Monday, March 25, 2013

What is love?

The VMI Ethics Club is meeting tonight to discuss this question. I may or may not present some thoughts, but I might as well develop some before I go. It seems to me that a good way to start thinking about a question like this is to gather the thoughts of poets and philosophers (people who think carefully about things, but (often) in different ways) and to gather up one's own thoughts and experiences.

Poets often treat love as if it were a person. Auden, for instance, ("Are its stories vulgar but funny?", etc.) and Saint Paul ("Love is patient, love is kind"). Another common idea is that you can't say what love is. See, e.g., Al Green ("I can't explain this feeling") and Buddy Holly ("love is strange"). Above all poets and singers go on and on about love all the time. It's a bit like this fact about Wittgenstein:
In the end, in the 'Lecture on Ethics', the existence of language itself is what Wittgenstein wishes to say expresses what he seeks to express by describing the various experiences he puts forward in his examples (wonder at the existence of the world or the miraculous, a feeling of absolute safety, a feeling of guilt).    
It might be nice to be able to say that in the end the existence of songs itself is what expresses what we want to express by describing various experiences of what we call love. And these songs, of course, include hymns, anthems, and football songs as well as love songs happy and sad. But that might not be maximally informative.

Larkin has something to say about the relation between love and selfishness. His poem "Love" ends with this stanza:
Still, vicious or virtuous,
Love suits most of us.
Only the bleeder found
Selfish this wrong way round
Is ever wholly rebuffed,
And he can get stuffed.  
That's a complicated sentence: Only the bleeder found selfish this wrong way round is ever wholly rebuffed. A bleeder is a person (as in Ian Dury's "There ain't half been some clever bastards (lucky bleeders, lucky bleeders"), but "this wrong way round" sounds self-referential, the words themselves grammatically awry. I suppose it must refer to a "wrong way round" that has been recently mentioned, and that would be: "My life is for me. As well ignore gravity." This kind of 'plain truth' might be irrefutable (or it might not, but I don't want to try to refute it), but it is the attitude of a selfish bleeder who can get stuffed. (Larkin thus seems to reject himself in roughly the way that Schopenhauer rejects solipsism: you would have to be crazy to think that way.)

The philosophers are another matter. There is something depressing about the prospect of reading what philosophers have to say about love. It isn't surprising to find this sort of thing:
To summarize: 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 worth while to benefit and be with y. He regards satisfaction of these wants as an end and not as a means towards some other end.
I think this is obviously false, but I also fear that even getting into it will damage me in some way. Quickly, then, I don't so much want to benefit the people and things I love as I want them to be benefited. I wish my family well and want to be with them, for instance, but as long as they all do well then, other things being equal, I don't care whether the goods they receive come from me or someone else or their own efforts. (The ceteris paribus clause is important here. I don't want someone else moving in and taking my place.) And I do not at all think that any member of my family has some determinate characteristic in virtue of which I think it worthwhile to benefit and be with them.

Kant is more interesting:
Love as inclination cannot be commanded; but beneficence from duty when no inclination impels us and even when a natural and unconquerable aversion opposes such beneficence is practical and not pathological love. Such love resides in the will and not in the propensities of feeling, in principles of action and not in tender sympathy; and only practical love can be commanded.
This, it seems to me, is half true and half false. The falseness comes in the implicit distinction between actions and feelings. The will is not as distinct as all that from propensities of feeling. Caring for someone, taking care of them, is not simply a matter of ensuring certain outcomes (clean sheets, clean plate, medicines administered, etc.) nor of performing certain behaviors (smile, say 'hello,' etc.). Better care is taken by those who do these things in a caring way (which does not mean with a certain inner accompaniment). No doubt that can be faked to a certain extent, but this extent is not clearly determinate, it seems to me, and I don't see why really caring, or at least trying to really care, can't be commanded.

Love is a feeling, I don't deny it, but the best way to understand it might be to do so by way of thinking about the behavior that exhibits it rather than trying to get the feeling itself into phenomenological focus. I used to think that I loved the people in my family in different ways but then I realized that I was describing differences between the people rather than differences in my feelings towards them. Love is like a lens that colors our perceptions of what we love, but it is also like a gravitational field that pulls us in the direction of what we love, or pulls our attention that way. We think and talk about what we love, perhaps seeing it in great focus or perhaps seeing it blindly, or with selective blindness. "Every man thinks he has the prettiest wife at home," as Arsene Wenger once said (insightfully, if perhaps also naively). Socrates might have had love in mind when he said that:
the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and [...] the life which is unexamined is not worth living     
People who converse daily about virtue surely love virtue. The unexamined life is the life of someone who does not love wisdom, who cares little or nothing for it. Or so I sometimes think. To love is to see (think of, treat, feel about) as good. Now if we can just figure out what thinking and goodness are, we'll have cracked it.

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