The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 341–354 | Cite as

The Burdens of Love



While we primarily love individual persons, we also love our work, our homes, our activities and causes. To love is to be engaged in an active concern for the objective well-being—the thriving—of whom and what we love. True love mandates discovering in what that well-being consists and to be engaged in the details of promoting it. Since our loves are diverse, we are often conflicted about the priorities among the obligations they bring. Loving requires constant contextual improvisatory adjustment of priorities among our commitments. Besides delighting in—and being enhanced by—the presence and existence of another person (a place, an institution, profession), love requires extended reflection and work.


Ambivolence Choice Commitment Conflicts Love Priorities 

…[L]ove (Liebe) is not to be understood as feeling (aesthetisch)…[or] delight…It must rather be thought as… active benevolence, …which results in beneficence… Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, II, 1.1. 25–30 (450)

…[L]ove of any variety… consists basically in a disinterested concern for the flourishing or the well-being of the beloved. It is not driven by any ulterior purpose. It seeks the good of the beloved as something that is desirable for its own sake…. The lover identifies with his beloved….[He] takes the interests of his beloved as his own, and consequently he benefits or suffers depending upon whether those interests are or are not adequately served. Frankfurt (2001)

Loving and Doing

Although Immanuel Kant and Harry G. Frankfurt use different words in different contexts, with somewhat different connotations, they are referring to the real thing, true love in its best, its idealized form, not about “being in love,” not about being sexually obsessed, nor about being enraptured by someone who’s been idealized to the point of invention. They are referring to the love parents have for their children, about the love between long term partners and between intimate friends. They are referring to Mrs. Ramsey’s love for her children rather than Swan’s love for Odette, the mutual love of John and Abigail Adams rather than the love that Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra shared, Ruth’s love for Naomi rather than Dante’s love for Beatrice, Socrates’ love for Alcibiades rather than Alcibiades’ love for Socrates. Such love can—but need not—be erotically charged; in any case, it survives the loss or diminution of overtly erotic energy. Even the purest, most focused and committed love can express—can be prompted and modified by—a wide range of contingent needs and attitudes, the desire for intimacy, the fear of loneliness, the reversion to childhood dependency.1 It does not occur as an isolated event or disposition: its functional/explanatory role and the norms that govern it are affected by the contingent attitudes and dispositions that attend it. They moderate the way love is expressed, as it may be physically or distantly, brusquely or tenderly, spontaneously or cautiously. Love is identified and individuated by the modalities of its expression.

Love affects a person’s priorities: it influences the daily choices that govern time and attention. Precisely because we do not choose whom or what we love, and because it requires active devotion, love places us squarely in the domain of luck. Whom or what we love—and sometimes who loves us—affects the way our lives turn out: it affects the sort of person we become, the joys we experience, the benefits we receive and the burdens we carry.

Eulogies to love—the celebration of its joys, its elation at the very existence and presence of another person—are the stuff of poetry. The trials of love—its jealousies, its fears and losses—are the stuff of tragedy and novels. Anthropologists question the legitimacy of cross-cultural comparisons of the experience of love; they distrust radical translations of expressions denoting feelings and emotions2; psychologists analyze the structures of attraction and attachment; they trace their etiology and pathology.3 Recent philosophic analyses focus on problems in epistemology and the philosophy of mind: What is the intentional object of love: a person or some of his qualities/attributes? Is the intentional object of love unique or is it fungible? is it substitutable salva passione? Under what conditions is love irrational or unjustified?4 I want instead to ask: what constitutes love, its experience and expression? What are its narrative structures and scenarios? What roles does it play in our lives? What precisely are we praising when we eulogize love? And what is feared when we think of its ordeals or loss?

