Monday, January 21, 2008


[update: i spent most of the last couple of weeks studying (if you can call the nearly aimless reading and wildly wondering note-taking that i do studying) for this ethics comp, which i'm totally certain that i failed. and that's alright. i get three tries, and what i really need to work on are my test-taking strategies (snooze). fine, fine. anyway, the way the test works is that you get a list of twelve questions to study, and only nine will be on the test, and you only have to answer three of those nine, but you don't know which nine, or which three, so you have to make all of these uninteresting/strategic choices about how many you want to study and which, and for how long. i make bad choices, and i know that i'm doing it, but i feel compelled to follow my unstrategic interests. here is the question that i spent the longest time preparing for, which i knew wouldn't be on the test, and wasn't:]

does love for another have moral worth?
now that's a fine fucking question.
and brings me back to philosophy, which (sorry!) i've wondered away from these last few posts.

the problem (as laid out in one particularly nice paper on the subject) is that most moral theories, though wildly different in other respects, demand some sort of impartiality of us. to behave morally may mean acting in a way that maximizes aggregate utility, or some far-seeing enlightened self-interest; it may mean acting in accordance with universalizable principles, or principles that we would endorse if we were to carefully reflect on them. there are an array of theories to choose from, but there is a common sense that an ethical person will be fair and level-headed, fully considerate of the immediate and long-term rights and interests of herself and others.

but love! partiality is love's essence. love enthralls and arrests. love comes all tangled up with our most ethically suspect desires. love is the most notorious skew-er of sound judgment this side of blind rage. was anything ever less responsive to fairness than love? more imprudent? if anything ever was, i can't think of it. anyway, i won't bother cataloging the problems of perception and judgment that are the beginning and end of romantic love-- if you can't think of examples from your own life, please consult any song, poem, book, or piece art created by anyone, ever. the whole of pop music is particularly enlightening on this subject.

but even strong romantic love is not always violent (hume reminds us of the distinction between strong passions and violent ones)*, and we use the word 'love' to describe quite a varied range of emotions and ways of relating to other people, animals, objects, and even ourselves, which aren't romantic at all. there are other ways of getting into love besides falling. often enough we're born into it, or find it generated quietly in the friendly friction of mutual and varied interests, or the camaraderie of shared circumstance. but can any of these kinds of love-- can any love other than an indiscriminant philanthropy-- embody the moral ideal, or even meet the most basic moral standards, of any meaningful and coherent moral picture?

like a whole mess of questions in philosophy, if you define the terms of this question well enough, you've come about as close to answering the question as you're likely to get. does love have moral worth? well, what do you mean by love? and what do you mean by moral? i haven't managed to answer either question, and it's time to stop. but i read a couple of compelling ideas on the this topic, which i'll try to write a little bit about very soon.

*by "passion" hume means something very broad-- not just a subset of our more violent feelings, but all of our feelings-- he means "desires" or "passions" to include all of the bit of human psychology that aren't strictly beliefs on matters of fact. so by this definition a passion may be strong in the sense that it consistently guides my behavior even if it isn't violent (meaning that it doesn't rise and fall suddenly, or that i may not even experience it as an emotion).

[p.s. the photograph is by richard barnes. jared says that my spirit animal is a brown bear, and i say that his is. anyway, i like pictures better than titles, because it's less weird when i change them all the time, which i inevitably do.]


Jane said...

It seems to me, merely as a human who has lived 42 years and is not a philosopher, that early romantic love is a special case, which must be distinguished from other loves, which might have more in common. (Sibling love and parent love share many qualities, I think.) And isn't love also affected by time, which amplifies the moral dimension? (Morality has more longevity than lust, for example, and might feed a partnership more than it does love at first sight.)

Say more, LG.

(Great picture. I find it arresting, and I almost l*ve it.)

laura.g said...

yes! but sibling and parent love- and all sorts, i think- come into conflict with ethical theory at many of the same points as romantic love. how do we justify, within the context of a principled system of ethics, the vast inequalities in how we distribute the resources of our time, money, care, attention? and, even if we choose to a less exacting standard, it might still seem unfair that we are almost always more or less likely to excuse particular behaviors in those we love than we are in those we don't, and almost always more likely to rationalize the behavior of, or to feel empathy toward, who we love.