The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 5

Of Self-Love

BY the term sensitiveness, I have designated the capacity of our nature to derive happiness from the various objects and qualities of the world around us. Though intimately associated with those powers by which we obtain a knowledge of external objects, it differs from them. When a desire for gratification is excited by its appropriate objects, it is termed appetite, passion, etc.

As our means of gratification are various, and are also attended by different effects, there is evidently an opportunity for a choice between them. By declining a gratification at present, we may secure one of greater value at some future time. That which is, at present, agreeable, may be of necessity followed by pain; and that which is, at pres ent, painful, may be rewarded by pleasure which shall fair overbalance it.

Now, it must be evident, to every one who will reflect that my happiness, at any one period of my existence, is just as valuable as my happiness at the present period. No one can conceive of any reason, why the present moment should take the precedence, in any respect, of any other moment of my being. Every moment of my past life was once present, and seemed of special value; but, in the retrospect, all seem, so far as the happiness of each is concerned, of equal value. Each of those to come may, in its turn, claim some pre-eminence; though, now, we plainly discover in anticipation, that no one is more than another entitled to it. Nay, if there be any difference, it is manifestly in favor of the most distant future, in comparison with the present. The longer we exist, the greater is our capacity for virtue and happiness, and the wider is our sphere of existence. To postpone the present for the future, seems, therefore, to be the dictate of wisdom, if we calmly consider the condition of our being.

But, it is of the nature of passion, to seize upon the present gratification, utterly irrespective of consequences, and utterly regardless of other or more excellent gratifications, which may be obtained by self-denial. He whose passions are inflamed, looks at nothing beyond the present gratification. Hence, he is liable to seize upon a present enjoyment, to the exclusion of a much more valuable one in future, and even in such a manner as to entail upon himself poignant and remediless misery. And, hence, in order to be enabled to enjoy all the happiness of which his present state is capable, the sensitive part of man needs to be combined with another, which, upon a comparison of the present with the future, shall impel him towards that mode either of gratification or of self-denial, which shall most promote his happiness upon the whole.

Such is self-love. We give this name to that part of our constitution, by which we are incited to do or to for bear, to gratify or to deny our desires, simply on the ground of obtaining the greatest amount of happiness for ourselves, taking into view a limited future, or else our entire future existence. When we act from simple respect to present gratification, we act from passion. When we act from a respect to our whole individual happiness, without regard to the present, only as it is a part of the whole, and with out any regard to the happiness of others, only as it will contribute to our own, we are then said to act from self-love.

The difference between these two modes of impulsion may be easily illustrated.

Suppose a man destitute of self-love, and actuated only by passion. He would seize without reflection, and enjoy without limit, every object of gratification which the present moment might offer, without regard to its value in comparison with others, which might be secured by self-denial, and without any regard o the consequences which might follow present pleasure, be they ever so disastrous.

On the contrary, we may imagine a being destitute of passions, and impelled only by self-love; that is, by a desire for his own happiness, on the whole. In this case, so far as I see, he would never act at all. Having no desires to gratify, there could be no gratification; and, hence, there could be no happiness. Happiness is the result of the exercise of our sensitiveness upon its corresponding objects. But we have no sensitiveness which corresponds to any object in ourselves; nor do ourselves present any object to correspond to such sensitiveness. Hence, the condition of a being, destitute of passions, and actuated only by self-love, would be an indefinite and most painful longing after happiness, without the consciousness of any relation to external objects which could gratify it Nor is this an entirely imaginary condition. In cases of deep melancholy, and of fixed hypochondria, tending to derangement, I think every one must have observed in others, and he is happy if he have not experienced in himself, the tendencies to precisely such a state. The very power of affection, or sensitiveness, seems paralyzed. This state of mind has, I think, been ascribed to Hamlet by Shakespeare, in the following passage:

“I have, of late (but wherefore I know not), lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my dispositions, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air — look you — this brave overhanging firmament; this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire; why, it appears no other tiling to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. Man delights me not, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.” — Hamlet, Act ii, Sc. 2.

It would seem, therefore, that self-love is not, in itself, a faculty, or part of our constitution, in itself, productive of happiness; but rather an impulse, which, out of several forms of gratification which may be presented, inclines us to select that which will be the most for our happiness, considered as a whole. This seems the more evident, from the obvious fact, that a man, actuated by the most zealous self-love, derives no more happiness from a given gratification, than any other man. His pleasure, in any one act of enjoyment, is not in the ratio of his self-love, but of his sensitiveness.

From these remarks, we can easily determine the rank to which self-love is entitled.