If Kant and Frankfurt—are right, it is no wonder that we want to be loved and that we fear its loss. Being loved brings an ally to facing the vicissitudes that are the substance of daily life; we find ourselves lost without the active attentive concern that is at the core of love. Still, though we want to have the reliable support of someone who loves us as a species of insurance, we do not want to be loved by just anybody. The desire for love has its ambivalences: it can be risky to love and be loved. Even though we long to be loved, we are often rightly hesitant, finicky about whom we want to love us. It can be dangerous to be loved by someone who does not understand us, or by someone who does not understand what love commands. It takes a great deal of intelligent insight—and certainly a lot of time and work—to love well. We might reasonably want to avoid being led astray by the love of a fool or a villain who is sincerely and attentively committed to promoting (what they take to be) our well-being. We want—we need—those who love us to support what is genuinely best in us and best for us, even if it means trying to redirect or even eradicate our floating desires. Kant and Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that we want those who love us to see—to respect and admire–what is best in us; and yet we also want them to know—and still lovingly to accept—us as we really are foibles, faults and all.5 We may even want them to find our weaknesses endearing. It is this tension that marks some of the complex terrain of love—the tension between wanting those who love us to see us in the persona of our best selves and yet also to cherish the flawed selves we actually are. With some trepidation, we want those who love us to respect what is genuinely respect-worthy in us and yet to accept the fact that we are often unable to live up to their expectations. Love is greedy and demanding: we want those who love us to express their love appropriately calibrated to our needs and moods. We also want them to want to love us, to be glad of loving us, to think of their love as a blessing rather than an entrapment. We want them to love us steadfastly, for our sakes and not because they love the duties, the pleasures or the virtues of loving.6

What we want from those who love us may give us some indication of what we implicitly commit ourselves to undertake when we love. To be sure, what we want—what we hope to receive from being loved—may be so irrational as to have no bearing on what we owe to those we love. What is even more unsettling, those who take themselves to love someone sincerely, might well find themselves ceasing to love, when they fully realize what it demands of them. In any case, love comes in many varieties, for example, high passion love and comfortable old shoe love, possessive love and laissez faire love.7 While dramatic differences in the tonality and modality of love are centrally significant to its experience and to the role it plays in the entire economy of a person’s life, they do not affect its central core: insofar as all these varieties of attachments and relationships are varieties of love, they evince care and concerns for the objective thriving of the beloved, whatever that may be. I propose to set these worries aside, for the sake of exploring what—if Kant and Frankfurt are right,—true love requires of us.

“Love is not… [merely] a special sort of feeling of attraction or delight.” If it were, it would be erratic and unreliable. The delight of love carries a dispositional attentiveness to the traits, moods, needs, desires, interests, projects and tastes of another person, with an active readiness to act for their well-being. “Love always protects.” If lovers are committed to the well-being, the thriving of those they love, they are in for a great deal of work. “Love seeks the good of the beloved” cannot end with good wishes or mere concern. (Dropping the quaint talk of lover/beloved I will call our lover “Abe” and his beloved “Ella.”8) In speaking of Abe’s concern for Ella’s thriving or well-being, I will be referring to his concern for her happiness, her life-long, all things considered eudaimonia, as it involves the development and successful exercise of her best potentialities, whatever they may be. If, as Frankfurt thought, we do not choose whom and when to love, Abe might well be uneasy about finding himself on the brink of loving Ella. Not yet knowing her well, he might be apprehensive about being committed to promoting the thriving of someone whose life trajectory might require sacrifices from him, deflections from his own primary interests. It should not be surprising for him to be ambivalent about discovering a growing love for someone whose needs may outstrip or conflict with his. It would be a matter of great good fortune—one of the basic species of moral luck—that Abe loves someone whose happiness—whose mode of life—is compatible with his. What happens to those whom he loves, happens to him. His thriving is linked to theirs.

