Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Self-love and self-seeking

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 agapĂȘ 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.


sgirgis said...


I like the excerpt. I have only this to add. I was puzzled when I first read Aristotle seeming to suggest that the distinction between (proper) self-love and self-seeking is just this: the former involves loving the truest or best part of oneself (nous), and the latter mere gratification of the lower part (appetitive). (I might be fudging the details, but that was the gist of it.)

Then I started to ask myself whether that was true, and it seemed to line up rather well: hoarding goods to relieve anxiety or insecurity, saying or doing things for the satisfactions of fame and fortune -- these are all selfish. Whereas striving for one's own virtue, fixing one's own spiritual or professional affairs, seeking marriage, etc., are variously self-oriented but not selfish.

I began to wonder about this later. It's clear that you can strive too much for your own virtue, in what becomes a kind of self-preening or moral athleticism. But maybe the problem with that is not selfishness, but simply that it will fall short of its own (worthy) goal, because inherent to virtue is a certain kind of regard and service to others? But doesn't it seem that one can be a megalomaniac in striving for ideals, not just sensory gratifications?

Anyway, setting those concerns aside, here is one way that perhaps what I've said above (that Aristotle said) lines up with what you say in the excerpt: reasons are universal, and sensory inclinations (desires, feelings, urges) are, just as such, particular. So to act to realize the first, whether in oneself or in others, is to choose under a non-selfish aspect (because the good that one is realizing is a rational good, or the good of a person, or whatever); whereas to act primarily in response to the latter is to choose under a selfish aspect (because it is *this*, one's *own* good).

Does this make any sense?

James Bejon said...

I like a lot of this. But for my part I think I'm dubious about the extent to which a verse like Lev 19.18 is saying anything positive or instructive about 'self-love' at all. I think I probably just take it as meaning something like, "You do in fact care a great deal about what happens to you. Now show the same degree of care for the well-being of others". As such, I see Lev 19.10 as boiling down to something like Jesus' commandment in the sermon on the mount: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt 7.12). (Consider the way Jesus later accompanies the commands, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind...Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself", with the claim, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets"--Matt 22.37-40--implying that Jesus has Lev 19.10 in mind in Matt 7.12).

If self-love isn't a good thing, this obviously raises issues as concerns God's self-love. But I think the trinity is relevant in this case. (I know that's an incredibly vague thing to say--I haven't thought this through as yet).

MG said...

Basically: love isn't selfish, and loving yourself doesn't mean being selfish or egotistical.

Chad said...

Dr. Pruss,

Robert Adams has some insightful things to say about self-love in A Theory of Virtue, ch. 7.

Matthew said...

Dr Pruss,

The Great Commandment doesn’t command self-love but presupposes it.

For if I do not already know the way in which I love myself, a commandment to love my neighbor as myself is not very informative. The limited information it would provide is just that my love for myself and my love for my neighbor should in some respect be the same. But that information is not sufficient to make obeying the commandment possible. Either I would have to know (a) how I ought to love my neighbor or (b) how I ought to love myself. Your reading seems to suggest that we already know (a) prior to the commandment and learn about (b) through the Great Commandment. But this is a peculiar and unnatural reading of the Great Commandment.

Chad said...


I'm not so sure that a proper love for oneself and a proper love for one's neighbor are as distinct as you suggest. The idea that "my love for myself and my love for my neighbor should in some respect be the same" is by no means "limited information; on the contrary, I think it's a profound insight into the nature of love as essentially relational. Consider Adams' remarks here:

“A healthy concern for one’s own good can hardly develop without a social context, and can be admired as a broadly social motive….caring for your own good is something you may do for other people, or at least partly so.” Adams’ claim is supported by hordes of research in developmental psychology. See Adams, A Theory of Virtue(Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 180. Cf. “Really excellent self-love must be integrated with unselfcentered concerns. In this way it…must be integrated with concern for the good of persons.” “Caring for one’s own good can be involved in the most excellent ways of being for the most excellent sorts of community.” Idem., pp. 76, 109, respectively.

Matthew said...

Chad, I’m not claiming that it isn’t profound whether the way in which I should love my neighbor is like the way in which I should love myself. The answer may be just as profound as you think. My claim is that it is insufficient to make following the Great Commandment possible.