The following are excerpts from my book manuscript on love, which I am now revising. Comments (whether substantive or stylistic) are welcome. The setting for the puzzle below is Paul's observation in 1 Cor. 13 that love does not seek its own:
There is, however, a special puzzle in the case of love of oneself. The command in Leviticus (19:18) to love one’s neighbor as oneself is a seminal text, including for the Christian Scriptures which quote it frequently (Mt. 5:43, 19:19, 22:39, Mk. 12:31-33, Lk. 10:27, Rom. 13:9, Gal. 5:14, James 2:8). But how can love of oneself not be self-seeking? One answer could be that Paul is giving us a general quality of love: love focuses us on the beloved. In the special case where the beloved is oneself, this calls for a focus on self, but that is not the result of a general quality of love, but of the particularity of the beloved in this form of love. But there may be a deeper way to understand how a love of oneself can be non-self-seeking, and we will come to that in Section 2.9.
2.9. Love of oneself and self-seeking
We saw that we need to distinguish the reasons for loving someone from the reasons for having a particular form of love for someone. The reasons for loving need not vary from beloved to beloved. My son, my wife, my sister, my father, my friend and my enemy is each a human being created in the image and likeness of God, and this calls out for a response of love. So I can love each of my neighbors for the very same reason. But the different forms that the love should take are each justified by different reasons. I love my son with a paternal love that includes a certain kind of authority because he is my son and because he is young. I love my friend with a friendly love perhaps because of our shared history of companionship.
This offers us a speculative way to see how Paul’s observation (1 Cor. 13:15) that agapê does not seek its own might apply to self-love. Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics IX.4 observes that good people have the same kinds of reasons for loving themselves as they do for loving others: namely, they can love themselves for their character. At same time, Aristotle seems to think that thoroughly corrupt individuals have no reason to love themselves, and indeed do not. Aristotle was wrong in thinking that there was no reason to love the thoroughly corrupt—they, too, are people—but the idea that virtuous persons love themselves for the same reason that they love others is compelling.
This then offers a way in which well-ordered love of oneself is not self-seeking. When Francis virtuously loves himself, i.e., Francis, he does not love Francis because Francis is himself, but he loves Francis because Francis is a human being in the image and likeness of God. Or, at least, he does not primarily love Francis for being himself, but primarily loves him for the attributes that Francis shares with all other humans. Virtuous people love their neighbors as themselves. Conversely, they love themselves as they love their neighbors, namely for the same kind of reason. And in this sense the love is not self-seeking, since although the beloved is oneself, the beloved is loved primarily for reasons for which one loves one’s neighbor rather than for being oneself.
At the same time, love for oneself has a different form from love for another, just as love for one’s friend and love for one’s father have different forms. Perhaps the most important is that one’s relationship with oneself involves a kind of authority that one’s relationship with one’s friend or parent do not have: I can require sacrifices of myself that I have no right to require of a friend or parent. Another is that correlative with this authority over oneself there is a special responsibility for one’s moral development, going beyond that which one has for a friend or parent’s, and more akin to, though perhaps going further than, one’s responsibility for one’s children’s moral development.