Suppose that Abe does come to love Ella, and that he does so as whole heartedly as anyone does. He becomes actively concerned to protect her, but—independently of whether his love is returned–, that concern is surely not the end of the matter. As Frankfurt puts it, “he identifies with [her] … takes her interests as his own.” For this, much more than a gallant concern for her protection is required. Abe’s love sets him on an extended examination: to begin with, he needs to be fairly clear about his own interests and commitments, his own conception of thriving and how it might skew his understanding of Ella’s best interests. After all, his conceptions of happiness might be cast in the frame of his relatively limited understanding of its general conditions—as it might be for wealth, fame or political power. If he loves Ella, he cannot just project his own half-baked ideas of happiness on her: he needs to understand her interests and preferences, her conception of what conduces to her happiness. But since he is concerned for her objective happiness—her eudaimonia, all things considered,—he should not simply be directed by her ideas of her conceptions of her happiness, her primary interests. After all, her ideas might be just as half-baked as his. Independently of whether she returns his love, his concern for her would mandate an attempt to engage her in reflecting on the objective conditions for happiness, for eudaimonia. It seems that love commands the beginning of philosophical inquiry.

Initially this would involve trying to have a clear understanding of what constitutes thriving in their place in the socio-political-economic conditions of their time. Reflections of this kind are not always deliberate or even conscious. To integrate his active concern for Ella’s happiness with his own, Abe need not organize a symposium on the nature of love and its relation to eudaimonia. While the devotion that is part of love mandates critical reflection, it does not require courses in higher math or integral calculus. An extended examination of the conditions for thriving—and its failures—takes place and is expressed in the course of significant choices, for example in Abe’s decisions about whether to live in the city center or in the suburbs, whether to run for public office or join Ella in New York where she is beginning a singing career. As things stand, critical reflection and the process of mutual accommodation and adaptation occurs in specific contexts; its success is a matter of degrees. Abe may succeed in understanding and enlarging Ella’s taste in music and architecture, but have difficulty in convincing her that she would be better off, happier if she became a pro bono civil rights lawyer rather than an Opera singer. Abe’s inquiry—enlarged as it must be by Ella’s participation—becomes complex: because achieving happiness is affected by contingent conditions, it mandates both critical reflection on the constituents of eudaimonia überhaupt and specific practical deliberation about how it can best be realized, given the contingencies of their circumstances.

Love and Philosophy

…Love (φιλία) is the beginning of philosophy: it commands a quest, an inquiry (ερώτηση) into the sort of life that might be best for the beloved. Heuristicus, Fragments and Aphorisms

As I have told Abe’s story so far, it is a domesticated and truncated version of Socrates’ report of Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium. After locating the mythological ancestry of Eros, Diotima begins familiarly enough with the love of a beautiful boy, an attraction to the beauty of his looks and grace, his wit or courage. In a set of quick transitions, she proceeds to trace the stages in the development of love from an initial attraction and desire to the lover’s wanting to understand and possess immortal Beauty and the Good (kalos k’agathos) itself, as its culminating proper object. A crucial step in Diotima’s account marks the lover’s desire to reproduce or preserve what he loves so that it exists forever. That desire—which she calls a desire for immortality—is expressed in giving birth to children, in poetic creativity, in philosophic understanding, and in attempting to instantiate the Beautiful/Good in the harmonious virtues of a stable polis, with well-ordered and just laws. (209A, 211C) Diotima is evasive about whether—in following the process of inquiry that echoes the fuller ascent described Republic (509D-513E),—the lover will also take a temporary detour to serve on the Committee of Rulers.9 Her story moves from the personal sources and focus of Eros to its poetic, philosophical, and political expressions and back again to the Good as its metaphysical energy and focus. (209A–E, 210 C–D, 211C). On Diotima’s account, it is the very impetus of a lover’s desire for his beloved that impels him to become a philosopher.

