Call It Volitional Love Rather Than Unconditional Love

Earlier today I posted Brendan Palla’s reply to my posts on unconditional love and love in general.  In what follows, I have interspersed my replies to him within the stream of his argument.

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.

Thanks Brendan!  My first reaction is to think that our dispute has less to do with the nature of love or what it would ideally look like but with what we should call it.  On my view a reason, by its nature, is a condition.  For example when I say that x happened because of reason y, then reason y is the condition for x happening.  Sometimes x can happen because of a combination of reasons such as v, w, y, and z.  In that case v, w, y, and z are all the conditions of x.

I take it that we agree that a love which had no reasons would be thoroughly arbitrary.  You go further to say that in that case it would be vicious.  My guess is that the implicit reason that arbitrariness would indicate viciousness if one of two things were true.  One would be that all actions and dispositions must fit either into categories of virtuousness or viciousness and that virtuous actions would necessarily involve rational dispositions and rational decision making.  In that case, the purely arbitrary action would not be virtuous (since, by the very definition of arbitrary, it does not involve reasons for action or, at least, it does not involve adequate reasons for action.)  The other reason one might equate arbitrariness with viciousness would be that arbitrariness represents a sort of reckless unfairness.  In a word, it’s the vice of capriciousness.  If arbitrary love is capricious and capriciousness is a vice, then arbitrary love is a vicious form of love and virtuous forms of love require loving for reasons as a necessary condition.

I mostly agree with that, except that I think that if one were capable of arbitrarily loving everyone, while the action of doing so would be irrational (since it was not based on consideration of rationally discernible, relevant distinctions), it would be not be unfair since such a love (if it were even possible) would be distributed equally and it would not be blameworthy assuming that to love is of itself neither a harm nor a wish to harm.  So, I don’t think arbitrary love if it is universal is rightly characterized as vicious, since it is not blameworthy or unfair or capricious or anything else that makes other forms of arbitrary love vicious.  It would be “irrational” but I think neutrally so.  I don’t think the choices are only between virtuous and vicious actions and dispositions, there can be morally indifferent ones.  With neither unfairness nor blameworthy maliciousness or carelessness involved, irrational actions strike me as morally indifferent.

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.

But of course there is a good reason to manifest brotherly love for your brother—he is your brother.  If you believe (as you clearly do) that we have natures which we should strive to fulfill, it is puzzling to me that you would not see families and family relationships as having natures that give family members reasons to fulfill certain roles.  And among the roles of family members is the duty to seek each other’s good.  Especially as you have just defined love, in terms of good will and with no reference to simple affective loves like I included,  it seems clear to me that brotherly love is morally conditioned by an obligation of good will to your brother because he is your brother and even when you do not like him.

And besides this moral reason to adopt a good will towards him even when you do not feel like doing so, there are also biological and psychological factors which make it far, far more likely that you will have this good will towards your brother and even that you are more likely to like him than any other random person.  So, your love is the result of both the conditions of rationally recognized moral obligations and the probable conditions of your human psychology.  Further you may simply like him and in that case your affection is your reason.

And, finally, it’s puzzling as to why suddenly having no reason to manifest brotherly love would count in unconditional love’s favor when just above you agreed that without reasons unconditional love would be a vice.

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.

The reason-conferring features of brotherly love are family obligations.  I take reason-conferring not to mean, explanatory reasons (the reasons you psychologically love your brother) but normative reasons (the reasons that you should love your brother and that all brothers should love each other in general).  The latter, normative, reason-conferring features of brotherly love remain in tact even as the reasons that you psychologically love your brother go away.

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.

I think I can essentially agree with this paragraph.  The issue though is why we should say that a love which has reasons lacks conditions, not whether love certain prima facie harms inflicted on others cannot be justified in terms of a broader loving interest in someone’s well-being.   I am not so much worried about occasions when it would look like unconditional love stops but rather the impossibility of meeting its conditions in the first place.   Where does the “un” fit in “unconditional love” if there is even one reason, one condition, behind the choice to love this person rather than that one?

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.

Yes, I love this point and agree with it almost entirely, in that I do not think that the presence of mutual giving and receiving of benefits reductionistically makes a relationship an economic one and not a genuinely loving one.  I think that if a love is established on some combination of the characteristic features of love that I defined, then often enough exchanges that result from that love are not ulteriorly motivated and they do not taint the purity of love.  We can love, give, and receive, without confusing the giving and receiving for what love is “really about.”  The fact of exchanges does not of itself make love conditional since exchanges do not need to be the reasons, the conditions for our love everytime that they are present.

My only disagreement is that while giving and receiving are not a condition of love, there are others, seemingly necessarily.

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.