1. Its rank is superior to that of passion. As our happiness, as a whole, is of more consequence than the happiness of any separate moment, so the faculty which impels Lis towards our happiness upon the whole, was manifestly intended to control that which impels toward our happiness for a moment. If happiness be desirable, the greatest amount of it is most desirable; and, as we are provided with a constitution, by which we are forewarned of the difference, and impelled to a correct choice, it is the design of our Creator that we should obey it.

2. Its rank is inferior to that of conscience. We are made not only sensitive beings, that is, beings capable of happiness, but also moral beings, that is, beings capable of virtue. The latter is manifestly the most important object of our being, even in so far as our own happiness is concerned; for, by the practice of virtue, without respect to our own temporal happiness, we secure our moral happiness, the most valuable of any of which even at the present we are capable; while, by acting for own happiness, when these seem to come into competition, we lose that which is most valuable, and can be by no means certain of obtaining the other. That is to say, when our own happiness and our duty seem to come into collision, we are bound to discard the consideration of our own happiness, and to do what we believe to be right.

This may be illustrated by an example.

Suppose that two courses of action are presented to our choice. The one, so far as we can see, will promote our individual happiness; the other will fulfil a moral obligation. Now, in this case we may act in either of these ways:

1. We may seek our own happiness, and violate our obligations. In this case, we certainly lose the pleasure of virtue, and suffer the pain of remorse, while we must be uncertain whether we shall obtain the object of our desires.

2. We may perform the act which conscience indicates, but from our self-love as a motive. Here, we shall gain whatever reward, by the constitution under which we are placed, belongs to the action; but we lose the pleasure of virtue.

3. We may perform the act indicated by conscience, and from the simple impulse of duty. In this case, we obtain every reward which could be obtained in the preceding case, and, in addition, are blessed with the approbation of conscience. Thus, suppose I deliberate whether I shall spend a sum of money in self-gratification, or else in an act of benevolence, which is plainly my duty. If I pursue the former course, it is very uncertain whether I actually secure the gratification which I seek, while I lose the pleasure of rectitude, and am saddened by the pains of remorse. The pleasure of gratification is soon over, but the pain of guilt is enduring. Or, again, I may perform the act of benevolence from love of applause, or some modification of self-love. I here obtain with more certainty the reputation which I seek, but lose the reward of conscious virtue. Or, thirdly, if I do the act without any regard to my own happiness, and simply from love to God and man, I obtain all the rewards which attach to the action by the constitution under which I am placed, and also enjoy the higher rewards of conscious rectitude.

This subordination of motives seems clearly to be referred to by our Savior: “There is no man, th it hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundred fold now, in this time, and, in the world to come, life everlasting.” That is to say, a man does not obtain the reward of virtue, even in self denial, unless he disregard the consideration of himself, and act from simple love to God. To the same purport is the often repeated observation of our Savior.” Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life, for my sake, shall find it.” There are many passages of Scripture which seem to assert, that the very turning point of moral character, so far as our relations to God are concerned, consists in yielding up the consideration of our own happiness, as a controlling motive, and subjecting it, without reserve, to the higher motive, the simple will of God.

If these remarks be true, we see,

1. That, when conscience speaks, the voice of self-love must be silent. That is to say, we have no right to seek our own happiness in any manner at variance with moral obligation. Nevertheless, from several courses of action, either of which is innocent, we are at liberty to choose that which will most conduce to our own happiness. In such a case, the consideration of our happiness is justly ultimate.

2. The preceding chapter has shown us that man was designed to be made happy by the gratification of his desires. The present chapter teaches us, that, when the gratification of desire is at variance with virtue, a greater happiness is to be obtained by self-denial. Or in other words, our greatest happiness is to be obtained, not by the various modes of self-gratification, but by simply seeking the good of others, and in doing the will of God, from the heart.

3. And, hence, we may arrive at the general principle, that every impulse or desire is supreme within its own assigned limits; but that, when a lower comes into competition with a higher impulsion, the inferior accomplishes its own object most perfectly, by being wholly subject to the superior. Thus, desire, or the love of present gratification, may, within its own limits, be indulged. But, when this present gratification comes into competition with self-love, even passion accomplishes its own object best; that is, a man actually attains to more enjoyment, by submitting present desire implicitly to self-love. And so self-love is ultimate within its proper limits; but when it comes into competition with conscience, it actually accomplishes its own object best, by being entirely subject to that which the Creator has constituted its superior.

4. The difference between self-love, as an innocent part of our constitution, and selfishness, a vicious disposition. may be easily seen. Self-love properly directs our choice of objects, where both are equally innocent. Selfishness is a similar disposition to promote our own happiness, upon the whole: but it disposes us to seek it in objects over which we have no just control; that is, which are not innocent, and which we could not enjoy, without violating out duties, either to God or to our neighbor.