Love is in the Details

… An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises… It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it. Mae West

Diotima’s lover moves to ever higher, ever more generic and abstract love, love of Beauty and the Good. Abe’s love also moves him beyond his immediate attraction to Ella, his desire for her company and affection. If it did not, if all he desired was to be in her presence, his would be a fantasy of love rather than the real thing. Abe’s love also involves what Frankfurt describes as “a disinterested concern for [her] flourishing [and] well-being…He “identifies with [Ella and]… take her interests as his own.” In loving Ella, Abe’s interests and priorities change (for better or for worse) no matter what. His happiness is affected by hers. Without his always being aware of how much he has changed, her concerns affect his significant choices and priorities—where he lives, his choice of a profession, his friends and politics, his recreation and tastes.10

Developing a taste for music or becoming actively interested in politics need not be caused by his love, as if Abe first found himself loving Ella and then cast about finding ways of expressing it by becoming interested in politics and Opera. His love is not a psychological event or state, followed by protective care for her well-being. Both his new interests and his active concern for Ella’s happiness are constitutive expressions of his love, rather than effects of his attachment: they grow simultaneously with his growing love (and vice versa). Like other psychological attitudes, it consists in, and is in part identified by its content and characteristic expression.11

It might seem that in drawing an analogy between Abe’s love and that of Diotima’s lover, I have intellectualized and idealized love, claiming that it mandates considerable focused thinking and deliberation. But as Mae West pungently observed in a somewhat different context, “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.” Abe’s love for Ella is constitutively expressed in the minutiae of everyday life, reading and re-reading drafts of her thesis chapters, getting up in the middle of the night to soothe their child, sharing household tasks, accompanying her to hear a performance of Die Walküre, noticing her persistent cough and persuading her to see a doctor. West wryly added “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it… It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.” Kant may have been too quick and sweeping in dismissing the role of feeling in the work of love: the (sub-culturally specific) tone and manner in which it is expressed—spontaneously, cheerfully, without resentment or cost-benefit accounting—is typically as intrinsic to love as what is done and said. Of course none of his pervasive, subtle attentiveness to Ella need be a burden to Abe. When all goes well, he acts on her behalf as easily, as unselfconsciously as he acts on his own interests. In the best of circumstances, Abe not only delights in Ella; he also enjoys what he does on her behalf. Yet Ella’s needs and interests may nevertheless sometimes conflict with his, even when he acts willingly on her behalf. Her pleasures in entertaining friends he finds irritating, in having a spotlessly clean bath and kitchen, in watching late night TV may drive him wild. Even at his most loving, Abe can reasonably sometimes find Ella burdensome and occasionally wish himself single again. He can fully acknowledge the stressful conflicts that love brings without having to convince himself he delights in them.

Love’s Conflicts

I would not love thee half so much,

Loved I not Honour more.

Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”

When things go well, when Abe and Ella are well-matched, their primary interests are compatible, if not actually identical or complementary. With luck, they can coordinate their respective occupations and preoccupations reasonably well enough. However happy their love may be, it is after all only part of their lives. The role it plays in the total structure and economy of their interests and activities varies: in its early stages it may be all-consuming. When its patterns are relatively stable, it can remain in the background of their concerns. Changed as Abe may be by Ella, he does not become wholly focused on her. He is not a monomaniac. Ella may be the “love of his life,” but she is not his only love. He also loves his ailing parents and his brother, his work on public radio and the Town Council. He takes their interests as his own and is actively committed to their thriving: his sense of his well-being is affected by theirs.

Personal love—the love between parents and children, intimate friends, romantic love—is only one strand in the rich and complex taxonomy of love that plays a significant role in a person’s priorities. The language of everyday speech is revealing: “Abe loves going fishing with his brother,” “Sam died in the service of the country he loved,” “Laura loved the old home-place,” “Arthur loved the Tintorettos in Venice.”12 The disposition to action that is the (necessary) expression of love varies with its object and its relation to the lover. Although non-personal loves like the love of home or a profession, a love of animating pursuits and causes (preserving endangered species, languages and cultures, for example) have distinctive objects and different roles in the configuration of a person’s priorities, they resemble personal love in carrying similar patterns of committed attentiveness.13

Abe’s love of music and his work on NPR affects the priorities among his active concerns: his expertise leave a mark on the station’s programming; and his own tastes are changed by his ongoing work. As the station thrives, he thrives; as it falters, his sense of well-being falters.14 Like personal love, the love of a profession or cause has a constantly shifting interactive dynamics. For our purposes—understanding the phenomenology and dynamics of generic love—it does not matter whether these forms of love designate a wholly different kind of love and commitment, or whether only differ in their objects and strength or the role they play in the entire economy of a person’s psychology. Such loves evince the same structure and dynamics as personal love; and they prompt the same kind of reflective examination of the proper concerns and priorities among their objects.

