutely includes being virtuous. You know how good you feel when you make yourself do something loving even if you don’t want to? Well, Aristotle believed: 1) Each of us has unique potential to contribute positively to society as adults, and 2) To be fully human is to be virtuous.

So what’s virtue? It’s the sweet spot between extremes. Truthfulness is a virtue, situated between boasting and false modesty. Courage is a virtue, situated between cowardice and being rashly stupid. Generosity is a virtue situated between being stingy and giving so much away you impoverish yourself (or giving to show off, rather than giving from a generous heart). You get the drift. I love the following (paraphrased) Aristotle observation, and use it regularly to help John with his public speaking:

Those who try to be too funny are thought to be vulgar buffoons, trying for a laugh at all costs…even to the point of hurting others. But those who can’t tell a joke, or won’t laugh kindly at someone else’s joke are uptight and socially inept. Those who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted. They are flexible, and such flexibility reveals character.

How do you become virtuous? You choose it, and you practice. You emulate people who embody the virtue you are practicing. And you ride herd on your nonvirtuous impulses. You may find it difficult to be kind and nonjudgmental in the morning. Do it anyway. Over time, it gets easier. You may be tempted to tell lies. Don’t.

If Aristotle’s thoughts were reduced to bumper stickers, they might include: Hang in there; Moderation in all things; and Be all you can be. Good character doesn’t just happen. It’s a constant challenge.  He wrote, “…the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature.  Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit.”

Humans often lack willpower.  Doing the right thing is not always simple or easy. Some philosophers believe that if we deeply and completely know what is right, we will always do it, but frankly, I doubt it. Humans are famously able to rationalize their actions when they know the right thing to do, but fail to do it. This is called moral incontinence.

Although losing control and pooping your moral pants isn’t admirable, from an Aristotelian point of view, it is not as bad as deliberate wrong-doing. There is a significant difference between the person who knows what is right, intends to do it, but is overcome by fear or desire, and a person who intentionally pursues excessive gain or lies repeatedly. Someone who intentionally chooses to do the wrong thing to get quick gratification or self-gain has little hope of becoming virtuous, little hope of becoming deeply happy or fulfilled. And rather than contributing to the good of society, is likely to have the opposite effect.

There you go. Virtue ethics is about the person, not necessarily a given action. It is about choice and practice. That’s character ethics in a nutshell. Dr. Bossypants hopes you will google character or virtue ethics (or even break down and read a book) and thus expand your understanding of this particular way to think about morality. Remember. It is GOOD to think about these things.