Is Love Limitless?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dear Uncle Gus,

What is your opinion of the statement that conditional love is not love at all?


Condi Philia

Dear Condi,

I think that the statement is wrong, and usually reflects confusion on the part of the person making it.

In order to see what I mean, we should first consider what love is. For that, we'll turn to the dictionary: "love -- a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person." A later definition notes that love can also denote, a "strong predilection, enthusiasm, or liking for anything." While the love for another person will be much deeper and richer than that for, say, a song or a city or a car, I submit that in each case, when a person "loves," he is doing essentially the same thing: acknowledging (explicitly or implicitly, as well as on an emotional level) that a person or thing greatly enhances the quality of his life. The fact that love for another human being can be much deeper, broader, and more intense does not make the basic act of loving differ in any essential way. It can, as we shall see, add to confusion when the thought of questioning one's love for another person arises.

It is interesting and important that the notion of unconditional love always applies to other people: As far as I can tell, even the most ardent proponent of the idea that you should love other people unconditionally would admit that only a fool would love some other object unconditionally. This is no accident, and it stems from a particular code of morality, the discipline that governs how we should guide our actions in life. Specifically, most codes of morality are essentially altruistic, holding that it is immoral (or amoral) to profit from one's own actions, which should be directed instead towards the welfare of others.

Considered from this vantage point, love as it is almost universally experienced -- as a strongly personal and selfish emotion -- runs counter to altruism. If your resources are limited, will you help a complete stranger or someone you love? Love will motivate someone to act against such a code of morality. Proponents of altruism have two choices: (1) Ask whether altruism is a proper code of morality; or (2) cause people to evade or become confused about the issue in some way. Guess which one they usually pick: We're talking about people who feel very strongly that man, ultimately impotent, needs help from others to survive.

How might an altruist make sure people are following his moral code against their natural inclination to (gasp!) like people or things that enhance their lives and act on that feeling? It can't be directly, because the inherent opposition between altruism and the need for a rational living being to expend his efforts in support of his own life quickly becomes apparent. (e.g., A man told to give his income over to the support of bums over his own family will, rightly, say, "Go to hell!") It has to be indirect, such as through guilt or prestige (e.g., Your family doesn't really need an HD television set. Give part of your money to the homeless. You'll be richer in God's eyes.), or by redefining what "love" means and hoping nobody catches on. (e.g., "It is a mark of spiritual magnanimity to love all others as yourself. You'll feel closer to God, and that's what's really important.") What never seems to come up is the question,"Why do I love myself, some other people, and some other things?" If it did, related questions would pop up, like: "Why do I hate the guy who mugged me last year?" Or, "What is it about my wife that makes me want to spend time with her, rather than any woman I happen to bump into?" Or, "Why would someone's laziness or misfortune disqualify my family from receiving a gift I promised them?" All of these things show, in different ways, the absurdity of pretending that your feelings for your spouse, or your favorite city, or your favorite car, are not caused by (1) factors that distinguish them from other women, other towns, or other cars; and (2) the fact that those differences matter to you, selfishly, in terms of your happiness.

The things we just considered are attributes of the people and objects you love, and, when considered within the larger context of your life, they are the conditions under which you love those people and things. If your wife, say, becomes a criminal (or you learn that she is unfaithful), she is not, in a vital way, the person you came to love. If your favorite city becomes a crime-infested hellhole, the city you love is gone. If your favorite car gets destroyed in an accident, it's not your favorite car any longer. When a thing exists, it has a specific identity. When we love something, we love something with specific attributes. If something ceases to exist or changes in an important enough way, we cease to love it.

It is in the case of people that we run into a legitimate source of confusion, in part because a person's character is an attribute, and that attribute can be extremely hard to judge. In addition, the power of emotions can lend to confusion. If a woman's son commits a murder, the mother may well ignore what that says about his character and profess and feel undeserved love for him. Can we really label what this woman feels for her son love -- or at least love for her son as he actually is? Many people, wrongly, would, and would hold this up as an example of unconditional love. (I would say that, depending on circumstances, it is an example of something else, such as mourning or denial.)

