Conceptual Problems For The Ideal of Unconditional Love

The ideal of unconditional love strikes many as the purest, most ideal way to define the essence of love.  It is easy to see why this characterization of the essence of love is appealing.  Unconditional love is an undiluted love—if I love only the good in you but do not love the bad in you, then I do not entirely love you in the sense that I do not love the entirety of what you do or the entirety of what you are (insofar as what you do which I do not love expresses some aspects of you which I do not love).

But this causes conceptual puzzles for the unconditional lover.  Either the unconditional lover must love what is bad whenever the object of his love is bad in some way or the unconditional lover must distinguish the beloved from the beloved’s own actions, thoughts, dispositions of character whenever they are bad, etc., such that the unconditional lover does not love the manifestations of the beloved in the beloved’s thoughts and behavior (at least in those cases) but rather loves some other thing about the beloved.

And not only does the unconditional lover who rejects bad things love the beloved in some way that eludes all the beloved’s faults, but the lover must love the beloved unconditionally. Further this means that the lover cannot even love the beloved for the good in the beloved.  The lover theoretically should love those good things about the beloved but cannot base an unconditional love of the other, in whole or in part, on the presence of those good things. 

So, I cannot unconditionally love you because you are funny or smart or beautiful or virtuous or affectionate to me.  I can love your sense of humor, intelligence, beauty, virtue, and enjoy your affection but can neither love you through my love for these traits nor on account of them.  This means that when I enjoy your sense of humor, I am not loving you through that sense of humor (because that would be a condition for my love) but I am only loving humor itself and you only insofar as you are a conduit of humor to me.  It also means that loving your intellectual stimulation, beauty, virtue, etc. are all instances of loving these lovable things and you as a being that gives me occasion to see them and delight in their manifestations.  But if I love you unconditionally, I cannot mix up my love of these things into my love or my love becomes partly conditional and not wholly unconditional.

This would lead to the unhappy paradox in which the most ideal love of another makes no reference whatsoever to anything desirable about them or their actions, lest it become conditional and therein non-ideal love.  And on the receiving end of love I would be in the paradoxical position of knowing that to be truly loved by someone would mean not being loved for being desirable in any way.  This would mean that whenever someone loved me, to be sure of his or her love I would have to confirm that they did not really love my intelligence, beauty, virtue, affection towards them, etc.  I would have to confirm that they loved me irrespective of the delightfulness of any of my desirable properties and independent of any of the benefits of my company and partnership for them.

But what is left of me if you strip away every property I have?  Actually considering me without them seems unintelligible so you apprehend me with unconditional love you must be thinking of my properties and desiring them but not the good within them.  So, in some curious fashion you must behold, for example, virtue x that I have and love the virtue but not because it is a virtue and thus desirable but simply because it is a thing about me.  And similarly to love me unconditionally would mean to love my vices, beholding them and loving them simply as properties of me and not as inherently desirable or loved on account of any discerned desirability.

But is there any delight to me in being loved not for anything I do or am that makes me desirable?  Do I really want you to love my virtues but not what is desirable in them?  Is not a central good of being loved the reaffirmation of one’s own desirableness in one’s own character or actions?  This seems to strip the good of being loved of one of it’s primary sources of value to us—the reaffirmation of our worth to us by another.

Some benefits of being loved do remain nonetheless.  Since you unconditionally love me I take it that you will always benefit me with no demands for compensation and you will always benefit me regardless of my negative qualities, my negative actions, and, even, my negative attitude and/or actions aimed at you yourself.  There is something profoundly comforting about the idea of being loved no less regardless of one’s vices or personal failures.  Psychologically this could be an enormous relief from all the pressures of obligation and responsibility and all our deepest fears of abandonment.

There is a further problem for unconditional love and that is that more than just an undiluted love, strictly speaking we would have to recognize it as an arbitrary love.  I cannot love you because you are my family member because that’s a qualifying condition, nor because we are friends who enjoy each other’s company, and in the case of the many Christian notions of God’s unconditional love there is a fundamental contradiction between the ideal of unconditional love and the condition of acceptance of God’s love to receive it.  Unconditional love cannot demand that it be accepted in order to be given because that would thereby make it conditional love.

This is an essential reason for the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional grace which claims that God does not actually leave it up to the objects of his love to reject his love but he saves them in spite of the fact that their wills are turned against him.  He changes their wills and hearts and saves them for them.  There is no condition of acceptance of this process except the acceptance that happens in one’s mind upon being saved—which is itself the gift of grace (and not prior to its bestowal).

The ugly flipside of this doctrine of unconditional grace, of course, is unconditional damnation by which God predestines the those who refuse his grace to eternal damnation from the start.  It is impossible for them to come to his unconditional love on their own because the curse of Adam determines that their wills are set against God.  Now, one might argue that if we take out the doctrine of Original Sin or interpret it in such a way as to preclude the will voluntarily assenting to be saved.  In that case the damned are not damned by God’s will but by their own refusal to accept his unconditional love. But the problem then is again a problem of the meaning of unconditional love.  If God loves them unconditionally then he cannot refuse them on the condition that they do not accept his love.

