What is a person's prime duty?
Is it to be kind to his others? Is it to serve a god? Is it to take responsibility for his closest companions? Is it to follow a principle of justice? Or is it to serve society?
What's known as the ethics of closeness, associated with philosophers such as Buber, Løgstrup and Levinas, posits that a person owes himself to his others. He recognizes himself first after meeting them. He gains his own face before the face of the other. To a high extent the quality of his life depends on the way his closest treats him. Does he meet love and acceptance or is he rejected?
On the face of it, the ethics of closeness might seem individualist in the sense that it speaks of relations and relationships, capturing situations with people you can actually see. The emphasis is not as much on society as it is on close and actual existing bonds. Thus it might seem more realistic and down-to-earth than certain other ethical theories that tend to posit universal answers, trying to capture what's right at all times at all places, though perhaps taking givens into account. This allows it to be more flexible. A person practicing it can be present in the situation, relying more on empathy and communication with his others, than just running to his book of laws (or straightjacket ethical platform). Instead of running through principles in his head, he can be open to perceive the actual person in front of him.
I'm no expert on this theory and it does have its pros.
However, I don't buy into it.
It is true that our existence to a certain extent depends on others. We needed parents to be born. We needed someone to take care of us in our earliest years. And both then, and after, someone could at any time hurt us or even kill us. You might have a brain unique to yourself. You might have your own, unique genetical make-up. Noone is quite like you, biologically. But still, also your ideas are at least affected by your surrounding. Be as original as you want, what you think is formed in interaction with your surroundings. You can distance yourself, you can be the first to realize something is unjust. You can be the first to come up with an idea. But this idea will, at least in most cases, be formed in reaction to the given.
This, however, doesn't mean your primary obligation is to others. Your life story is unique. Your face is unique. Noone is quite like you. Noone will never understand you completely. Why? Because they are not you. And they have not walked your path. They didn't share your story. And even though you could be a good narrator, you don't have the time to narrate all your life, and your memory is imperfect. No matter how you try to turn yourself inside out, noone will ever know you completely. You might not know yourself completely, either, but these facts mean you will win any arms race for knowledge of your self. Therefore, you will also be in a better position to assess your own needs. And likewise, the other has better cards at hand for understanding himself. To prioritize the other over yourself leads to less than optimal providing for needs, when compared to attending to oneself first and foremost.
But most importantly, you were born with a survival instinct. If you didn't want to live, you wouldn't live. You could be careless or severely depressed and survive almost by chance. But you could also succumb to outright self-hatred and in the end commit suicide. This happens. All too often. But still, relatively few among the population, when the whole is taken together, succumb to such extreme self-hatred. It seems like the inborn survival instinct offers some protection from that. However, language is a strong tool. Sadly, our great cognitive capacities can be gravely abused. Thus a person can be made to hold ideals that ground him down, ideals he can not possibly ever come close to, because his nature keeps him from it. A person can also be made to dislike himself through internalizing bullying for example, or society's prejudices. Typical here is of course racism, homophobia, discrimination of people with disabilities, hatred of people deviating from social customs. The individual might be unable to succumb to society's conformist ideals. Therefore he ends up with the choice of accepting the prejudice and then seeing himself as inferior, or alternatively; reject it. He has an imperative to reject it.
If he doesn't, he lets injustice get the upper hand. And at worst his perceived inferiority will lead him to self-hatred and isolation.
Because you have the ability to commit suicide, and it can be done in a burst of anger, in a few seconds, in the spur of a moment, you must love yourself. Your life depends on your self-image. Once you realize this, you understand that lots of society's expectations of you must be rejected. You understand that social codes that repress your nature and labels it as wrong, must be fought against. My realization of this is part experience, having both struggled with impulsive, physical self-harm, been part suicidal myself and having lost a friend to suicide.
There would be no humanity if noone liked himself to a certain degree. There can be no other, if the other refuses to exist. If all refused, there'd be no society for the one remaining. The last to go, is the one.
All that follows from the one, depends on the one's choice to remain alive.
You might say this means we need to build up the self-image of the other, and gives us a strong reason to condemn bullying. This might look like it can be accounted for by the ethics of closeness. However, that means that we must let the other be as he wishes. We must leave him be. Don't mold him, lest he molds you.
Thus we end up in some form of ethical individualism.
“To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I.’", said Ayn Rand.
And in order to exist, you must choose your own existence, I say.
I hope you take this for what it is, a fast written blog entry, not an academic paper or text. I have so many things I want to write about. I don't have time for a tenth of them. If I should write academically about every subject that could be academic, I'd end up writing even less. This text could be expanded indefinitely. I encourage the reader to familarize yourself with the positions mentioned, as my coverage of them because of small space, is by necessity simplistic. My central point here is the primary necessity of loving oneself, so that one will choose to live.