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What Is the Ego?

The ego is the part of you that is engaged in self-justification.

Key points

  • Humans live in a context of justification and question-answer dynamics. The ego can be viewed as the mental organ of justification.
  • The ego has both cognitive and motivational functions to justify the self.
  • Understanding the ego can help people avoid conflicts that arise from ego dynamics.

When you clicked on this blog post, perhaps you had the thought: “I think I know what the ego is, but let’s see what this says.” This is a good place to begin to define the ego.

As Mark Leary notes in this blog post on the ego, the most basic meaning of the word ego is that it refers to the “I” that is capable of referencing the self and making decisions. Another related definition of the ego has to do with being self-centered or egotistical. We get the term “narcissism” from the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection. We sometimes will describe narcissists as having "big" egos.

As this brief summary suggests, there are at least two interrelated parts of the ego. One part is that it enables self-reflective awareness and the capacity to justify one’s actions to self and others. In this regard, it relates to the concept of a person. That is, some scholars define a person as an entity that can self-reflect and give accounts for their actions, and it is clear that the cognitive portion of the ego is closely connected to this ability.

But, as the concept of egotism suggests, there is also the motivating portion of the ego. Imagine a rather narcissistic man at the bar who makes a pass at a woman, but gets rebuffed and he returns to his friends and they ask how it went and he replies, “She is into me, but for now is playing hard to get.” This account of the events attempts to reframe them so that he maintains his belief that he is attractive and desirable, even as he was rebuffed. Of course, his friends would likely see through this rationalization and tease him for it. At least we can hope that would happen. Good friends are essential for keeping our egos in check.

The well-known social psychologist Elliot Aronson argues that this motivational force of “self-justification” plays a central role in our lives. He cites the massive literature in cognitive dissonance as being evidence for the strong motivational forces that are in operation as the ego generates defenses.

What is the ego defending? Aronson argues that the ego tries to maintain a consistent, justifiable place in the world. In the excellent book, Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, Aronson and his co-author Carol Tarvis recount the many and varied ways the ego works to justify one’s place in the world. They give examples of politicians, lawyers, and everyday people tangling themselves in knots trying to justify why they did what they did and why they were not to blame.

Interestingly, they talk about how self-justification can account for both tendencies narcissists have for self-enhancement, as well as people with low self-esteem who diminish their abilities or capacities. The reason has to do with the fact that self-justification is also about maintaining a consistent, justifiable view of one’s self and one's place in the social world. So, people with low self-esteem are looking for a specific kind of evidence to maintain their narrative. It is also the case that people will discount themselves because it justifies them avoiding getting into conflict with others or taking responsibility for leadership.

How the Ego Evolved

Where does the ego and its capacities for self-reflection and tendencies toward self-justification come from? That is, why did it evolve? This is one of the key insights given by the Unified Theory of Knowledge. According to the Unified Theory, the human ego is the “mental organ of justification.” This might sound a bit strange, so let me break it down. A mental organ refers the various systems that make up the mind and all it can do. For example, your eyes and your vision system in the occipital lobe of the brain can be framed as a “mental organ system” that is designed to take in light and translate it into visual images that can guide activity.

In a similar way, the ego is a kind of mental organ in humans. But what did it evolve to do? One way to think about it is that it is the thing that allows you to answer questions from others. Consider this remarkable fact: Humans are the only primate that has ever been known to ask a question. This is quite astonishing when we think about how much of human life is occupied with questions and how to answer them. Questions are everywhere, and they play a huge role in our lives.

But where did questions come from? We can think of questions as the “negative space” that arises from propositional statements. A proposition is a language-based statement that carries meaning. So, if I say, “These berries are good to eat," I have made a propositional statement that carries meaning. Imagine that claim as taking up positive space and now imagine all the possibilities in the negative space around it. For example, maybe those are not berries but red marbles. Or maybe they are not good to eat, but are poisonous. Or even consider the possibility that attention could be directed elsewhere. That is, maybe another person would rather pay attention to flowers rather than berries.

In this way of thinking, we can reframe propositions as being a kind of "answer." That is, by uttering the claim, it is implicitly saying, "pay attention to this and consider its value." Thinking of it as an answer allows us to connect it to questions. Questions are the cognitive gadgets that allow us to label and frame the negative space relative to the "answer" given by the proposition. Let's use a building metaphor. In this way, a proposition can be thought of as a brick. Questions can make that brick unstable. Given that, we can ask: What do you need to do to be able to stabilize the proposition? Similar to a building structure, you need to have a system that can potentially support it.

We can call this "the justification system" that frames the context for propositions and their questions. Such justifications can be explicit, which are necessary if questions arise. For example, if someone asks if those are really berries, one might give the explicit justification as follows: “I can prove these are berries; look cut them open and see.” However, much of the justification system that supports propositions are implicit and generally taken for granted. We can see this in Grice's "conversational maxims." As he noted, we implicitly assume that conversation is framed by the rules of being informative, truthful, relevant, and clear. If these implicit rule are violated, the speaker will likely be explicitly questioned and if no good justification given, then they would be sanctioned (Note: this assumes that questioner has the social power to make this move).

The point here is that propositional language can be questioned and because of that, needs the support of a justification system. This means something very important about persons. Human persons can be said to live on what is called the “Culture-Person” plane of existence. This is the context that frames and constrains human action, which the Unified Theory labels as "the context of justification." Put in this light, we can think of actions and claims of persons as taking up positive space that others could potentially challenge or question. As such, one must be able to support one’s actions and claims with a system of justification.

This brings us full circle, and back understanding what the ego is. It is your interpreter system, and it functions to develop explanations for your actions in the context of justification. Said differently, we can see it as the mental organ of justification, and its job is make sure you are in a justified state of being. But you probably knew that already.

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