- BQO - https://www.bigquestionsonline.com -

What Is the Role of Love in Human Freedom?

As human beings, love seems to have an important role in our lives: our lives go better when we are loved and when we love others. Yet the role that love plays is not simply that of an optional accessory or adornment it is nice to have, like icing on a cake. Love is more fundamental than that and seems to speak to our very humanity: without love, or at least the potential for love, we would be somehow less than human

There are, I believe, many ways in which this is so, ways that correspond to different types of love. Think about some ways we use the word, ‘love’. Although we sometimes say that we love chocolate or watching some TV show, meaning simply that we like it very much, I do not think such liking has the kind of “depth” or importance in our lives that our loves normally do. By contrast, such “depth” is evident, for example, in someone’s love for her job or being an amateur musician or volunteering at the local soup kitchen. In such cases we don’t merely like the objects of our love; we value them in the sense that we find them to be a part of what makes our lives worthwhile and so contributes to our sense of who we are. In other cases, the objects of our loves are other people. Such personal love is especially rich and interesting because of what its object is: if who we are is made up, at least in part, by what we value, then if I love someone, part of my concern must be for what he values: I must value what he values for his sake. This is, we might say, a matter of our intimately identifying with our beloveds, so that their identities become in this way a part of our own.

Clearly there is much more to be said here, but I hope this is enough to show how our loves, as a matter of finding things important in these various ways, shape our reasons and motivations for acting on behalf of things we find important in life, so that we are sometimes willing to sacrifice our own interests (or even ourselves!) for the sake of what we love. Love thus bears importantly on our agency in a way that helps define and shape it as distinctively human. Yet what I want to suggest here is that another form of love, which I will call love of humanity, is central to our agency in a different way that bears directly on our freedom and responsibility. This will require some explanation.

As philosophers understand it, to be an agent in general is not merely to be the cause of certain events in the world, as when the wind blows down a tree. Rather, it is to be a certain type of cause, namely one grounded in the reasons the agent has. In one paradigm case, such a reason will be that the agent perceives that acting in a certain way will help satisfy a desire. Nonetheless, it should be clear that having a desire is different from having a goal. Heat-seeking missiles and chess-playing computers have goals, and in some sense they “perceive” that acting a certain way—veering left or trading queens—will help them achieve those goals. Yet intuitively missiles and computers do not have desires and act for reasons: they are not genuine agents. The difference, I believe, is that desires (but not mere goals) involve one’s finding their objects to be worth pursuing—involve one’s caring about their objects. Moreover, to care about something in this sense is to be emotionally affected by what happens to it: to be afraid when it is threatened, to be relieved when the threat passes, to be disappointed or angry when it is harmed, and to be joyous when it is benefited. So dogs and cats, but not missiles and computers, are agents because they have emotional capacities that make it possible for them to care about their ends.

Nonetheless, human agency is distinctive, and I have already hinted at part of its distinctiveness in distinguishing mere liking from the “deeper” valuing or mere caring from genuine loving. We humans, but not “mere” animals, have a sense of our lives as worthwhile or meaningful in part through the things we value and the people we love. Like caring, such valuing and loving are attitudes that are also grounded in our emotional capacities, but these attitudes and the relevant emotions are “deeper”. Thus, we do not merely feel fear when something we value is threatened, we feel anxious about it; and we are not merely satisfied or frustrated with our accomplishments or failures or with those we love, we are proud or ashamed. Thus, valuing and loving involve being emotionally affected in these deeper ways connected to our sense of what is worthwhile in our lives, a sense that is partly grounded in our values and loves.

In addition to our capacities to value and love and our sense of personal worth, we humans are free and responsible agents that can be praised or blamed—held accountable—for what we do. Now there is a sense in which we praise or blame a dog for doing such things as scaring away an intruder or making a mess on the carpet. In doing so, we seem to be doing two things: (a) identifying him as the cause of the relevant events and (b) rewarding or punishing him as a way of making it more or less likely that he will do it again. This presupposes that there are certain ways we expect the dog to behave, but—and this is the crucial point—these expectations can be arbitrary in that they are ones we simply impose on the dog in a way that need not connected to any broader set of cares or concerns of the dog. In this way, I can train my dog to do a wide range of things from useful tasks to stupid pet tricks.

With us humans, things are different. For in praising or blaming you I am holding you responsible for upholding or violating a norm that I thereby recognize as binding on us, and I call on you as freely choosing your actions also to recognize both the norm as interpersonally binding and your compliance with or violation of that norm. Indeed, there is a whole range of emotions philosophers call the “reactive attitudes” by which we hold each other responsible to such interpersonal norms. These are emotions like gratitude and resentment (by the “victim” of some wrongdoing or rightdoing), approbation and indignation (by “witnesses” to it), and self-congratulation and guilt (by the “perpetrator”). For example, if you carelessly and without apology step on my foot, I might resent you, a resentment I express by saying, “Hey! Get off my foot!” In thus expressing my resentment, I am calling on you to recognize not just that you have been inconsiderate but also that you (and we more generally) ought not to be. But I am doing something more. I am recognizing you both as having a kind of standing as one of us who are bound by this norm and as having a kind of authority to hold the rest of us responsible to it as well. That is, I am recognizing you as a participant in a certain human community in which we hold each other to certain norms. (Note the contrast between this case and that of a dog that steps on my foot: while I might get angry at the dog, it would seem odd for me to resent him or hold him responsible, for the dog is not in this way a participant in human community.) Moreover, I am demanding that you likewise recognize my authority to hold you responsible (as well as my standing thus to be held responsible by you and others) and so to respond to my blame with apologies or reparations or excuses.

