Isn’t loving someone ultimately selfish simply because you take pleasure from that relationship? Is there any kind of relationship in the world in which one does not expect to get pleasure when they invest emotion, love, time, etc? I did not mean that as rhetoric, it is an actual follow up question. This is in slight connection with Ayn Rand's view. Does selfless love actually exist?

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    Everything we are doing is selfish because, after all, we are doing it, so we "like" it enough for that. Using "selfish" this way makes the word vacuous, and is not how it is conventionally used.
    – Conifold
    May 19, 2020 at 3:55
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    Not if love is defined as making sacrifices for others.
    – J D
    May 19, 2020 at 13:23
  • Agree with @Conifold - outside of compelled acts, even seemingly selfless acts are in some way done for yourself. If I take a bullet for a loved one, it's because I fulfill my own moral code by doing so, which I must prefer to not taking the bullet - otherwise, I wouldn't have done it. If an act helps someone else and harms myself, there seemingly must be an internal calculus that makes the action "worth it" to make up the difference. May 19, 2020 at 15:34
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    A thought-experiment: would you enjoy a relationship in the same way if you knew the other person didn't enjoy it at all, was just maintaining a relationship with you out of obligation, but was exceedingly good at acting the way they might act if they were with someone they did enjoy being around? If the mere knowledge that they were putting on an act and didn't really enjoy it would sour the relationship for you, I think that suggests that your own enjoyment of the relationship can't be called purely selfish, it depends on some sense of a feedback loop where you each make the other happier.
    – Hypnosifl
    May 19, 2020 at 15:59

6 Answers 6


John Piper tells this analogy about love and satisfaction in relation to God, but I think the principle applies to any human relationship:

I buy — because we’re in our 50th year of marriage now, okay, even though it’s 49th — and I hold this bundle of roses. They cost $200, right, give or take. I hold this huge bundle of roses behind my back and instead of walking in my front door, I ring the doorbell, which is unusual. She comes to the door and looks puzzled, and I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.”

She says, “Oh, Johnny. They’re beautiful. Why did you go to such an expense?” Suppose I said, “It’s my duty. I read it in a book. This is what husbands do.” What’s wrong with that answer? You’re shaking your head. That’s right. You should be shaking your head. Okay, I’ll show you what’s wrong with the answer.

We’ll just rewind. Ding-dong. “Happy anniversary, Noël.” “Oh, Johnny. They’re beautiful. Why did you go to such an expense?” “Well, I couldn’t help myself. In fact, I’ve got a plan for this evening. I want you to go put on something nice because we’re going out. Because there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend the evening with you. It would make me very happy.”

Do you think that at that moment, she would say, “It would make you happy? You’re always thinking about what makes you happy. What about me, your wife?” Do you think she’d say that when I said, “This evening spent with you, as an all-satisfying person in my life tonight, would make me happy.” Do you think she’d say, “All you ever think about is what makes you happy”?

Why? Because she is glorified when I’m satisfied in her. You know this. You know this in your experience. What you find is she or he in whom you find pleasure makes them your treasure. That’s what they feel. I feel treasured right now because you are finding your joy in me.

Love isn't selfish, but neither does the one who loves get no benefit out of it. It's not a zero-sum game, it's win-win. The one who loves and the one who is loved both have their lives enriched: the one who is loved by being honoured, praised, and treasured etc, and the one who loves by being satisfied in the beloved. The stronger the love, the more this is true, the more the lover lives a satisfied life, and the more the beloved is honoured, treasured, and cherished.


Any action can be described as 'selfish' if that just means that one derives pleasure or satisfaction from it or if one argues in a closed circle of motivation that one must have derived (or expected to derive) pleasure or satisfaction from it else why would one do it? The key point is whether (intentional) benefit to another, without any necessary (non-accidental) benefit to onself, is intrinsic to one's motivation.

If I love X and, because X is ill I nurse and tend X, just because X is my friend, then this is an act of love. I derive no benefit from this action, or if I do I not do it for the sake of the benefit. It is hard to see where pleasure or satisfaction come in if looking after my friend is an extreme inconvenience and in the event, despite all my endeavours, my friend dies.

The question's approach to selfishness was adequately dealt with by the 18th-century moral philosopher, Bishop Joseph Butler, Sermons on Human Nature, XI, in his critique of psychological egoism.


J. Butler, Five Sermons, ed. Stephen Darwall (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983). The edition contains the Preface, Sermons I - III, XI and XII.

Richard Henson, 'Butler on Selfishness and Self-Love', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 49, No. 1 (September 1988).


Is there any kind of relationship in the world in which one does not expect to get pleasure when they invest emotion, love, time, etc? ..its called marriage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcYppAs6ZdI

This is a difficult question to answer with a lot to unpack. Their are various forms of "Love", which makes love more of a situational problem rather than something we can generally address. Understanding the different forms of love can teach us how to better understand how/why people act the way they do. here's a link to different forms of love: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/love/

..Philosophers are going to define "selfish acts" differently than what most people colloquially mean when they describe selfish acts. As Conifold stated in the comments, Everything we are doing is selfish because, after all, we are doing it, so we "like" it enough for that. ..You mentioned Is there any kind of relationship in the world in which one does not expect to get pleasure when they invest emotion, love, time, etc? and I would follow up by asking, is there anything which we should expect to get pleasure? ..You might get a completely different response from a psychologist or sociologist, you should continue to pursue this question further.


