The Nature of Self

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “There Are No One-ended Sticks,” I quoted Gerald N. Lund saying, “Our metaphysics (our view of reality) influences our epistemology (the way we gain knowledge), and together the two determine our axiology (our values).”1 Researcher Renée Beckwith expands on this idea when she discusses two major and conflicting currents or paradigms in psychology. Both currents can be traced back to a few basic assumptions that determine our perception of the nature of self, how we know things, our definitions of autonomy and freedom, our concept of morality, and our primary intents in life. Whether our perception jibes with revealed truth will greatly affect our development and eternal destiny. (The following discussion of these five areas relies heavily on Beckwith’s thesis, and I am indebted to her for her insights.)

The first current of psychology can be called a lot of things, depending on what field of study is addressing them. For our purposes, we will use Beckwith’s focus: Self-interest and Other-interest.2 Both paradigms can be traced back to their concept of selfhood.


In the first paradigm, “everyone … is not seen as related to others in inextricable or intrinsic ways. … Every person is individualistic … and atomistic.”3 That is, a “self” is by definition detached and separate from other selves. A self, by nature, is completely distinct from other selves, and in a way, is only coincidentally inhabiting the same universe as other selves. “These conceptions of the self isolate the individual from personal relationships and larger social forces.”4This paradigm not only sees “the individual as a free and rational chooser and actor—an autonomous agent,”4 it also views “one’s detachment and separateness from others as a necessary precondition in doing so.”2


In the second paradigm, one self is created by the presence of the other. In a way, a self cannot be unless there is another self that it is not. Thus, all selves inherently imply the existence of another self, and thus all selves are intrinsically part of each other, on at least that level. Nancy Chodorow, for example, “focuses on challenging the self-subsisting self with its sharp self-other boundaries. Chodorow’s claim that the self is inextricable from interpersonal relationships calls into question … decontextualized individualism.”4

Some philosophers have used, as a hypothetical illustration, a parable of a person in the jungle prior to any experience of another human being. As he forages for food, he has no consciousness of self, for he has met no other. It is only in the encounter of another person that the self comes into being, and thus it comes into being in a relationship of some kind. Because self only appears in the presence of the other, there is no such thing as a self that is not in relation to others. Emmanuel Levinas argued that this primordial relationship is not defensive or self-interested, but rather a relationship of ethical obligation to the Other, who is now the well-spring of your personhood. Dr. Gantt and Dr. Williams explain:

Levinas suggests that our beings, our identities as individuals, are emergent in the concrete relation with the other. In other words, our life comes to have meaning and take on character only insofar as we first respond to the other and our fundamental relatedness to him or her. Furthermore, this relationship is immediately, and primordially one of obligation. Life is a being-for-the-other.6

Thus, when asked the question, “What makes me a ‘me’?” from this perspective, the answer is “You.”

Our relatedness is reflected in the moral sense selves have toward others. “What I do for my own good is necessarily also good for my unit. . . . In respecting the other, the self is simultaneously respected.”5 Thus, what is (genuinely) good for another is good for me, and one self’s (genuine) happiness does not require that another self’s happiness be diminished.


The most immediate and practical application of this second paradigm of the self can be summarized in six words: joy is not a finite commodity. We are not required to contrast our self-interests against the needs of others, as we would be in an egocentric worldview. In an egocentric worldview, service to another is profitable only insomuch as they reciprocate in some way by serving you. This egocentric assumption can be seen in social scientist’s search for the motivation of altruistic behavior; they most often look for benefits reciprocated by the other person as the primary source of motivation. Thus, an egocentric worldview automatically reduces genuine altruism to a sophisticated kind of self-interest. However, in an other-centered worldview, this reduction of altruistic behavior is not necessary—we can act out of genuine interest for others, and that interest can be even more primordial than self-interest.

On an eternal scale, consider the nature of the ultimate fulfillment: eternal life. As our deepest individual needs do not conflict with those of others, it makes sense that one person’s eternal life does not rule out or limit another’s eternal life. Exaltation and eternal life can be extended to as many people as desire it, without ever reaching a shortfall. Contrast this with Lucifer’s plan. He considered the highest state of fulfillment to require that he be exalted above everyone else; his paradigm made no allowance for sharing his fulfillment with others. Another’s exaltation necessarily diminished his own, and it chafed him to think that he could never experience a uniquely solitary kind of eternal life unavailable to anyone else. If only he had accepted the truth that, since his existence and fate were inextricably bound up in the existence and fate of others, their joy did not compete with, but rather augmented his own.


1. Gerald N. Lund, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy,” Ensign, Jul. 1992, p. 16.
2. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003), p. 28.
3. Chou Wah-Shan, Tongzhi (Binghamtown, NY: Haworth), p. 280.
4. Diana Meyers, “Feminist Perspectives on the Self” (1999), in Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 11 Jul. 2003, from
5. D. Lee, Valuing the Self: What We can Learn from Other Cultures (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1986), p. 12.
6. Richard Williams and Ed Gantt, “Pursuing Psychology as Science of the Ethical: Contributions of the Work of Emmanuel Levinas” (Brigham Young University).