Yes, just take out the word unconditional because it adds nothing and it’s false since you admitted already that love has reasons and, if I am right, reasons are conditions.  I am unclear why we need to say there are no conditions.  I wholeheartedly agree, giving and receiving are not the conditions of love but outflows from it.  But as long as we choose our subjects of love for reasons (they are our brothers, our neighbors, our friends, our fellow humans), they have conditions.

And the different kinds of goods we can will unconditionally differ based on our relations.

Okay, now this is a different concept.  Now we are talking about willing unconditionally rather than loving unconditionally.  But how can I unconditionally will different kinds of goods based on different relationships?  My choice of goods to will is made according to my relationship to you?   In that case what I will is conditioned by our relationship and would be conditioned differently by our different relationship.  So that cannot be what you mean.

Instead it seems like what is unconditional must be something about the character of my willing itself.  In that case you might be saying that we should unwavering will different goods in different relationships—that our wills should be dutifully responsive to our relationally conditioned obligations and not conditioned by our oscillating affections.  So, “unconditional love” of my brother really is a will committed to being responsive to specifically brotherly obligations, even when affections wane.  And unconditional love of my friends involves responsiveness to the duties and responsibilities associated with friendship, again regardless of changes of feeling.  At sum, though, it looks like your concern (if I am reading you right) is really that the will not be conditioned by the emotions but by rational acceptance of obligations.  But that’s not an unconditional will (nor an unconditional love) but a rationally conditioned one rather than an emotionally conditioned one.

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.

One place we clearly disagree is that I think you are equating good will and love too closely.  I think it is meaningless to say that my bare respect and abstract good will to all humanity constitute a robust form of love, let alone an unconditional one.  I think I can have a strong volitional commitment to the well-being of all humanity and while this can be a strong feeling of morality or solidarity, it’s a relatively weak form of love rather than its epitome.  My volitional commitment to the well-being of all humanity does not come with any strengths of feeling that our most robust forms of love have.  At least insofar as “all humanity” is just too much of an abstraction for me to aim my feelings at the people it refers very clearly.  I can have strong affections for a person, desire for a person, intimacy with a person, admiration for a person, and volitional commitments to that person, etc.  My love for a random person as part of humanity seems a lower grade of “love”—as admirable as it might be as a kind of willing.  I can love some abstractions rather arduously insofar as I can relate to them.  I can love an abstraction like freedom or philosophy because it is something I experience in some sense intimately (or I at least use the word to describe something I intimately experience).  To love my fellow human being though with any high grade quality, they need to concretize out of the universal abstraction of humanity.  The most my “love of humanity” can do is be a volitional disposition that is ready to commit to be a benefactor to the next human being who needs me and be an affective disposition that readily attaches to new people when they come along.

Other than that qualm, I have no other objections to that paragraph, since my dipsute is not that unconditional love would require us to do simply any good thing for the beloved or to do simply anything the beloved requested.  Those would be particular views of how unconditional love would manifest itself rather than on what it is.  My focus is on whether as a love itself it is conditioned by reasons for loving and I think it would be conditional as long as there are reasons one loves.  But unconditional love would be no less unconditinoal love just because it had reasons to act in one case for love and love-based reasons not to act in another caes.

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.

Yes, that’s why I say we can get everything we want from unconditional love within my strongest categories while still chucking the word “unconditional” because it’s strictly misleading and when taken literally it leads to conundrums and impossibilities.  What’s wrong with saying “volitional love” or “committed love” rather than “unconditional love” and thereby being more accurate.

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.

Okay, so you think that love is unconditional enough to be called unconditional love wherever it endures past the waning of affection and objective desirability, whereas I think that such endurance means it is still minimally conditional but volitionally maintained.  It is helpful that you point up this difference between Aristotle and me wherein I think complete love would endure beyond our simple love of the good in another person.  I argue fullest loving involves loving the person because of his or her good initially and then despite its absence henceforth.

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.

And maybe all of this does boil down to a dispute about definitions.  But I think clearer terms would serve us well, so think the exercise is definitely worth it.

I hope you have time to remark further on the other points that caught your attention in my earlier posts and any that may have struck you in this one.

And now I ask everyone else reading too—Your Thoughts?

  • Gaboo

    Unconditional love? Knowing that we can never be, and being ok with that. Just a little seed. Fare thee well.

  • Evangelos

    That’s what I suspected from the beginning; it seems like a very semantic argument, especially in a language that has only one word for love. It really begs the question, historically, how does unconditional love exist in treatises, dialogues, etc. Certainly something to think about. I’m glad I took the time to read these posts carefully!

  • Peter

    Oh, superb write-up! No idea how you came up with this’d take me weeks. Well worth it though, I’d suspect. Have you considered selling advertising space on your website?

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