THE BLOG
01/25/2016 10:05 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself: Some Interpretive Puzzles

Zvonimir Šantek via Getty Images

Lately my research has focused largely on philosophical issues of love, and because of this I have sometimes found myself thinking about the Judeo-Christian injunction to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Galatians 5:14). It's a very interesting injunction, and on some interpretations it can have great social value. People tend to love themselves while caring too little about the people that fall outside of their intimate circles, and so a demand to extend one's self-love to those outside of these circles -- as this injunction arguably makes -- sounds like a significant step in the right direction. But how are we really to interpret this injunction? What, exactly, is it instructing people to do when it says to love your neighbor as yourself?

Trying to answer these interpretive questions leads to many puzzles. A central one arises from a fundamental ambiguity in the injunction. Are people to extend the love that they IN FACT have for themselves to their neighbors? Or are they instead to love their neighbors as they SHOULD love themselves? The injunction sure sounds like it instructs people to love their neighbors as they in fact love themselves, yet this natural interpretation leads to some problems. For example, if some people are not so good at loving themselves, then the injunction would effectively tell them to love others in a not-so-good way. Some people may not truly love themselves at all, and so the injunction would effectively tell these people not to love their neighbors at all. Considerations such as these seem to push us towards adopting the second interpretation, but then we run into the difficult question: How should we love ourselves?

This last question actually points to a puzzle that we face on either of the above interpretations. Whichever one we pick as the right one, we must then ask: How do we love ourselves? By having certain feelings or emotions towards ourselves? By valuing ourselves? By showing self-concern and having a deep commitment to promoting our own welfare? By actually treating ourselves in certain ways? By some combination of these things?

Yet another puzzle revolves around whether our self-love is (or should be) blind or discerning. In other words: Do we (or should we) love ourselves without regard for our own qualities or behavior? Do we (or should we) love ourselves despite the things that we don't like about ourselves, or that we recognize as serious shortcomings? Or do (should) we love ourselves only when we regard our personal qualities and general behavior as rendering us worthy of self-love?

To complicate matters even further, there is yet another ambiguity in the injunction. When it says to love one's neighbor as oneself, is it saying to love one's neighbor as much as one loves (or should love) oneself? Or does it instead allow room for people to love themselves more so long as they love their neighbors as well to a sufficient degree? Perhaps it's instead saying to love one's neighbor in the exact same way as one loves (or should love) oneself? Or maybe only to love one's neighbor in a similar way as one loves (or should love) oneself? And if the right answer here is one of the previous two interpretations, then what manner of love is the injunction referring to?

One final puzzle here is this: who counts as one's neighbor? This is a puzzle about how far people are to extend their self-love to others. A very literal understanding of "neighbor" would probably be too restrictive because our literal neighbors are too few in number (they also have no extra significance or importance compared to others just because they happen to live next to us). At the other extreme, we could understand "neighbor" to refer to any other person. Other options, though, lie in between these extremes. For instance, one's "neighbors" could refer to other people that share one's religious outlook, or to one's fellow citizens. There seem to be many possibilities here, so which one is the right one?