February 12, 2007

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

What Is Love? Part 1: The Theory

In honor of Valentine's Day, I would like to present today a philosophical theory of love. I began thinking about the theory I am presenting here (which I have not put in writing before) several years ago, in response to a paper which I now cannot find (I don't remember the author's name), which we read in my very first philosophy class at WSU. I believe the author said something about "love as valuation." My view is not the same as that of the author of the paper I can't find, but it was influenced by it enough that I thought I should do my best to make some kind of acknowledgment, even if I can't find the paper or the author's name.

This first post will give my theory of love in outline, and a second post will discuss the different types of love in light of this theory.

The theory that I hold to is this:

  • Love is a deeply internalized belief in the intrinsic value of the beloved.

I believe that this brief definition is able to take account of essentially all of the important facts about love (though I don't have any pretensions about actually listing all of the important facts about love in a single blog post, or even about knowing them all!). Let's take it apart.

Love is a belief.
My theory holds that love is a belief. This is important to considerations about the voluntariness of love. Belief, I hold, is a partially voluntary activity. That is, in most cases it is not so easy as to simply will to believe or disbelieve some proposition (though it may be that simple in cases where my rational and irrational inclinations for and against the belief come out to be nearly perfectly balanced), but I can nevertheless do many things to change what I believe, and can in many cases be held morally responsible for what I believe. For instance, I can culpably believe or disbelieve a proposition by failing investigate a matter it is morally obligatory for me to investigate, or by simply not thinking things through and allowing irrational inclinations to dominate. On the other hand, there are some things I simply find myself believing or not believing, without much thought or examination. There are some things I believe naturally. I can also develop a belief in something by persuasion (persuading myself or allowing others to persuade me), or by acting as if it were true (which amounts to internalizing a non-belief - see the section "Love is Deeply Internalized" below).

For comparison, another partially voluntary activity is breathing. I can decide how to breathe (deeply, shallowly, more frequently, through the nose, through the mouth), and I can hold my breath, but I can only hold my breath so long (I cannot keep holding my breath until I suffocate), and if I stop concentrating on breathing I will breathe in a certain way without particularly deciding to. There are also other situations I can bring about (being underwater, having my mouth covered, having pressure on my diaphragm, etc.) that can indirectly cause me to breathe (or not breathe) in a particular way. Similarly, beliefs are partially voluntary and, if love is a belief, love is partially voluntary as well.

This make sense, on the one hand, of the belief of Christians and others that there is a moral imperative to love but, at the same time, it makes sense of talk about "falling in love." That is, on the one hand, there are things that it is morally imperative to believe and there are things that (in light of the evidence or in light of our situation and psychology) we cannot help but believe, and situations come about at certain times such that they render us incapable of believing/disbelieving certain propositions. In the case of love, emotion may be an important factor in our finding ourselves psychologically compelled to love or not to love a person or thing. The role of emotion will be discussed in more detail in the section "Love is Deeply Internalized" below.

Love is a belief in intrinsic value.
If love is a belief, then what does the lover believe? According to my theory, the lover's belief is a belief in the intrinsic value of the beloved. That is, the lover believes that the beloved is valuable for his/her/its own sake, and not for any derivative purpose. It is certainly possible to love an inanimate object in this sense, but, something I regard as a plus of this theory, is that it says that most of us are speaking hyperbolically when we say, for instance, that we love pizza. We don't really regard pizza as having intrinsic value, value for its own sake. Rather, we value pizza because of its flavor, and (for those of us who are students) because it is cheap. If we actually loved pizza, we would regard the well-being of pizza as an intrinsically good thing, and we would want there to be pizza in the world (good pizza, no less) not for the sake of eating it, but simply because a world with more pizza in it is a better world, whether or not there is anyone there to eat it. Perhaps someone loves pizza this way, but, for most of us, this kind of talk can't be any more than hyperbole.

If we regard a person as having intrinsic value, we will seek the good of that person as an end in itself. We will desire that person to be the best that he or she can be, and we will think that his or her presence in the world would make the world a better place, even if we did not particularly get anything out of it.

An interesting consequence of this theory, which I realized only after I adopted it, is that it makes one of the forms of the Categorical Imperative ("So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." - Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:429, tr. Mary Gregor) almost exactly equivalent to the Biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31, etc.). The "almost" comes in because, according to this theory, action is not a core part of the definition of love, though, as we shall see, it is a necessary corollary. This formulation of the Categorical Imperative is, in fact, what "loving your neighbor" looks like in practice.

