What Is Love? Here’s My Theory.

What Is Love? Here’s My Theory. February 14, 2011

This is a renamed repost of July 24, 2009 post called “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways”:

In the first part of this series, I explored the reasons for rejecting “unconditional” love as a candidate for the ideal essence of love since as a concept it is riddled with numerous problems as a recommendation for human psychology it is hopelessly unrealistic. In this part of the series, I sketch out a theory of love as any combination of 10 essential features, with the maximum ideal involving all 10 components in maximum strengths, and with various other combinations of only some of the possible components representing other genuine instances of love, but still only approximations of the maximum ideal of love.

We use the word love to refer to a number of different relationships, volitional commitments, attitudes, dispositions, behaviors, and feelings and to various combinations of them.  We also distinguish different love relationships as being of different characteristic types.  Below I have sketched out a list, which I concede may not be exhaustive or in every respect draw lines in the best places between related concepts.  Nonetheless it seems to me like a workable list of distinguishable features which can account for other related psychological states and actions associated with love (both when we describe our experiences of it and when we formulate our ethical ideals for it).

The various major things love refers to:

1. Intensity of affection for someone or something.

2. Intense platonic desire for someone or something.

3. Intense erotic/sexual/romantic desire for someone or something.

4. Intense admiration for someone or something.

5. Intense concern for someone or something’s well-being and flourishing, which is willing to prioritize bringing this about over attaining other goods.

6. A mutually shared, private intimacy, which excludes most all others.

7. Strong psychological attachment to someone or something.

8. Strong psychological identification between one’s own well-being and flourishing with the well-being and flourishing of someone or something.

9. Strong volitional commitment to the well-being and flourishing of someone or something, which stems originally from intensity of affection, eros, platonic desire, admiration, attachment, identification, intimacy, and/or concern for that someone or something but which also sustains itself even as some or all of these diminish as psychological motivators.

10. Intense affection, platonic desire, eros, concern, admiration, attachment, identification, intimacy, and/or strong volitional commitment to the well-being and flourishing of someone or something in spite of manifest flaws of the beloved (and sometimes even through affectionately reinterpreting flaws as “endearing”—although that word is misleading since it is the preexisting love that usually endears us to the beloved’s flaws rather than the other way around).

Does characterizing an essence and ideal for love involve combining all these various features into a unified ideal of complete love?  In that case, we might say that minimally to be love one of the 10 features listed above must be present but to maximally be love all 10 are necessary.

One immediately recognizable drawback to this strategy for defining an ideal for love is that it would preclude all non-sexual loves from being complete loves or, worse, encourage us to turn all our loves sexual in order to maximize them as instances of love. 

Since in numerous kinds of relationships sexual interactions would manifestly harm people in otherwise valuable, and even broadly loving, relationships, if the fullness of love necessarily involved sexual interaction one of two caveats would have to be stressed that fullness of love is not ethically necessary in all (or even the vast majority) of relationships which involve love and in fact that certain aspects of love (e.g. the sexual) would damage such relationships.  We might say that the full ideal of love involves the complete desire for another, including sexual, and complete identification with the beloved (as aided uniquely by the sexual bond) and that it’s just too bad for the other instances of love which encompass the other 8 features of love but not the sexual as well.

Another strategy is to say that the most ideal love is not the combination of all 10 components, with all loves which attain to less than all 10 being incomplete approximations of the fullest possible ideal, but that rather love is essentially some feature which is shared by all 10 manifestations of love and that wherever that uniting characteristic is present, it does not matter whether one has 1 or 10 of the kinds of love, one has enough to sufficiently have reached the ideal of love.  In that case specifying which of the 10 manifestations of love one has is just a matter for classifying the type and intensity of love but it is present in its ideal as soon as any of the 10 are had since each of the 10 are instances of love for embodying this more fundamentally characteristic feature.

If this strategy proves intractable and for some reason we do not like to privilege loves which manage to have all 10 features from my list over other loves which have only, say, 7 but which seem to be full kinds of love rather than partial, we might make the Wittgensteinian turn and consider love to refer to a family resemblance between various attitudes, dispositions, feelings, etc. without any one characteristic being necessary for all of them and without requiring that all the characteristics be present for “full realization” of the ideal of love.

I think my preference is to go for the first option in which the fullest love entails all the 10 features.  It does not bother me that this precludes the vast majority of our relationships, including our familial ones, from falling under the umbrella of fullest realization of love because of our good reasons to exclude sex from them.  Everyone that we should not have sex with we should not have the fullest possible love with.  If sex would harm our ability to love another person in terms of looking out for their well-being and flourishing, then we do better by them to love them incompletely in the way that advances their well-being and flourishing rather than by loving them incompletely in the way that sexually desires them but harms them overall.

Yet, where all things are equal, where one can affectionately admire, non-sexually desire, attach to, identify with, care for, and volitionally commit to someone without the addition of sexual desire and consummation, this otherwise magnificent love is still less complete than another love that has all those other components and also features sexual love.