Just as Abe’s commitment to Ella’s well-being demands an inquiry into the objective conditions of eudaimonia, so too his love of his work at NPR involves critical reflection on its role in the public sphere. How should it handle hate speech or political disagreement? How should it apportion time spent on jazz, folks, and classical music? How should it raise funds? Such reflections affect the details of his work: it will affect his relation to his colleagues, to the station’s financial supporters. (Similarly Ella’s love of singing opera commits her into critical reflection about how to interpret her role as Brünnhilde: does she represent a benign or malignant force? Is Wagner using the opera to make a political point? As she interprets the role, her singing—and perhaps even her voice—changes. Reflecting on the details of her role, her understanding of—and her relation to—the opera change. Her sense of the integrity of Opera—and to its cultural and moral impact–change as well.) Being actively engaged in a profession that one loves involves continuing specific, contextualized deliberation about how best to fulfill—and sometimes to revise—its aims. (I shall return to the revisionary work of love in Sect. 5.)

In loving both Ella and working at NPR, Abe is impelled to yet another level of critical reflection, one that goes beyond attempting to understand and serve what best promotes their respective thriving. Loving Ella does not automatically make his commitment to her happiness his dominant concern, any more than loving his job makes its demands over-ride his other primary commitments. The fact that their relative claims on him fluctuate—that their needs for his attention vary—makes his reflections on his priorities even more complex. Abe’s many commitments—his many loves—stand in a continuous dynamic relation to one another within the entire configurations of his primary-identity defining interests. Richard Lovelace has his lover say to his beloved Lucasta as he goes off to war:

True, a new mistress now I chase,

The first foe in the field;

And with a stronger faith embrace

A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such

As thou too shalt adore;

I would not love thee half so much,

Loved I not Honour more.

Faced by a similar choice, E.M. Forster expresses a very different sentiment. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the gut to betray my country.”

The work of love extends beyond that engaged in each individual love: it involves maintaining the dynamic equilibrium and harmony among the competing demands of multiple loves. Besides the internal good works that each of Abe’s loves mandate, there is the work of balancing his active engagement among them. In loving, Ella, music and his work at NPR, Abe is—whether or not he is fully consciously aware of it—continuously actively assessing and reassessing the priorities whose satisfaction constitutes his happiness. Since he wants the genuine objective flourishing of all that he loves, he is effectively trying to determine—and successfully integrate—their relative importance within a fulfilled eudaimon life. Because Abe’s priorities shift contextually with the contingent concerns of his loves, the work of prioritizing is never done. Although it is unlikely to be finally resolved by a careful study of the connection between the Symposium and the Republic, it is nevertheless a philosophic inquiry into the conditions for eudaimonia, as it were right on the ground, at a grass level.

Even with the most reflective and sensitive good will, even when their interests are harmonious and they deliberate well together, Abe and Ella’s love may strain under the weight of its care and concern. The most finely adjusted love can falter if Ella’s singing career takes her Bayreuth for 2 years, or if Abe undertakes the care of his beloved crack-crazed schizophrenic brother, or if their political loyalties change radically. That is just on the personal side. The dramas of personal relationships—of marriage, friendship and love—exist within a social frame, whose structures and scenarios profoundly affect their expression and modalities. The expression of love might be affected—and sometimes blocked—by living in a dictatorship with a high degree of surveillance and a corrupt media or in a society focused on aggressive individual achievement and a competitive consumer economy. That such conditions may heighten and intensify love and mutual dependence strengthens the point: the detailed work of love is conditioned—affected and modified—by circumstances beyond lovers’ personal characteristics. The work of love—and reflection about its best expression—has no end.