Love is deeply internalized.
What does it mean for a belief to be deeply internalized? We hold many beliefs in the abstract, and some of them don't mean very much to us, and some of them we wouldn't mind rejecting if we were given some reason to. Some beliefs influence our actions on a nearly instinctive level, some only if we make a conscious effort to impose them on our actions, and some do not influence our actions at all. In contemporary epistemologies, we often think of a web of beliefs, where the challenging of some belief creates a hole in the web that must be repaired by modifying beliefs around it, etc. At the center of the web are our most basic and deeply held beliefs. These beliefs are the ones that I mean by deeply internalized. In particular, deeply internalized beliefs have the following (inter-related)characteristics:

  1. Other beliefs are built upon them.

  2. They naturally display themselves in our actions.

  3. A serious challenge to such beliefs would lead to a personal crisis.

It can be easily seen especially how (3) is inter-related with (1) and (2). If you are made to consider rejecting a belief that you have been building your other beliefs and your actions on constantly for a long time, this will certainly represent a personal crisis. Deeply internalized beliefs are taken for granted, and they generally have strong emotional connections. For most people, highly abstract beliefs in, say, laws of physical science, do not display themselves in actions or have the sort of attachments that would lead to a personal crisis if they were shown to be wrong, unless they have some sort of fallout in terms of ethics, or theology, or atheology, or politics, or something. Also note that an individual will generally be willing to adjust less deeply internalized beliefs in order to make them consistent with more deeply internalized beliefs.

Note that degrees of love are admitted by this theories along two dimensions. First, there is the degree of value one assigns to the beloved, and, second, there is the degree of internalization. Things may get more complicated as, for instance, I may hold an abstract, not very deeply internalized belief that a certain person has a very high degree of intrinsic value, while I hold a very deeply internalized belief that the person has at least some lesser degree of intrinsic value. (Just as I have a very deeply internalized belief that there are more than 100,000 people in the world, since this is a more or less comprehensible number and I'm sure there are a lot of people around, but a much less deeply internalized belief that there are about 6 billion people in the world, since 6 billion is a mind-bogglingly huge number that I have trouble digesting.) This is probably the way most people are in their love of a random person on the street with whom they are not acquainted: they hold a very very deeply internalized belief that the person has at least enough intrinsic value that it would be terribly wrong to kill him simply because his existence was inconvenient to you, but their deeply internalized belief probably doesn't assign nearly as much value to him as their abstract beliefs. (This will, of course, be especially true of those people, including, but not limited to, Christians, who hold abstract beliefs that place a very high intrinsic value on human beings.)

Note further that deeply internalized beliefs will be related to emotions in at least two ways. First, if a belief is about a matter of great moment emotionally, it will become deeply internalized very quickly once it is accepted. Beliefs which one comes to on the basis of emotion (and certainly love is often this sort of belief) will have almost instant internalization, whereas beliefs that enter by way of the intellect will usually take much longer to become interalized, and may never become internalized at all. Conversely, as a belief becomes more deeply internalized, a stronger emotional attachment to the belief will develop. Thus emotion can (but need not) contribute to the development of love, and, conversely, genuine love will always generate a certain degree of emotional attachment. Nevertheless, love is by no means identical with any particular emotion. Neither affection, nor good-will (if that's an emotion), nor infatuation is a form of love, but all of them may be either causes or effects or both of genuine love.

It is also very important that genuine love is always accompanied by action, and not just by action, but by natural action. That is, to the degree that the belief is deeply internalized, we do not need to stop and think and say "I must act lovingly toward this person" but, rather, the loving act will be our instinctive reaction. However, intentionally and consciously acting according to beliefs (or even things we do not yet believe) that are not yet deeply internalized is one of the key ways they become internalized. By acting as though a belief were true, we invest ourselves in it and this will tend to cause us to act in such a way more naturally and with less effort. (Compare Jesus' remark, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" - Matthew 6:21.) It may also be the case that our instincts about how best to act lovingly toward a person are wrong, and for this reason we may need to stop and think. This may not be evidence that the love is not deeply internalized but, rather, that our rational beliefs about what actions are consistent with our belief in the intrinsic value of a person are not deeply internalized.

This is what I mean by the statement, "Love is a deeply internalized belief in the intrinsic value of the beloved." Part 2 will discuss how this theory can differentiate the three traditional types of love - philia, eros, and agape - along two dimensions: the reason for the belief, and the action the lover desires to take as a result.

Posted by Kenny at February 12, 2007 12:29 PM
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who was the first person to make the theory of love? i dont get the whole part about love is a beleif because if its a beleif then why do people who dont really beleive in beleifs or religons other than there own. would follow some one elses beleif of love?

Posted by: ally at April 7, 2007 12:23 AM

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