Maurice asked:

What is love? Have philosophers anything useful to add to Plato’s discussion of this question in the ‘Symposium’?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Philosophers have been discussing the idea of love and its implications for human affairs at least since Plato. Modern philosophers have proposed four different, though perhaps partially overlapping, conceptions of love that are significantly distinct from those of the ancients: (1) love as an emotion, (2) love as a ‘robust concern,’ (3) love as a union, and (4) love as valuing the other.

Let us start with the idea of robust concern. The defining feature of this kind of love is selfless interest in the other’s well-being, for his or her sake and not because we gain anything out of it. In the somewhat dry and formal words of philosopher Gabriele Taylor: ‘If x loves y then x wants to benefit and be with y etc., and he has these wants (or at least some of them) because he believes y has some determinate characteristics Ψ in virtue of which he thinks it worthwhile to benefit and be with y. He regards satisfaction of these wants as an end and not as a means towards some other end.’

All right, I promise never to quote a technical paper on the philosophy of love directly again, because this is the sort of thing that gives philosophers a bad reputation. Still, what Taylor is saying is that we don’t love the other (y) because her characteristics (Ψ) benefit us, but because they are worth cherishing in their own right. Although this idea of selfless love has some commonsense appeal, there also seems to be something clearly amiss. As another philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, put it (not a direct quote!), the idea is that robust love is neither a matter of feelings nor a matter of opinions, but a matter of will: we love someone in a robust fashion because she acts in accordance with a set of motives and preferences that we approve of.

A second modern philosophical view to entertain is that of love as valuing the other person. The basic idea is that love means to value someone in himself or herself, and that we do so because of an appraisal that centers on the dignity of that person. If this sounds a bit abstract and detached from the real world, well, it is. But there is an important kernel that philosophers who support the value conception of love are trying to get at: the idea that a love object (a person) cannot simply be swapped for another one with similar characteristics, because this would violate the dignity of both people. Think of the ‘robust concern’ view just discussed: there is nothing in that view that would preclude you from having the same ‘concern’ for (that is, loving) another object with the same characteristics as the one you are loving now. You could therefore swap gods or lovers, or even love many gods and many people at the same time, as long as they share the same set of characteristics (Ψ). Some people might be okay with this, but others feel that real love ought to be more exclusive and less subject to commodification. If you are in the latter group, then the value view of love might fit you well.

The third modern philosophical perspective is of love as a union. This is the idea that what is central to love is two independent individuals forming a third, collective union, a ‘we’ that becomes more important than and transcends each individual ‘I.’ Some philosophers speak of this ‘we’ entity in a clearly metaphorical way, while others seem to give a more serious ontological (pertinent to existence) status to the ensemble, almost as if it really were a new individual in its own right. As with the value view of love, the union conception tries to capture something that most people who have been or are in love can relate to: the creation of a new set of priorities as the couple as a unit becomes more important than the individuals who constitute it. But therein lies a problem as well: human beings are both social and fairly individualistic animals, and one can object that a union view of love puts too much emphasis on the couple at the expense of personal space, rights, and dignity. As we all know, it is precisely this tension between joint and individual needs that often is at the root of relationship problems in real life.

Finally, we turn to the emotional view of love. In philosophy an emotion is a combination of an evaluation of the object of the emotion and a motivational response to that object. For instance, if I’m afraid of you, that means I have evaluated you as somehow dangerous to my health, and it probably also means that I am prepared to take some action against you, either defensive or evasive. Of course, thinking of love as an emotion would hardly be surprising for the non-philosopher, but the question for us here is: What sort of understanding of the phenomenon can be gained this way? And what potential problems arise if we conceptualize love primarily as an emotion?

One thing that philosophers get out of emotional theories of love is being allowed to distinguish loving someone from simply liking someone. If love is a distinct and deeper sort of emotion than the emotions elicited by friendship or admiration, then we begin to see why those other experiences are so clearly not like love. According to several philosophers who support an emotional view of love, what accounts for much of this difference is that we share a unique narrative history with the beloved: regardless of how he or she will change throughout life, we keep accumulating common memories of events and situations that are obviously unrepeatable with anyone else. This, according to such philosophers, also explains why we don’t commonly ‘trade up’ at the first opportunity, why we do not switch partners as soon as we meet someone with even better characteristics (call them ‘ Ψ+’) than the one we are currently engaged with.