A Challenge To My Critique Of Unconditional Love

A week ago I posted twice on the theme of love, spending the first post on what I saw to be conceptual problems for the ideal of unconditional love and then focusing the second post on a constructive attempt to characterize love and then locating unconditional love within that new framework. The next day, Brendan Palla offered some criticisms to me in person and I asked him if he would put them in writing for the blog and he has graciously taken me up on the offer.  Later today I will reply point by point in a separate post, but I want first to give his reply uninterrupted presentation and its own forum for you to debate it in the comments section distinct from reference to my own remarks.  Here is his reply:

Please find below my thoughts concerning your two posts on the ideal form of love. They are composed rather hastily, and late at night. But that’s better than no composition at all, I suppose.

I want to open with a bit of a critique. I don’t think you’ve captured very well the notion of unconditional love in your first post. As I understand it, on your account, if you love someone for a reason, say that they are handsome, or virtuous, etc., you love them for a condition, and therefore your love for them is not unconditional. But then, any reason that one would have for loving someone cannot serve as a reason for unconditional love, leaving unconditional love thoroughly arbitrary (and therefore, among other things, vicious). But of course this is false. It seems to me that unconditional love can rest on reasons while still remaining unconditional.

But of course this depends on how I take the terms ‘unconditional’ and ‘love.’ Let’s take ‘love’ first, and see what we can make of it. Following Aquinas, I think that to love someone or something is to will good for them. This, of course, is very broad. But here are some examples. I love my brother, so I want him to do well in school, help him to study, we play basketball when I’m home now, when he was younger I changed his diaper when he needed it, etc. All of these are instances of having a standing disposition to perform activities which helped him fulfill his nature. Since, of course (?), what is good for someone is what fulfills their nature. Is my love for my brother ‘unconditional?’ Well, I suppose if he weren’t my brother I wouldn’t have the standing dispositions towards him which I do in fact have. The fact that he is my brother is the reason why I have the standing dispositions I have. Now, why are they ‘unconditional?’ Because there is no (or almost no) reason that would count as a good reason for me to manifest brotherly love for him.

Suppose, deranged and enraged, he’s coming at my mom with a gun. He now realizes almost none of the reason-conferring features of our brotherly love, although he in biological fact remains my brother. So I stop him, perhaps killing him in the process. Have I ceased to love him unconditionally? No. I still manifest my standing disposition to do good to him. In this case, a moral good (for my brother) of ‘being prevented from doing injury to another’ supervenes upon the natural evil (for my brother) of ‘his life ending.’ But that’s only because this is strange case, trying to anticipate the objection that ‘unconditional’ love isn’t unconditional because when the normal situation of reciprocal exchange aren’t in place we stop loving the people for whom we (allegedly) had unconditional love.

This brings up a distinction – oftentimes the people we are enjoined to love ‘unconditionally’ (our spouses, siblings, friends, and – in a certain way – everyone [supposing one is a Christian]) are people in whom we are in rich relationships of giving and receiving all sorts of benefits. So one could say that we don’t love them ‘unconditionally;’ we love them because of all of these benefits that we give and receive. But I want to reply that it’s only because we are in situations of unconditional love that we can manifest some sorts of goodwill (i.e. will goods of a certain kind) to one another. And the different kinds of goods we can will unconditionally differ based on our relations. Perhaps we have a standing responsibility to will good to everyone just because they are human. This doesn’t mean that we cease to hate vice, or punish crime. Agreeing with Plato in book 1 of the Republic, I would claim that we don’t harm people when we hate what’s vicious about them or punish crime. Just because they are human and therefore (assuming this responsibility) we ought to unconditionally love all humans, we will good to them by hating what is evil. And by hate I mean the standing disposition to avoid (or help them avoid) and turn away (or help them turn away) from those things which harm their nature.

This does not of course mean that there is no limit to what we should do for those whom we love unconditionally; that’s a silly and obviously false notion of what unconditional means. To all people I owe, among other things, respect, my surplus material possessions (when I can see that by giving what I have away I will be doing good for another), certain rights (life certainly, education most likely. Universal health care? Maybe.); but my unconditional love for them does not imply that there is nothing I would not do for them.

So, in summary, we do unconditionally love people for reasons, and the different reasons which ground our unconditional love imply that we’ll manifest our unconditional love for different people in different ways. To love unconditionally is to acknowledge that no reason in the future will change the relationship or disposition which you aim to realize in that relationship. To bring in another example, Liz is my wife, and the unconditional love which I ought to have for her implies that there is no good reason for me to ever cease to manifest a husbandly love for her. This assumes some views on marriage inherited from the Catholic faith, of course. It certainly possible that something horrible could happen and I couldn’t manifest that love in normal ways. But that doesn’t seem like it defeats my position. It just means that something would be preventing me from manifesting the unconditional love as would in more ideal situations.  This seems neither psychologically implausible, nor impossibly demanding. But it also seems like a reasonable construal of the terms ‘love’ and ‘unconditional.’

But of course this position also looks similar to several features of love which you do highlight as praiseworthy. I’m thinking of reasons 5, 8, 9, and 10. In fact, one might ask, aren’t conditions 9 and 10 so strong that they approach ‘unconditionality’ in every sense but the rather strict usage you employ in your first post. With these loves you strongly care about the flourish of others (above your own interest), even lacking many (all?) positive psychological motivations, and despite their flaws. These conditions are, in fact, so strong, that I think that great proponent of conditional loves, Aristotle, would reject conditions 9 and 10 as desirable features of love. We should cease to love the vicious on Aristotles’ account of friendship, thus violating 10, and a friendship of virtue – the paradigm of love among men – by it’s very nature cannot possibly satisfy 9, since the virtuous love being virtuous and it’s precisely the virtue in their friend which they find so lovable.

I had meant to offer some further comments on your list of ten features, but this reply is already excessively long. In sum, I think you’ve taken on board most of the intuitions beyond a respect for unconditional love in conditions 9 and 10 of your account of love; so much so that it’s not clear how these features could be overturned by the presence of future conditions (excepting horrible and unnatural future conditions). But, if that is the case, then your own list of the features of love suggests that unconditional love (as I have defined it) is an ineliminable feature of robust and plausible human love.

My thoughts in reply can be found here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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