Or, to take a completely different example, consider a couple in a relationship. Both say they're in love, but suppose they are young and relatively inexperienced, and "love" each other for fairly superficial reasons. He "loves" her because she's gorgeous and she "loves" him because he's rich. If she becomes less attractive through no fault of her own, or he loses his wealth through no fault of his own, and the relationship ends as a result, was this an example of someone having a childish, "conditional" love? Or was it even an example of love at all?

All that said, I think that the idea that conditional love is not love at all is in part a consequence of the dominance of altruism as a moral code in our culture (as witness Christian praise for unconditional love), and in part confusion over what love actually is (both in terms of its selfish nature and in terms of what some people wrongly call "love").

Thank you for that thought-provoking question.

-- CAV

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: Corrected a typo.


Clarissa said...

I can't agree with you here. I love my sister unconditionally. There is absolutely nothing she can do for me to stop loving her. She can become a criminal, a drug addict and even a Sarah Palin supporter, I will keep loving her. She can steal my money, sleep with my husband, get me fired, she is already forgiven for that in advance.

She feels the same way about me.

In your theory, love is something you grant people as a reward for good behavior. That, I think, is no love at all.

Clarissa said...

Also, "loving" someone because they are rich is called prostitution, not love.

Gus Van Horn said...

No. Good character is a necessary, but not a sufficient,condition for me to love someone. While there are plenty of good people that I love to different degrees, there are also plenty whom I do not love at all (beyond simple good will and the benefit of the doubt).

That said, you are right to condemn loving someone for just his money. We agree on that. However, I am under the impression that you are arguing against standards as such. That is wrong and, if you live by that, you may suffer for it.

For example, regarding to your claim that you would love your sister even if she robbed you and slept with your husband, or, God forbid, supported Sarah Palin: I'm not going to attempt to argue with you. If you want to lead your own life by blindly following, with no attempt to understand, whatever emotions you happen to feel, that's your problem. You will be at the mercy of whatever anyone you randomly happen to "love" randomly decides to do to you.

Good luck with that: You will need it.

Mark Lindholm said...

Great essay. Reminds me of online dating - all these women who insist that their mate not be "judgemental". I sometimes ask them, as a joke, whether their attention should really be worth anything to me, if they won't make any effort to judge me worthy. Their answers always typically evasive.

Your last paragraph has a typo that should be fixed - you used "unconditional" instead of "conditional".

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for pointing out the typo, Mark, and for the kind words.

Now that you bring up online dating, I am similarly reminded of something I sometimes noticed, while I was single, back in grad school. I'd sometimes notice or hear about women with no (or very superficial) standards complaining on forums about how "all men" are scumbags who treat women like garbage.

Fortunately, most women aren't that way, even though that vocal, irresponsible minority sure made it seem that way sometimes.

Andrew Dalton said...

Gus -

That last comment of yours reminds me of this headline from The Onion.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! That's a classic, and it sums up a certain kind of mentality very well. I honked my horn at her brother, the self-righteous urban street cyclist, the other day and got a loud, angry, "What?" back.

Gosh, I don't know... Maybe it was the illegal cutting between lanes he did that almost caused me to have an accident. But, you see, I just don't get it: He's a full-fledged "car" when it's convenient, and just a bicycle when it's convenient -- and I'm supposed to adjust to whatever he thinks is the case, or at least pretend I don't notice.

Jim May said...

When someone pines to be loved unconditionally, my response is usually "Why do you think so little of yourself that you can't meet any conditions?"

That crack actually had a surprisingly positive effect on someone I knew years ago in Toronto, who IMO should not have had any issue deserving love. It helped her resolve to get out of a bad relationship.

Gus Van Horn said...

I like both the one-liner and the story that comes with it, and may use the one-liner as a response myself, if that issue ever comes up in conversation.