Love as Valuing a Relationship
At first glance, love seems to be a psychological state for which there are normative reasons: a state that, if all goes well, is an appropriate or fitting response to something independent of itself. Love for one’s par- ent, child, or friend is fitting, one wants to say, if anything is. On reflec- tion, however, it is elusive what reasons for love might be. It is natural to assume that they would be nonrelational features of the person one loves, something about her in her own right. According to the “quality theory,” for example, reasons for love are the beloved’s personal attributes, such as her wit and beauty. In J. David Velleman’s provoca- tive and ingeniously argued proposal, the reason for love is the beloved’s bare Kantian personhood, her capacity for rational choice and valuation.1 But no such nonrelational feature works. To appreciate just one difficulty, observe that whatever nonrelational feature one selects as the reason for love will be one that another person could, or actually does, possess. The claim that nonrelational features are rea- sons for love implies, absurdly, that insofar as one’s love for (say) Jane is responsive to its reasons, it will accept any relevantly similar person as a replacement.
Such problems lead other philosophers to deny that there are rea- sons for love. Harry Frankfurt, for example, contends that love is a structure of desires for states of affairs involving the person one loves, a structure of desires that is not a response to some antecedent reason.2 Besides having other problems, however, this view fails to characterize love as a distinctive state. Without in fact loving Jane, one can desire to do the same things for her that her lover desires to do. For example, one can desire to help Jane out of, say, duty, or self-interest, or simply because one is seized by a brute urge. If her lover’s desire is to be dis- tinguished from these other desires, it must be distinguished in terms of the distinctive reasons for it: the reasons in light of which helping Jane seems worth doing. If there are distinctive reasons for the desires constitutive of love, then there are distinctive reasons for love— which again raises the question what these reasons could possibly be.
We will not get beyond this impasse so long as we assume that any reason for loving a person would have to be a nonrelational feature that she has. This is because, as I will argue, one’s reason for loving a person is one’s relationship to her: the ongoing history that one shares with her.3 The reason one has for loving Jane, in any given case, is that she is one’s daughter, sister, mother, friend, or wife. This proposal avoids the problems that plague the views that cite nonrelational fea- tures as reasons for love. For instance, the fact that Jane is one’s daugh- ter is a reason for loving her, but not a reason for loving a substitute with identical nonrelational features. And this proposal identifies the distinctive reasons for love that views such as Frankfurt’s ignore at their peril.
For two reasons, however, this proposal is bound to strike some as a nonstarter. First, the supposition that one’s reason for loving Jane is some connection that she has to oneself, instead of something about her in her own right, may seem to give love the wrong object. We don’t love relationships, after all; we love people. Second, certain relation- ships, such as friendships and romantic relationships, are constituted by love. To say that such relationships are reasons for love may sound like saying that love is a reason for itself. If there are any reasons for feelings of friendship or romantic love, it again appears that they have to be nonrelational features of one’s friend or lover.
I begin, in section 1, by clarifying the subject matter of this paper and discussing the general appeal of, as well as one common misgiving about, the idea that there are reasons for love. In sections 2 and 3, I describe the problems facing the quality theory and Frankfurt’s “no- reasons” view. In sections 4 and 5, I present the “relationship theory” that I favor, explaining how it avoids these problems. Sections 6 and 7 are devoted to defending the relationship theory against the two afore- mentioned objections: that it gives love the wrong object and that it makes love a reason for itself. This elaboration of the relationship the- ory brings into focus certain problems with Velleman’s proposal, which I address in section 8. I close with a discussion of some implications of the relationship theory.
1. Love and Reasons for It
The word ‘love’, in ordinary usage, attaches both to more and to less than the kind of psychological syndrome with which I am concerned. On the one hand, I understand love exclusively as a state that involves caring about a person. However, it is perfectly correct English to say that someone “loves” something that is not a person, or “loves” a per- son in a way that does not involve caring about him. I can be said to love
LOVE AS VALUING A RELATIONSHIP
candy apples, for example, and the French can be said to love Jerry Lewis, where this means only that they enjoy his movies. This is the sense in which ‘love’, in ordinary usage, attaches to more than the psy- chological state with which I am concerned. My narrowed focus is, I hope, acceptable. The species of love that involves caring for another person is the species that most attracts the interest of moral philoso- phers.4
On the other hand, I apply the word ‘love’ not only to the attitudes that family members and romantic lovers have to each other, but also to the attitudes that friends have to each other. Moreover, I believe that my account of love may capture the characteristic attitudes between colleagues. Some may find these latter uses of ‘love’ strained, even ful- some. This is the sense in which ‘love’, in ordinary usage, attaches to less than the kind of psychological state with which I am concerned. Nevertheless, part of what I want to argue is that there are important similarities between the attitudes of family members and romantic lov- ers, on the one hand, and the attitudes of friends, and perhaps even colleagues, on the other. This is something that the relationship theory will help us to see.
At least three kinds of consideration suggest that there are reasons for love, so understood. First, from the first-person perspective of someone who loves, the constitutive emotions and motivations of love make reflexive sense. That is, they seem appropriate to the person who experiences them. Second, from the third-person perspective of an adviser or critic, we often find love or its absence inappropriate. Con- sider our reactions to the wife who loves her abusive and uncaring hus- band, or to the parent who is emotionally indifferent to her child. Third, it is plausible that love consists in certain kinds of psychological states, and there may be reasons to believe that states of those kinds are, in general, responses to reasons. Some believe that there are reasons for love, for example, because they believe that love is an emotion and that all emotions are responses to reasons.5 If love consists in motiva- tions as well as emotions, and if there are reasons for motivations in general, then this would be a further reason for thinking that there are reasons for love.
Despite these considerations, there is a particular misconception that often causes people to recoil from the idea that there are reasons for love. “While there may be certain explanatory reasons why one comes to love people,” they observe, “one does not weigh reasons for loving someone and then decide whether or not to do so. One just
finds that one loves or that one does not. Furthermore, to suggest that there are reasons for love is to imply that people in certain situations should be blamed for loving or not loving. This is cruel and absurd.” Both observations are true. One does not decide to love on the basis of considering reasons, and one should not be blamed for loving or fail- ing to love. This much follows from the fact that one cannot decide to love at all. Love is nonvoluntary.6 But it does not follow that there can- not be normative reasons for love, that love cannot be assessed as appropriate or inappropriate to its object.
Compare belief. Belief, it is generally supposed, is not the object of deliberate decision, but it does not follow that there are no reasons for belief. Or, to take an example closer to practical than to theoretical rea- son, consider emotions, which I believe are at least partly constitutive of love. Emotions are nonvoluntary responses, but at least some emo- tions are responses to reasons. Typically, emotions toward an object are simply caused, in a way that is beyond one’s voluntary control, by beliefs that the object has some relevant property. Nevertheless, the emotion is appropriate or inappropriate depending on whether the object has the property and its having that property justifies the emo- tion. One typically fears X, for example, because one believes that X has some fearsome property, such as lethality. Fearing X is uncalled for if it is not the case that X has this property, and it is phobic if the prop- erty is not in fact fearsome. Phobias may be criticized, but this does not mean that phobics should be blamed for having them. Love might be the same way.
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