Suppose Abe and Ella realize that they are becoming increasingly irritated by their differences. Then what? Since love involves respect, Abe would attempt to engage Ella in shared deliberation about what genuinely constitutes their eudaimonia. At best, they would attempt to work through their differences, trying to improvise ways to accommodate one another’s respective interest and concerns. Exploring and making compromises are themselves expressions of love; at its best, they may be part of their joy in loving. If their efforts fail and Ella becomes indifferent to Abe, he might persist in trying to win her affections, or suffer unrequited love, or try to stop loving her. Sometimes his love counsels persistence; sometimes it counsels silence; and sometimes it requires stepping out of the way. But as long as he loves her, he remains actively attentive, affected by her happiness.

Sometimes the work of love—the acceptance of its burdens—becomes so overwhelming that love falters or fails. The details of Abe’s active concern for Ella’s happiness can become a genuine burden to him (and perhaps to Ella as well). His own primary interests may be threatened or compromised by hers. In responding to Ella’s needs and moods, Abe may sometimes jeopardize his own…and yet continue to love. But sometimes, his love falters and what had been the work of love can then become a duty, fulfilled out of moral concern. So too with Abe’s love of his work for NPR: there may be circumstances—the necessity of fundraising for the station, for example—when its needs no longer suit his talents and skills. Out of concern for public radio, he may continue his work out of a sense of duty or loyalty, attempting to engage his colleagues in deliberating about the station’s political commitments. When that fails, what had started as a well-matched love may turn into mutual disenchantment and to its dissolution under its burdens. Far from being impervious to tragedy, love—its concerns and care—readily prepares the scenes and dramas of tragedy.

The Politics of Love

“Philosophers have interpreted love in various ways; the point, however, is for us to try to bring it about.” Andrea Miranda, “A Social History of Love”

As I have told Abe’s story so far, it might seem that there is a determinate fact of the matter about what would best conduce to Ella’s eudaimonia; and that in loving her, Abe is committed to understanding the conditions of her happiness and helping her to achieve them. But besides being more mundane and domestic, besides remaining relatively commonplace, Abe’s love differs from that of Diotima’s lover in its improvisatory drama. Rather than coming to realize that the true and proper object of his love is eternal Beauty and Goodness Themselves, Abe’s love takes a ramified and dynamic, often contingently inventive route. Diotima’s lover only becomes a poet or legislator after he has seen the Beautiful Good. He is, in the first instance, a philosophic inquirer, not a creative poet or legislative reformer, still less a political activist. By contrast, Abe and Ella are active and interactive in attempting to construct as well as determine in the details of their happiness. They do not just discover and adhere to what love demands of them as if they were following a pattern; they themselves develop the expressive details of their love, sometimes by a process of unexpected improvisation.15 While many the constituents of Abe’s and Ella’s eudaimonia are, at a fundamental level, fixed—their basic physical needs must for instance be met—, others emerge through the improvisational process of integrating their interests and concerns. As they deliberate about the details of daily life, they continue to specify the details of the activities and interests whose satisfaction constitutes their happiness. If they moved New York so Ella could sing at the Met, her love of music would become focused on Verdi or Wagner rather than folk or rap. If they had stayed in Boston to enable Abe to influence NPR music programming, Ella would be singing Gregorian chants in the choir at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The very quality of her voice and her pleasure in singing would change. The adaptive improvisations that express their love are guided by, and further determine the emergent details of their eudaimonia.

As we cannot choose whom to love, so too we cannot choose to be capable of loving wisely and well. Abe’s ability to communicate and express love is affected by his early experiences, by the luck of his sensitivity and temperament. It is also affected by the luck of his cultural models. He learns how to express love as he learns the nuances of his native language. He sees and imitates the patterns of the expression of love from the media, from films, advertising, popular songs and high literature as they represent the stereotypes and scenarios of the tonality and manner in which love is expressed and enacted in his culture. These cultural images show him whether and when tough love is still love, whether and when love requires tactful silence or distance; they model the etiquette that is also constitutive of love. Prone to imitation and conformity, Abe follows his cohort in imitating the cultural models of the expression of love.