Again, I do not mean this to say that sex is the essence of love by any means.  Where one love is made up of a greater combination of components (or stronger instances of some of the components) but does not include the sexual component while another has a lesser number of components (or weaker instances of some of them) but contains the sexual component, then the love combination which includes sexual love is the inferior one.  And I’ll stress again that where sexual love interferes with other components of love, in many (or even most) cases, sexual love is worth sacrificing for the other goods.

Nonetheless, I think that when we are talking about ideals, we are talking about a maximum situation.  And conceptually love seems to me to entail maximally desiring, attaching to, and identifying with another and the sexual kind of desire and attachment while far from sufficient on its own is necessary for completeness of desire, attachment, and identification.

My conception of love, as being manifest in degrees and through various combinations of components of love, I think has the advantage of accounting for Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances.  I think the 10 features listed above (or another similar list if I missed any key features there) serve as the features that all the “family members”, all the types of love must share in order to be “part of the family”, i.e. in order to be types of love.  It is quite possible that two specific kinds or instances of love do not overlap in any of the 10 basic features necessary for minimal love.  I can imagine, for example I can imagine someone experiencing love for another by feeling a strong psychological attachment and identification with that other while not feeling affection or admiration for them, while another lover may primarily have a love which consists of an admiration which drips with affection for the beloved.  And, of course, we can imagine a love which is more robust than either of these for encompassing affection, admiration, attachment, and identification.  And still further we can imagine other loves which add more components.

When it comes to judging closer and farther approximations to the ideal of love, counting numbers of components will not always be sufficient.  There may be cases where less components more intensely present or less components of more integral quality may override instances of more components with less intensity or less integral quality.  Answering the question of which of the components contribute so much to a love experience as to be more important than numerous other components in equal degree is a hard one which I will not even attempt at this time.  All I will say here is that I suspect such weightings are possible and so if we were to compare loves, it would require more thought than goes into simply counting components present and comparing quantities.  And of course, varying degrees of intensities among the feelings or strengths of volitional components also make a difference.

We can finally return now to “unconditional” love and try to understand what exactly it is in terms of these possible components out of which all possible loves are created as combinations.  In the part 1 of this series I argued that the concept of “unconditional” love demanded too much psychologically of any human.  The concept was found to demanded that we love people with no reference to any of their desirable qualities and that we love everyone and everything “unconditional”ly.  If we were to exclude anyone or anything, even on the simple grounds that they were not the ones we chose without conditions to love, then we are conditionally loving those we chose to love because we are loving them for being those we committed to and not others.  So, “unconditional” love as a concept taken to its logical implications and made the essence of love itself did not do justice to notions (1) that it is good to love, and be loved for, desirable qualities, (2) that we can love some people purely without thereby being committed to loving everyone equally well, and (3) that we can have an admirable and special devoted love for family members and other intimates.

So, what is it “unconditional” love really about?  First, it is important to note that love as we psychologically experience it, and as it stands as an ideal for us, is a conditioned phenomenon.  The love we mislabel as “unconditional” love is usually conditioned by relationships (such as the paradigmatic case of parental “unconditional” love for children) or moral desires (such as deliberately altruistic love which selects (read: conditions) objects of love by assessing needs).

But just because these loves are conditioned, they are no less admirable.  So, what do they actually consist of and what makes them praiseworthy?  So called “unconditional” love in a personal relationship (like the parent-child one and any others based on personal ties) refuses two kinds of conditions for itself.  It rejects the conditions of sustained desire, affection, and admiration for the beloved as necessary for sustained commitment to the beloved.  It also persists beyond the weakening of visceral attachment and waives any conditions of adequate reciprocation of love by the beloved.

The so-called “unconditional” lover loves continues to volitionally commit to the beloved’s well-being and flourishing even when all the passively gained enticements to commit to the beloved are absent.  Despite diminished, waning, or non-existent affection, desire, admiration, and/or attachment, the “unconditional” lover still identifies with the beloved, looks past the beloved’s flaws and maintains a strong will committed to the beloved’s well being.  The “unconditional lover” still desires, admires, attaches, and feels affection for whatever is desirable, admirable, comfortable, and otherwise attractive about the beloved.  In this way, the “unconditional” lover loves us for what we want to be loved for, properly assesses and esteems what is valuable about our valuable traits, and yet gives us the remarkable benefit of constant devotion to us even when it is hard for her due either to the fluctuations of her own feelings, the weakness of our own character, or both.

So “unconditional” love is not only unrealistic but unnecessary since different species of conditional love can do a fine enough job of committing to us through the waning of the lover’s passive emotions and against the repulsiveness of our flaws and failings.  And not only that, but those species of love can be combined with positive affirmations of our desirable qualities for their own sakes such that we can be loved not irrespective of what we are but in significant portion for what we are.  And finally, such species of love can be partial to intimates such as family without concern that that would mean we failed implausible and useless demands for the “unconditioned.”

Your Thoughts?

For the next installment in my series on love, see Call It Volitional Love, Not Unconditional Love.

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