My self-love poll revealed that 17 readers of this blog love themselves and 15 don't. (In my class of 25 undergraduates, 24 said they love themselves.)
Why did I ask? Harry Frankfurt's chapter on self-love in The Reasons of Love took me by surprise. He starts by questioning why Kant inveighs against self-love.
When all is said and done, what is so embarrassing or so unfortunate about our propensity to love ourselves? Why should we regard it with any sort of righteous sorrow or distaste, or presume that it is somehow a dreadful obstacle to the attainment of our most proper goals? Why should we think of self-love as being at all an impediment to the sort of life at which we ought reasonably to aim?The surprise was the implication that most people do love themselves. I'd always taken Kant's worries about self-love non-literally. Self-love is nothing more than following one's own inclinations, instead of being obedient to principle. It's not really loving yourself! But Frankfurt, both here and throughout the chapter, takes for granted that people do love themselves. And not in some strange, alternative sense, but in the same sense that they love other people.
So I got to thinking about this. First thought--definitely not. What you feel for a child (love, no doubt about it) is nothing like what you feel for yourself. On second thought, it occurred to me that the truth about this doesn't have to be obvious. You can love something and not know it. For example, the events of 9/11 revealed feelings for the US I really wasn't aware of having. In the weeks and months after that day, I was shocked to discover (me, patriotic?) that I loved my country. So you could find out you love yourself, even if your initial reaction is skeptical.
Frankfurt's story about self-love makes it seem more of a real possibility. Loving another person, he says, is loving what they love. If Sam loves x, y, and z, then loving Sam is loving those things. Don't say "ridiculous" too quickly. There's something to this, even if it's not the whole story about love. (How could it be the whole story? We love little babies, and what do they love?) When you start to love someone, it's true there's a lot of "You love Woody Allen? So do I!!"
But then Frankfurt's account of love entails that loving yourself is just loving whatever you love in the first place. If I love x, y, and z, loving myself is simply loving x, y, and z. Huh?
Initially this does sound vacuous--in fact badly vacuous. But Frankfurt's discussion made me (amazingly enough) like the theory. He asks us to reflect on what it takes to really love x, y, and z. It takes caring about them unambivalently--loving x, and not also hating x. And loving x, but also endorsing that love--being pleased by that love and making sure it continues. In other words, to truly love x, y, and z is to be wholehearted about them. Once you think about what love is, it's not so crazy to think loving yourself just boils down to really loving whatever you love. Self-love turns out to be wholeheartedness, on his account.
Put in that light, maybe self-love is not so weird. The story even comes with some personal advice. Do you spend a lot of time doing things about which you are ambivalent? The Frankfurtian counselor would stay "STOP! Do what you love. Then you'll love yourself." I like it... and love the book.