Someone like Abe can, within measure, nevertheless evaluate the adequacy and appropriateness of contemporary models of love; he can criticize their implicit moral norms; he can reflect on the ways those models reflect and serve other social, political and economic practices and institutions in his society.16 In principle and with luck, he can refine and change the way love is culturally conveyed. More generally, he can revaluate and attempt to revise the practices and patterns implicit in his political and civic culture. He can, for example, expose the way that a consumer economy affects the expression of love in expensive gifts rather than in helpful cooperation; he can criticize the assumptions and effects of laws governing marriage, inheritance and divorce; he can disparage representations of the stereotypical relations between parents and children or between men and women. His being actively engaged in such critical reflections is further expressions of his love for Ella…and of his culture.

But we must be careful not to claim too much for love; it does not exhaust the entire scope of active concern. After all, Abe and Ella have commitments to the care and well-being of people and causes they do not love. As a dutiful nephew, Abe undertakes the care of his curmudgeon uncle whose politics and way of life he despises. As a good citizen Ella is actively concerned about the conditions of the parks and schools for which she has no particular attachment or affection. They will do their best to fulfill their obligations because they take it as their duty to do so, like it or not. As a lover, Abe acts on behalf of Ella’s well-being for her sake; for him, the concerns of love are not a self-imposed moral duty. Like it or not, he acts on her behalf even when doing so imposes a burden on him, and he does so, as an expression of his love rather than as a duty imposed by civic concern or commitment. Abe may continue to be committed to Ella’s care and well-being out of duty even though he has ceased to love her. Ironically, he may be even more self-exacting and attentive in caring for her out of duty than he was when he loved her.

On the Other Hand: Summary Conclusion

One the one hand, I have implied that love is virtually ubiquitous, encompassing love of professions, places and activities as well as friends and family. On the other hand, I seem to have made the conditions for its attribution hopelessly stringent, arguing that love demands challenging care and work. In short, I have tried to show that we love widely, but rarely wisely and well. I have suggested that certain kinds of cultural models of love—those presented in highly competitive societies focused on individual achievement, for instance—may make the work of love difficult. It might seem that in developing the implications of our authorities’ characterization of love, I have not only idealized its commitments, but also made its work seem so onerous as to make it appear undesirable.17 After all good-enough love is good enough: it can be supportive without being self-denying; it can be companionable without becoming all-encompassing; it can be constructive without being committed to philosophically based social criticism. Certainly the celebrations of love are well founded: love brings joy and delight in the reality of another person (a place, an institution, profession); lovers can be strengthened and enabled, enlarged and enhanced by their love. For all of that, the upbeat features of love largely depend on the contingent and continuing mutual compatibility of the lovers, on the luck of the harmony of their respective modes of thriving in their social-cultural-economic contexts. The eulogies of love may be so elevated, its commitments so idealized precisely because its tasks are so difficult.

If Kant and Frankfurt are right, love—even ordinary good-enough love—is distinguished from fantasy or infatuation by being essentially expressed in active and detailed care and concern. Love prompts critical reflection on the objective conditions for the thriving of its focus, as it may be a person or profession, an institution or environment. Love may require active engagement in refining and sometimes revising its contingent cultural models and scenarios. Of course critical reflection need not take the form of what passes for professional philosophy: although it is normally expressed in the improvisatory deliberations and the negotiations of daily life, those reflections have philosophic and normative significance. Love is not only an insurance against the vicissitudes of life; it can, when it is well and wisely expressed, also deepen a lover’s understanding of eudaimonia. The intrinsic demands of love’s beneficence can in principle correct its distorted expressions. With luck, love can be an ingredient of a life well and happily lived, as well as a guide to its flourishing. It turns out that celebrations of love are, after all, on key, and that—surprisingly enough–, philosophic inquiry into eudaimonia is among its valuable and cherished burdens.18


  1. 1.

