The amorality of love
The things I do for love
Jaime Lannister*, The Game of Thrones
Personal is not the same as important.
Carrot Ironfoundersson, Captain of the Night Watch and supposed true king of AnkhMorpork
Unlike just about everyone else, I am inexperienced in such matters as love**, so let me just scratch my contrarian itch.
Except for the universal and rather impersonal love for mankind which God and Nelson Mandela have, love, whether it is romantic, filial, familial or fraternal, is particular. It would be one thing to talk about love as just one more dimension of preferences we have, neither necessarily good nor bad, but people are not willing to let love alone: No no no! Love has to have something morally salutary about it. It may even have to be the highest virtue. But most arguments on this score are just bad. Why is your mother/sister/wife/friend more deserving of/entitled to your concern than someone else’s mother?
Consider the following:
1. Love makes us disposed to feel concerned about the wellbeing of at least some persons. This is at least better than being concerned about the well being of nobody, even if it is not as morally perfect as feeling concern for everyone.
Talk about damning with faint praise. And all this understates or even ignores the extent of the moral failures that love could drive a person to. An official, who would not corrupt himself for his own sake, would do it for the sake of one he loves dearly. Any of us would seriously consider violating the ordinary deontic restrictions we set on ourselves if the wellbeing of our loved one’s were at stake. A lot of actual corruption and venality in places like India are driven by love of one’s family. Why not take a bribe if it would help put one’s child through college?
2. We can more efficiently do our general duty to help others by focusing on those who are near and dear to us. Because we tend to have a better grasp on what would make our loved ones happy, everything else equal we ought to focus our efforts and resources on doing things that would make our loved ones happy, rather than some stranger on the other side of the world. Love is thus justified because it characteristically motivates us to find out what would make our loved ones happy.
The problem is that this does not justify the way we would like to sacralise love. For instance, do you really need to buy that diamond ring for your wife/girlfriend (or that spiffy new gadget for your husband/boyfriend) or could that money do more good purchasing mosquito nets for families in sub-Saharan Africa? Its not that we’re strongly obligated to help the world’s poor, it is that while it is excusable or permissible not to, that doesn’t say anything salutary about dispositions like love which keep us from doing more for the global poor.
3. Love is justified because love is necessary for a stable family unit, which is itself necessary if widespread social coordination is to be possible. The idea roughly is that children who do not grow up in stable family units where they are loved tend to be anti social jerks and if too many people are anti social jerks, social coordination becomes impossible. Thus a general norm in favour of loving one’s family is necessary for society to even exist.
This last view comes closest to my own and is perhaps even basically correct. However, a significant worry is how we tell that the thesis holds empirically. It is already difficult to imagine a world in which there are few loving families. Could it be possible that in such a world people will find a way to socialise their young without necessarily caring for one any more than they would care for another? That is difficult to say.
Do any of you guys have a suggestion as to a better argument?
*just before he pushes Bran (a seven year old kid) who just caught him having sex with his own sister whom he loves very very much (perhaps too much?) out of a window.
**the romantic kind. I get plenty of love from my family