I had a friend who’s favorite saying was that ego is our most expensive vice. It seems an odd statement given the fact that we usually don’t think of ego as a vice. Vice is generally defined as having to do with immorality or moral failing. But really, what is morality, and why is something moral or immoral?
Examples of vice include everything from drinking to excess, sexual promiscuity, abuse of drugs, and gambling, to smoking cigarettes. The vice squad in police departments usually target prostitutes and illegal gambling operations. So in some respects, we know what vice is when we see it, but why is something a vice?
When you look at the examples we have above, they seem to all have in common that they give us short-term pleasure at the expense of our long-term good will. For example, drinking to excess might make us feel good for an evening. But the next day, we will pay the price. Nevermind the impact that getting drunk has on our weight, our health, our mental acuity. But really, the harm caused by drinking to excess goes beyond all this.
I’m no prude and I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine. The problem seems to arise when somebody relies upon alcohol to forget reality. Alcohol can become a crutch we use to avoid facing our difficulties. That’s when use of alcohol becomes abuse, and it becomes a problem.
Similarly, drugs can be used to avoid facing our problems with an open mind. They can become a means of ignoring the challenges that are our opportunities to learn. Drugs can be quite useful for people struggling with medical problems, even mental or emotional problems. But when they become a means of ignoring our challenges we need to get worried.
We can understand sexual promiscuity in the same way. Consider this. Someone engaging in promiscuous behavior is often looking for a way to avoid a serious relationship with another person. By turning love as we have described it above into something purely mechanical, we are turning our backs on the opportunities for growth a serious relationship can offer us. I would submit that promiscuous behavior is often engaged in by people who are afraid of the commitment that a true relationship will entail. It is that commitment that will lead to the love and expansion of our ego boundaries that will help lead us to faith. Sure, sex can be a beautiful, wonderful, and let’s face it, fun thing. But there is a reason that sex is best when it’s with someone you love. That reason is that the sexual contact becomes one of the many tools you as a couple use to communicate your love and commitment. Separating sex from love makes it a short-term pleasure without the growth that comes when it is paired with a committed relationship.
You may say “no harm, no foul.” But in fact, as with drugs and alcohol, there is a long-term danger associated with sexual promiscuity as well. We can certainly talk about sexually transmitted diseases, but this risk is actually superficial compared to the bigger risk it creates. By treating another person as a means to satisfy our animal instinct rather than as another human being we are connecting with, we are actually dehumanizing that other person and making ourselves less open to commitment with another. Feminists have long pointed out how women can be objectified sexually, making it so men may believe that women are nothing more than a tool for their own pleasure. At its most extreme, rape has been described as a crime of violence, not of sex. So ultimately what makes sexual promiscuity harmful is that it becomes a means of us turning in toward ourselves rather than expanding ourselves to embrace our connection with others. In this way, we are closing ourselves off to God.
That is the true harm that all vices create in our lives. Rather than assisting us in turning outward toward our connection to all living beings, they turn us inward, caring more about our personal short-term pleasure rather than the lessons we can learn from our challenges and our relationships. This is the thread that all vices have in common.
Since vices are defined as moral failings, then, we can define immorality as being when we turn inward toward our own short-term wants rather than turning outward to the almighty. Therefore, since God is love and love is the connection all living beings have to each other, and immorality is the act of turning our backs on that connection, immorality is in effect the act of turning our backs on God.
Earlier we described how love is the act of extending your ego boundaries to include another. If that is the case, then the opposite of love is reducing our ego boundaries to our own short term wants and excluding others from our ego boundaries. In that way, when we focus on our own ego, therefore, we are committing a vice, turning our backs on the almighty.
I think when my friend called ego the most expensive vice, he was referring to the fact that the best employers are those who empower their employees to do their best. I think he was referring to the fact that the best bosses try to hire people who are smarter then they are and who will challenge their ideas. Employers who expect everyone to sit around the office stroking the boss’s ego will find that they do not get the best work out of their employees. In that way, ego is certainly an expensive vice.
But if we consider what vice is, and that it is a turning away from God toward our own selfish wants, ego is in effect the definition of a vice. Indeed, as we move forward on our quest, we will find that ego will be the primary barrier standing in our way to faith. We will see again and again that the challenges we face are all aimed at teaching us the lesson that we need to subsume our ego to our connection to the almighty. It is only then that we will have achieved the goal of our life.