    In isolating love as a subject for philosophical analysis, we abstract it from its phenomenological complexities and its psychological contexts. (See Sects. 3 and 4). See (of all people) Hume, Treatise Of the Human Understanding 2.2.9 SB 384-5. “Tis not the present sensation …which determines the character of any passion, but the general bent and tendency of it from beginning to end.”

  2. 2.

    See the essays by Geertz et al. (1984), Rosaldo (1986).

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Strachey (1959), Freud (1947), Bowlby (1969/1999).

  4. 4.

    See, e.g., Kraut (1986), Rorty (1986a), Badhwar (2003). Kolodny (2003), Velleman (1999), Setiya (2014), Jollimore (2011).

  5. 5.

    See Kant (1963); Emerson (1841).

  6. 6.

    See Stocker (1976, 1979).

  7. 7.

    I am grateful to MindaRae Amiran and Richard Schmitt for stressing this point.

  8. 8.

    Although personal love by no means exhausts the range of our loves, I shall, for the sake of simplicity, initially use the example of romantic love to examine the structure and dynamics of generic love. In Sect. 4, I will turn to other, familiar but less often analyzed expressions of love—the love of home, of a profession or of an activity.

  9. 9.

    Plato himself has Socrates describe the Divided Line without introducing the political analysis that forms the bulk of the rest of the work. (Republic VI, 509D-513E.) I’ll return to the connection between love and political activism in Sect. 4.

  10. 10.

    See Rorty (1986b).

  11. 11.

    The distinction between the causes and constituents of love presupposes a full dress analysis of the content, structure and dynamics of intentional attitudes that I cannot undertake here. See e.g. Anscombe (1957), Thalberg (1993), Aquila (1975).

  12. 12.

    I am grateful to Bill Ruddick for this example and to Berislav Marusic for objecting that love of causes and country, activities and professions do not carry the same kind of care and concern of personal love. It is true, Arthur does not move to Venice or undertake to become a professional art conservationist. But his love does not just consist in a passing elation during a visit to Venice. For it to be an authentic love rather than generalized elation, it must be expressed, (as it might be) by his contributing to the Save Venice Fund and organizing a campaign to prevent the Scuola di san Rocco from selling “The Raising of Lazarus” to Donald Trump for his private collection. Less dramatically and more subtly, Arthur’s love of Tintoretto would be expressed by changes in his perceptual range, by his increased sensitivity to the dramas of light and shadows, by his doing some research on Tintoretto’s palette and studio.

  13. 13.

    Because I do not understand them, I have omitted two significant directions of love: the love of God (and God’s love of Mankind) described by Augustine (1950, 2002) and the love of Humanity described by Kant (1996). Augustine thinks the ability to recognize and fulfill the obligation to love God is itself a gift of grace; Kant believes that fulfilling the duties of the love of Humanity falls to the rational will.

  14. 14.

    I am grateful to Avner Baz for pointing out that “a commitment to [one’s] job is a part of a commitment to [oneself], while a commitment to one's partner is a commitment to her/him.” It’s true that Abe’s commitment to Ella is focused on her, rather than on himself as a media consultant, still his commitment to Ella is an essential part of his self-understanding, to himself-as-loving-Ella.

  15. 15.

    I am grateful to Richard Schmitt for stressing this point. See Rorty, “The Historicity of Love…” loc. cit. and Benjamin Bagley (2015).

  16. 16.

    See Held (2006), Haslanger (2012) and Rorty (1998).

  17. 17.

    I am grateful to Richard Schmitt and to Robert Frederick for raising this concern.

  18. 18.

    I am grateful to MindaRae Amiran, Avner Baz, Robert Frederick, Berislav Marusic, Richard Schmitt and Ben Sherman for comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tufts UniversityMedfordUSA
  2. 2.Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA

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