So, therefore, God either unconditionally loves everyone and therefore saves everyone, as universalists claim, or God only unconditionally loves some and saves only them as the Calvinists claim and he unconditionally damns the others.  If God’s love is unconditional then it is inherently capricious.  It arbitrarily chooses its beloveds with no reference to their relative goodness and it arbitrarily rejects all others with no consideration made of their own goodness or even their badness since, being unconditional love, God only loves and withholds love without conditions.

And, again, this is not just a problem for God but for us too as unconditional lovers.  It is arbitrary whenever we choose to unconditionally love.  When I select you for unconditional love, I must do this out of no special goodness you have, nor out of any special relationship you have to me or else it is conditional.  If I chose you as an object of my love (whether deliberately or without thinking) fundamentally because you were my child, then I did not love you unconditionally but in response to a condition—our relationship of father and child.

This also goes for friends I choose to unconditionally love and subjects of my desire to aid humanity generally.  If I decide I want to aid the poor, teach the uneducated, companion the shut-in, etc. then each of these people are chosen as subjects of my benevolence due to their conditions—they are poor, uneducated, isolated, etc.  To love unconditionally means that I might as randomly choose to show up on the doorstep of a multi-billionaire offering benefits as I am to show up in a refugee camp or to my child’s room.  Completely unconditional love must select its objects without conditions and stand at random doors whenever it knocks.  Quite possibly, it may even need to knock on every door and be a universal love if once having selected a particular subject of love as its beloved this made its love henceforth conditioned on one’s being the chosen beloved.

Unconditional love could choose Person A over Person B randomly as its beloved, with no reference to any conditioning considerations about A or B, but then once it starts loving A unconditionally but not B because of a choice it has made then its further acts of love are all conditioned on its prior choice and therefore it’s not an unconditioned love.  So, an unconditional love must be a universal love (and in the case of God, an unconditionally loving God must logically be a universally loving God and, so, even the Calvinists’ logic comes up a step short when it posits that God damns anyone).

So, unconditional love requires that we love everyone (and maybe even everything) with no reference to any desirability of the objects of our love.  They may have some desirable features, but we must love the objects of our love either through the desirability of those desirable features nor on account of them.  We must love those features only insofar as they are the manifestations of that which we love but not because of the ways in which they are lovable.

So, in light of these considerations, I cannot unconditionally love anyone or anything unless I also unconditionally love everyone and everything.  It also seems evident that none of us unconditionally loves everyone and everything.  Therefore, none of us unconditionally loves anyone or anything.  Unconditional love does not exist.  Maybe, if God exists, there is unconditional love in God but to know that would require knowing that God exists, that God is a type of being capable of loving, and that God happens to love all things equally and in all other ways unconditionally.  Each of these propositions would require a distinct (and distinctly difficult) demonstration it seems to me before we could rationally affirm any of them.

Assuming for the moment that there were some way to know these three things were true, could we unconditionally love because of the grace of God?  It is theoretically possible that a wholly new psychologically inclined human were to exist who did love everyone and everything indiscriminately and unreservedly but I know of no record of such a strange creatures ever existing.  Therefore, the hypothesis that God gives “the redeemed” powers of unconditional love seems simply refuted in experience (unless he has not yet redeemed anyone and will only do that at some future date.  But then this leads us back to famous reasons for suspecting that there is not an omnipotent unconditionally loving God since it has not actually bestowed its love evenly or even as much as it could.  But we’ll bracket such discussion for treatments of the problem of evil itself.)

In the next post (or maybe several if I’m prompted by good comments or otherwise come to have further thoughts) I will try to cash out other possible meanings or applications of the unconditional love ideal to see if the concept is redeemable or at least if there are related ideals which sufficiently do the work we usually expect the unconditional love ideal to do in leading us to highly valued ethical goals.  There may be value in exploring the different implications of different kinds of love—friendship, erotic, romantic, familial, parental, altruistic, etc.  Also love itself may be split into a range of distinct things—affection, desire, admiration, commitment, attachment, beneficence, or various combinations of such traits, attitudes, actions, apprehensions, and feelings.  Maybe all love is conditioned by relationships between lovers and their beloveds but within the condition that there is a love bond, there can be something we call unconditional in certain manners of feeling, acting, or being.

But these are hypotheses I have attempted to work out in the next post. See also my recommendation that we just call what we now refer to as “unconditional love” volitional love instead.

In the meantime, I would greatly appreciate Your Thoughts.

  • http://macadv@netspace.net.au Peter Green

    I, Peter, love you, Dan, unconditionally.
    This doesn’t mean that I have to love what you call (in the first paragraph) ‘the bad in you’. You may believe that what you call bad is ‘in’ you (which means that you will also believe that you are not worthy of unconditional love).
    You might even cite others who agree with you that you are bad – or to use your words, that ‘bad is in you’.

    My unconditional love means I am prepared to believe, to trust, that you are, as a human being, better than that. I believe you are a loving and lovable person, and I won’t let your definition of bad (and your judgment of yourself as having bad in you) stand in the way of my opinion. I love you entirely for the person you really are, not for what you (or others) say you are.
    If you nevertheless insist that you are bad (that bad is in you), I believe you can overcome that and honor my unconditional love for you.

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