"It started with Sartre not wanting to commit to one girlfriend, but grew into a whole philosophy. He would say to his girlfriends: freedom is the most beautiful gift we can give one another. They all went along with it for a little while, but gave up on him eventually. Then when he met Simone de Beauvoir, she embraced it. But the thing was, it wasn’t just about the freedom to have sex with other people, because they thought that would be a cheap and meaningless form of freedom. They wanted to be braver and give each other the freedom to fall in love with other people... ...Sartre didn’t really like sex anyway: he preferred croissants. Some people have suggested that’s why Beauvoir went along with it, because she had desires that Sartre couldn’t fulfill"

  • Expecting pleasure from a good relationship, A is going to conduct B's marriage. B is A's son. May 20, 2020 at 3:42

An psychological egoist would claim that if a person takes an action to build or maintain a loving relationship, then that person must benefit more from the relationship than it costs them to preform that act.

Consider this hypothetical:

Alice and Ben are in a romantic relationship. Alice frequently takes actions with the intention that they cause Ben happiness, such as cooking all of Ben's meals. Ben rarely takes actions with the intention that they cause Alice happiness. In fact, many of Ben's actions cause Alice physical and mental harm. Ben is eventual convicted of domestic abuse and Alice spends several years in therapy to overcome her trauma.

Does Alice love Ben?
If the egoist said that Alice does love Ben (even though Ben does not love Alice), then I have a counter-example to their initial claim. The benefits Alice receives are trivial compared to the costs, so her motivation for being in this relationship cannot be selfish.

If the egoist said that Alice does not love Ben, then then they need to explain why without referencing the fact that Alice is not benefiting from the relationship i.e. the relationship is abusive. I do not see how they can do this.

If they do reference that Alice is not benefiting from the relationship while Ben is, then they are effectively making the claim that if someone is in a loving relationship, then they gain benefits from this relationship at least equivalent to the costs. This means that they have defined love in such a way that it must be selfish, even though their initial claim is that loving relationships are always selfish. This is called the Begging the Question fallacy.


The question is interesting and is a matter of debate : https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/love/#LoveUnio

Suppose A loves B .

It means that A wants B's good for the sake of B, not for A's sake. Love implies true benevolence. (Aquinas)

It therefore means that A takes pleasure/ finds joy in B's happiness (as if it were A's own happiness). (Leibniz)

It consequently means that A finds his own pleasure in the very fact of forgetting himself.

So, love, though not being incompatible with self-love, is incompatible with selfish self-love. (On the distinction betweeen good and bad self-love , Aristotle, Nic. Ethics.)

As says La Rochefoucauld in Moral Maxims (this author being known for claiming that all our actions and apparent moral "virtues" are are rooted in self-interest):

"We can love nothing but what agrees with us, and we can only follow our taste or our pleasure when we prefer our friends to ourselves; nevertheless it is only by that preference that friendship can be true and perfect."

So love is the pleasure we have in preferring the Others to ourselves.

If one wants to express this paradoxically, one can say:

love is the selfish pleasure of overcoming one's selfishness.

  • But if A loves B, A takes pleasure from the relationship they share and so one can assume that since any harm done to B will affect the relationship, A wants B’s good. What makes you say that A wants B’s good for B’s sake? May 19, 2020 at 14:20
  • Suppose someone tells you " I hope you will recover from this disease, because playing tennis with you is good for me and I can't play tennis as long as you are ill". Would you consider that this person " loves" you in any way ( although, true, she actually desires you to recover)? This is a counterexample aiming at showing that A cannot love B without desiring B's good for B's sake. In other words, benevolence is arguably a defining feature of love. ( Traditionnaly, this is how love is defined).
    – user37859
    May 19, 2020 at 15:14
  • Suppose someone offered A a drug so that harming B would cause as much pleasure as not harming B. Do you think A would take it? This shows that the pleasure is the side effect and not the true purpose.
    – Mary
    Jul 11, 2021 at 2:00

You can also turn the question around. Is loving someone truly altruisic in Nature? Will the loved one experience pleaure or whatever good feeling from my actions? If so, then it is altruistic. So not selfish.

Are genes selfish (as Dakins claims in the selfish gene). No. Because they offer other genes a base for existence. Also the carriers of the genes are not selfish if they love the other one. Together they have children that spring from love. Just as animmals or whatever living being.

You can say that every action is basically selfish or altruistic. But this robs them from meaning. Why speak about selfish action if all actions are already selfish. They derive their meaning from the other. Without selfishness no altruism and vice-versa. Without the both no love. Taking the bullet for someone might be selfish but it was not dine the other would be dead. Isn't that purely altruistic?

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