I recently read Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Henry was a man of war, and, in portraying him sympathetically, Shakespeare tends to glorify the courage and sacrifice of warriors while downplaying the horrors they inflict.  Shakespeare’s Henry shows a bit of ambivalence about the slaughter for which he is responsible, but on the whole seems to regard it favorably.  Was Shakespeare somewhat nationalistic in providing a relatively favorable account of this popular English king?  I suspect he was.

This is not to say that the play isn’t beautifully written and often thought-provoking.  One passage that prompted me to reflect was the following, spoken by the Dauphin, son of the king of France:  “Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.”  (Henry V, 2.4:73, 74)  The Dauphin is addressing his father here, encouraging him to respond forcefully to the English ambassador, who has brought the message that Henry regards himself the legitimate claimant to the French throne.  By advocating self-love, the Dauphin is not advising that the king like himself or have high self-regard (things we associate with self-love), but that he look after his interests.  He is encouraging his father to defend his crown against the English.  Self-neglecting—failing to look after his interests—would supposedly be the greater sin.

I’m not sure how self-love was regarded at the end of the 16th century, when the play was written.  I do know that in the 17th century Pascal and La Rochefoucauld condemned “l’amour propre”—self love—as the root of most human evil.  I’m not competent to analyze in any depth what Pascal and La Rochefoucauld meant by amour propre, but, whatever else the term connoted, it certainly involved favoring oneself and one’s welfare at the expense of others.  It was putting oneself first, as the Dauphin wanted the king to do.  La Rochefoucauld wrote the following about amour propre:

“Self-love is the love of the self and of all things for the self; it makes men idolaters of themselves, and would make them the tyrants of others, if fortune gave them the means. It never rests outside oneself, but only stops in others as bees stop on flowers, to take from them what is proper to it.” Maxims I.2

So, do we 21st century Americans think about self-love more like Shakespeare’s Dauphin does or like La Rochefoucauld does?   Do we view pursuing our self-interest as preferable to neglecting it, or do we regard pursuing our own interests as self-idolatry, harmful to both us and others?  To state the question in terms of ethical theory, do we tend to believe in normative egoism—the view that people ought to do that which is in their self-interest—or do we prefer other bases for making ethical choices?

Though I have no definitive answer to that question, my work with clients gives me some insights. As a psychotherapist, I have occasion to discuss with people their ethical theories–how they believe they should act.  There are quite a few advocates of self-interest among my clientele, though there are fewer who practice it consistently.  Quite a few clients have told me that they think they should take more of a self-interested stance with others.  Examples include a woman who thinks she should break up with her boyfriend because he never wants the relationship to progress beyond dating, a woman who wants to stop providing financial support for an unemployed adult son, and another woman who is convinced she should stop doing work assigned to co-workers and confine herself to tasks within her job description.  Of course, the reason that these issues come up is that the clients are conflicted over them.  They believe they should be more self-serving than they are, but on the other hand can’t stand to hurt the boyfriend or have the son struggle financially or watch co-workers flounder.  The clients don’t usually say they are helping others because of a duty to do so.   Instead, they advocate normative egoism but their behavior is more altruistic than they want it to be.  Some feel guilty that they aren’t looking after their own interests better; as the Dauphin stated, self-neglect seems to them the greater sin.  Then again, some have guilt not only because they aren’t taking care of themselves very well but also because they aren’t more helpful to others.  They’re truly stuck, always mindful that they aren’t doing right by someone.

Not everyone I talk to about such matters is struggling to be a better egoist.  I see clients look after their own self-interest quite well, sometimes to the detriment of those around them.  I seldom hear such persons expressing any sort of obligation to be more helpful to others.  Whatever problems they may have, the egoism vs. altruism conflict doesn’t trouble them.  I suspect that they would regard the Dauphin’s statement as obvious; they gladly practice self-love, and aren’t tempted by the sin of self-neglect.

For my part (and at times this comes up in my conversations with clients), I think the choice between looking after my interests and looking after the interests of others is a false dilemma.  The self I become when I habitually pursue self-interest and neglect the needs of those around me is a much-diminished self, one that is miserly and mean-spirited.  In contrast, contributing to the well-being of others usually contributes to my own flourishing.  I probably won’t flourish, though, if my motive for helping others is self-serving.  I also won’t flourish if I have no concern at all for my welfare, since that would imply that others are valuable enough to care for, but I’m not.  Simultaneously pursuing both my interests and the interests of others seems to me to be more loving of both self and others than does focusing just on my interests, or just on theirs.

That being said, I have to admit that attending to my needs comes naturally to me, but attending to the needs of others takes more work.  Thus, I need to be intentional about being aware of what would be helpful to others, but don’t have to give too much thought to what would benefit me.   It is sometimes said that we can’t love others if we don’t love ourselves.  As someone who finds the pursuit of self-interest rather easy, I think the aphorism should be reversed; I can only love myself in the fullest sense if I also love others.