Literally since childhood, I’ve been concerned about ethical issues involving ego or egoism in a plain ordinary dictionary sense. This involves a number of related aspects. At the grossest level, there is selfishness and arrogance. Beyond that, there are many kinds and degrees of self-centeredness. At the subtle end of the spectrum, there are various kinds of self-involvement that impair our attention to the concerns of others. What these all have in common is that with varying degrees of seriousness, they result in failures of reciprocity in social relationships, failures to apply the golden rule. As a young person, this led me to investigate various spiritual teachings about ego and self and what to do with them. This still stands as a backdrop to my philosophical interest in questions related to subjectivity, and in related questions of historical interpretation.
Philosophically, ego in the ordinary sense is not at all the same thing as a Subject, but the two are commonly confounded. Both are problematic, and require careful handling. Modern common-sense views of such things most often implicitly reflect a very specific historical “mentalist” philosophical view shared by Descartes and Locke, which tends to simply identify the two. In my view, this identification of ego-self-subject-mind as one simple thing is utterly wrong, and makes it impossible to adequately address the serious issues with each separate concept.
Historically, the rise of Cartesian-Lockean mentalism was closely tied to the rise of possessive individualism, of which Locke, along with Hobbes, was one of the main theorists (see Rights). This gave egoism in the ordinary sense a new kind of respectability that it did not have in premodern society. On this theory, people could claim ethical justification for egoistic behavior, and claim additional support from theories like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This created a further slippery slope, leading to all manner of extensions and abuses of these principles that Locke or Smith would not have condoned. (See also Desire of the Master; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)
In sound ethics, reciprocity comes before self. This does not imply any extreme self-denial, just appropriate consideration of others, who should give the same consideration to us. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Individuation; What Is “I”?)