Wednesday, January 23, 2008


here's my attempt at recounting a little argument by j.d. velleman that i think is very beautiful:

love doesn't essentially consist in desiring someone, but in valuing them. love is not itself the desire to be near a person, or to make them happy, or to be requited, although these desires are the common biproduct of most kinds of love. we may, in fact, love someone very much (a troubled relative, say) who we don't wish to be near. but what all sorts of love consist in is the awareness of value in another. we might think of a friend or a mentor without experiencing a burning desire to go to them, or to spend our time aiding them in their various projects, but what we will experience, what the experience of love amounts to, is something like wonderment. we stand in a sort of awe at that person's incomparable value.

velleman's moral veiws are largely deontological, or kantian, meaning that he believes the moral worth of a decision is not determined by its consequences, but by its adherence to certain principles-- by the integrity of the process that produced it. on this moral model, we must never use another human being as a means to an end (as perhaps we must if we want to ensure the best consequences). velleman says, along with kant, that human beings have an autonomous will (the power to examine our own thoughts and desires and then to endorse or reject them) and that we should (and do) contemplate that will, in ourselves and others, with reverence-- we value it for its own sake. the special force of this act-- the act of reverence, or valuing, inspired by the autonomous will-- is that it arrests self-love, freeing us up, making a little space for us to act morally, as opposed to acting always under the hypnotic influence of our own self-interest.

by a deontological moral standard like kant's, love has moral worth, because it just is a special case of that most morally necessary of practices-- the appreciation of intrinsic value in another human being. and in the case of love, specifically, the special force of this appreciation is that it arrests our impulse to self-protect. when we love someone, velleman says, we value them, and in that act of valuing we are disarmed, making for ourselves a little space in which we can let someone know us. "all that is essential to love," velleman says, "is that it disarms our emotional defenses toward an object in response to its incomparable value as a self-existent end."

now, listen, i'm no kantian. i just can't buy a moral theory that doesn't draw a direct connection between the effects of an action and the morality of an action. i want my moral theories rooted firmly in some account of human flourishing or the greater good. but there's something to it.

[velleman, j.d. "love as a moral emotion". ethics. volume 109, number 2. (january, 1999), pp. 338-374]

[all of the words that i italicized in the body of this post are jdv's words, which i particularly liked.]

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