The emotional side of love matters, but doesn’t fully capture the reality involved, writes Dr Gaven Kerr
Love is a concept that is well known and familiar to a lot of us. It is present in nearly every movie script we come across, it is central to numerous great works of literature, and it is something present throughout human life. Given that love is such a prevalent reality for us, it bears thinking about in a philosophical fashion.
If you were to ask anyone, they would tend to give the typical examples of love: the feelings that one spouse has for another, the relationship of parent to child, the relationship of siblings, best friends etc. What seems to be common here is that love is characterised as a way of feeling towards another person. These feelings invariably involve some positive emotional regard; we at the very least like those that we love. Accordingly, in the classic presentations of love between spouses, parents and children, siblings we usually see them in an embrace, hand in hand, close to each other to signify the close emotional connection.
Whilst not desiring to ignore this aspect of love, the emotional side of love doesn’t quite capture the reality involved. This is because there is the well-known phenomenon that individuals who are deeply in love with each other can have quite a complicated emotional relationship to each other. Let’s consider what could be called the sibling paradox; it is well known that siblings love each other and would defend each other to the end, but, as any parent can attest, the inner dynamic of sibling relationships is such that they don’t always have positive emotional regard for each other; siblings can be quite positively antagonistic to each other.
Are we to say that we cease to love our loved ones when we are fighting with them? Of course not. But if that’s true, love is not captured by positive emotional regard for the beloved, but fundamentally must involve something else which tends to lead to positive emotional regard.
When we will the good for our beloved, we ourselves are happy to see our beloved happy”
The essential feature of love is that we recognise the beloved as a centre of value, a good that we will and desire for its own sake and not for our own purposes. We love someone when we see that the only relationship we can have to that individual is one of willing their good for themselves, and not for any benefit we can get out of it; parental love is an excellent example in this respect. We fail to love someone when we make them an instrument for our own good.
On this account, we can explain the positive emotions that result from love whilst at the same time accounting for the negative emotions that we may at times have towards our beloved. When we will the good for our beloved, we ourselves are happy to see our beloved happy. In a reciprocal relationship whereby we will each other’s good, both lovers are made happy and the positive emotional regard follows. However, even when lovers are happy with each other, they can do things to annoy each other. This does not entail that they no longer will each other’s good; rather it means that certain actions, attitudes, statements etc affect their emotional regard for each other. This is familiar amongst spouses, siblings, and friends – they love each other, but can often fight over issues without undermining their love for each other.
Accordingly, we can have negative emotions in relation to our beloved without undermining at all the love we have for them.
Given all of this, we ought not to confuse acting out of love for someone with acting on the basis of some positive emotional regard. For instance, we may feel sorry for someone, empathise with them, and seek to alleviate their distress. However, such alleviation may not be for their good, yet because of our emotional involvement we continue to act. Consider a parent who refuses to punish a child out of the very strong emotions he or she has for the child. Assuming that the punishment is just, it would not be for the good of the child not to undergo punishment and in turn learn an important lesson about moral responsibility.
We must be sure that we are acting for the good of our beloved, and not just being swayed by our emotions”
Undermining or refusing to punish a child because of emotional involvement would fail to instil an important lesson in the child without which he or she cannot grow to a mature adult. And such would not be acting for their own good. Acting on the basis of emotion is not the same as acting with love, and so when we seek to act out of love, we must be sure that we are acting for the good of our beloved, and not just being swayed by our emotions.
Dr Gaven Kerr is a lecturer in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. This article is part of a new regular column where philosophers from Maynooth Drs Gaven Kerr and Philip Gonzales offer accessible introductory thoughts on perennial themes in the history of philosophy and the Catholic tradition.