The other day, one of my students suggested that there is no such thing a morality, because to be moral is to be unselfish, and even so-called moral behavior is really selfish at the core. His example was that even a martyr isn’t acting morally, because he gains something by dying for others.
It would be easy to expand the list of examples. Friendship is selfish because we get something from it; a mother’s care for her child is selfish because it makes her happy.
This view is mistaken, but there are kernels of truth in every believable mistake. Otherwise they couldn’t be believable. In this case, one of the kernels of truth is that we necessarily seek our own happiness. The other is that morality has something to do with love, and love is a commitment of the will to the true good of other persons.
The misstep lies in thinking that unselfishness means loving the others instead of myself. No, I must love them asmyself. For human beings, the good is of such a nature that unless we share it, we cannot enjoy it at all.
To put it another way, if you think the difference between a selfish and unselfish person is that one sort seeks his own happiness and the other sort doesn’t, then of course you will think there is no such thing as morality, because everyone seeks his own happiness. The real difference between selfish and unselfish persons lies elsewhere -- in how they are related to other selves.
The selfish person is indifferent to them. He thinks not caring about other selves will make him happy. This is a delusion, which makes him miserable.
But the unselfish person identifies with other selves. If those he loves flourish, he flourishes; if not, then not; and so he flourishes. The greatest love is to lay down his life for them – not because he is indifferent to his happiness, but because it is inseparable from theirs.
From this point of view, one might almost say that the problem with the selfish person is not that he desires happiness too much, but that he doesn’t desire it enough. If only he conceived happiness more adequately, he would not seek it in such a cramped and unimaginative way. Only the one who spends himself saves himself. Misers lose everything.