These mutual demands that we each recognize the standing and authority—the dignity—of others as participants in a human community are expressive of broader concerns we have for the community and for each other. It is precisely here in being embedded within such broader concerns that the expectations we have for each other as members of human communities differs from the expectations I have for my dog. Such a broader concern for the dignity we each have as members of human communities just is, I submit, our love of humanity, a love that is founded at least in major part by the reactive attitudes we feel in holding each other responsible to interpersonal norms. Being both the subject and object of such love of humanity is what makes us be members of these human communities and so the responsible agents we are.

If this is right, then we humans, as distinct from mere animals by virtue of the depth and responsibility that characterize our agency, are fundamentally constituted by our capacities to love.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can dogs and cats love in the same sense we humans do?
  2. Should we understand our being responsible agents in terms of our standing to be held responsible and our authority to hold others responsible?
  3. Is “love of humanity” appropriately understood to be a kind of love? Or is it fundamentally different from the sort of personal love we have for our friends and family members?

Discussion Summary

The topic of my essay, “What is the Role of Love in Human Freedom?” generated many interesting questions, which focused around several themes. One prominent theme concerned the nature of self-love, which some thought — correctly — can be corrupting, leading to various forms of narcissism. This worry might seem to be compounded by my claim that self-love should be understood as essentially involving dispositions to feel pride, for, it might be thought, pride involves an excessive concern with oneself, potentially blinding oneself to the needs and interests of others and resulting in self-conceit or hubris. Consequently, it may seem as though such self-conceit or even narcissism is a normal consequence of self-love, a conclusion I would want to resist. While it is true that we sometimes think of pride as involving an excessive concern for oneself, on my account the sort of pride at issue in self-love is pride that is properly responsive to one’s success in living the kind of life one finds worth living. Here we must recognize that while there are risks to excessive pride, there are risks as well to feeling pride — and self-love — too little. Moreover, we should recognize that we can be proud not only of ourselves but also of others, and our pride in others plays an important role in our love for them. Consequently, our capacity for self-love develops together with our capacity to love others, a point that speaks to our essentially social nature.

Another theme of the discussion concerned animal love. It was pointed out — again correctly — that in some sense animals like dogs are capable of love, and their love seems to be instinctive and unconditional, perhaps more pure and less self-interested than personal love. Yet while it does make good sense to acknowledge the affection and concern of animals as a kind of love, we must also recognize that this affection and concern is distinct in kind from the sort of love of which we humans are capable. Personal love can be deeper and richer because it is a responsiveness to the beloved’s sense of personal values, of the kind of life worth her living, such that the lover comes to value these things for her sake. Because animals are not capable of such a responsiveness, their affection and concern is distinct in kind from personal love.

This depth and richness of human love points to a third theme of our discussion: the potentially transformative character of love. In one way, the deeply intimate character of the sort of personal love just described has the power to transform both the lover’s and beloved’s sense of what is important in life and thereby to shape their identities. Yet, as I suggested in the article, love can transform our very capacities for agency themselves. For we each come to have the standing to be held responsible and the authority to hold others responsible — we come to have this dignity as responsible agents — by being recognized as having such dignity by both ourselves and others. In thus recognizing ourselves and being recognized as participants in a human community, we come to identify (and be identified) with that community itself. Such identificatory concern with the community and with others as its members is what I have called the love of humanity, and it is such love that transforms us into being the potentially responsible human agents that we are. Or so I have claimed.

New Big Questions:

Although the discussion here is officially closed, the broader philosophical discussion remains wide open. One direction the broader conversation might go is to thinking about the possibility of conflicts of value, both intrapersonal and interpersonal, and how we might resolve them. In identifying with communities via our love of humanity, we in part come to be bound by the norms and values of those communities. Yet we can belong to many communities simultaneously, and the various values of these different communities might conflict with each other and with our personal values. How, then, should we think about such conflicts in relation to our identities as persons, and how can they be resolved? What does this tell us about the relationships between us as individuals and the communities of which we are a part?

Another set of questions raised by this discussion concerns the way love of one person might differ from love of another — an issue raised by wondering14’s appeal to “gradients” of love but was unfortunately not pursued. Clearly love comes in “degrees”: you might love one person “more” than you love another person. But this appeal to degrees does not capture the variety of dimensions in which one’s life can be affected by one’s love for someone, dimensions that can vary significantly from one relationship to another.