A Fact of Life
Here he is for the first time: in heartbreak. It was long overdue, E. thinks; he is turning 30 next year. But maybe that’s unfair; he remembers something that felt much like heartbreak around 22. Only now, however, does E. actually display the mark symptoms he finds on PsychologyToday.com: a combination of grief and withdrawal from addiction. Indeed, E. feels, like the addict, an urge to give in to what would soothe the pain (though he doesn’t follow Psychology Today’s advice to ‘sit on your hands to keep yourself from calling or texting’ your ex); and he feels, like the bereaved, a sense of irreparable, incommensurable loss.
That heartbreak would have these two features is strange. When E. broke up with J., J. said that if E. didn’t want to be with J. anymore, it simply followed that E. didn’t love J. anymore. And advice from E.’s friends came in the forms ‘you’ve got to simply decide to move on’, ‘give it time’, and so on. So both J. and E.’s friends seemed to presuppose that love is somehow connected to the will; and consequently, that love is measured by the actions it drives you to take (J.), and, with enough effort in the opposite direction, it can wear down over time (E.’s friends). But both things struck E. as wrong. Unless introspection fails him, E. is sure, on the one hand, that the love he feels is independent from his reasons to split up from J.; and on the other, that this love is as connected to his will as his being dazzled would be if confronted with bright lights.
There are two intuitions in tension here. One is that if love is connected to one’s will, then it is, like addiction and desire, a psychological phenomenon, and so it calls for a subjective explanation in terms of the lover’s personal psychology. Love being similar to desire would explain J.’s intuition that when one loves somebody, one cannot fail to act on that love any more than one would fail to reach for a glass if one desired water.
The opposite intuition is that, if what someone loves seems no more up to them than what they see and hear, then love —and heartbreak— is a sort of objective phenomenon, and in that case it calls for an explanation in terms of whatever out there in the world, not in our minds, elicits that emotion. So love might be explained similarly to how our seeing red is explained by the way an apple’s surface produces a certain response in our eyes. This would account for why we feel like we don’t get to choose whom we love, and it would explain E.’s intuition that whatever his visible actions towards J. might be, he nevertheless does love J.—he simply cannot do anything about that.
These conflicting intuitions give rise to a puzzle. Is our love for someone just a psychological attitude, along with desires and preferences that drive action, or is it a response elicited by something out there in the world, along with sense perception?
Harry Frankfurt is probably best known in philosophy for his influential views on the freedom of the will. He is (obviously) behind what’s become known as ‘Frankfurt cases’: examples where agents count as having performed an action wilfully even though they couldn’t have done otherwise. But Frankfurt also has a significant, if less well-known, interest in the topic of love. Unsurprisingly, his view speaks to the love-as-will intuition described above.
In ‘Autonomy, Necessity and Love’ (1994), Frankfurt summarises what he thinks thus:
“The heart of love […] is neither affective nor cognitive. It is volitional. That a person […] loves something has less to do with how things make him feel […] than with the more or less stable motivational structures that shape his preferences and that guide and limit his conduct.”
Frankfurt’s view is that what we love is explained by exactly the same thing that explains what we prefer and what we choose to do: our ‘essential volitional characteristics’. Because loving someone is to have certain volitional attitudes towards them, love is necessarily correlated with taking certain actions involving the objects of our love and with willing certain results from these actions. Thus, Frankfurt thinks, loving someone implies acting in certain ways towards our beloved to promote those results, which, if we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t will. In this view, E.’s love for J. is not too different from E.’s preference for cask ales. And just as E. can’t claim to prefer cask ales whilst ordering a lager (not even an amber lager), nor can E. claim to love J. whilst, well, dumping J.
In a slogan, then: according to Frankfurt, love is volitional, or motivational. We can discern it, as it were, only backwards, by seeing what concrete actions it has moved whoever feels it to take.
It has been a rough patch for E. Only a few months later, here he is for a first time again, now going through actual grief. But maybe that’s unfair; he remembers something that felt much like grief when his grandfather died. Only now that it’s his grandmother, however, does E. actually display grief’s mark symptom of dysphoria, which the American Psychiatric Association defines as ‘persistent depressed mood and the inability to anticipate happiness or pleasure’. Or, as E. would define it, the excruciating weight of sadness breaking one’s skull.
E. is struck by how similarly grief feels to his recent heartbreak, because both are marked by the feeling of losing someone one loves rather than by the interruption of love. Like heartbreak, he realises, grief is derivative on love, which both precedes and supersedes those two as an invincible thread joining us to the objects of our love even if their physical beings have disappeared. So now E. retrospectively resents J., his own friends, Psychology Today and even Frankfurt’s theory. Wasn’t love supposed to be like desire?, he asks, seething. And wasn’t heartbreak, accordingly, supposed to be just a psychological condition, like withdrawal from addiction (an extreme form of desire)?
The experience of grief renews E.’s certainty than love is not just a matter of volition. And now he recalls evidence that J. himself agreed: ‘you don’t have to convince yourself about love’, J. had written in a sore email, ‘it’s just there, like a wall, like a rock, a fact of life’. If Frankfurt is right, however, there is no such rock-like fact. If our love for someone is a result of our motivational structures, then it is entirely subjectively grounded. But can love really be this sort of self-imposed illusion?
Frankfurt’s is only one example of many motivational or volitional analyses of love. In Frankfurt’s case, our motivation is something like the beloved person’s well-being; in Freud’s case, it is sex. Although contemporary philosophers of love deemphasize the sexual, philosopher David Velleman argues, they are generally ‘in unexpected agreement with Freud on the psychological form of love, since they tend to conceive of it as having an aim, in the manner of a Freudian drive’.
Against this stream of motivational analyses, Velleman suggests in ‘Love as a Moral Emotion’ (1999) that love is not a volitional attitude but, instead, an emotional response towards the beloved person’s ‘true self’, much in the way visual experience is a response to the actual properties of the objects of sense perception—and it’s just as involuntary as that response. Velleman agrees with Frankfurt that love imposes duties on us, but he thinks they’re not duties on our actions but on our vision, more specifically, on our attention. ‘Love [requires] us to look at things differently, whether or not [it] ultimately require[s] us to do different things’, he writes. By differently here he means attentively. To love someone, in short, is to see them for the incommensurably valuable thing they are. It is, as Iris Murdoch puts it, ‘an exercise of justice and realism and really looking’. Velleman takes inspiration from Kant to argue that love, like respect, is a response elicited by the recognition of the other’s inherent value, which every person has just in virtue of being a reflective self-conscious being, or in Kantian phrase, an ‘end-in-itself’. Crucially, ends-in-themselves’ value is incomparable precisely because they’re ends: the ultimate ground of valuation. Only the value of non-end things, ‘price’, would allow for equivalences. The incommensurability of persons’ value is harnessed by Velleman to further accommodate the fact that the people we love are unsubstitutable for us.
In a slogan, then: according to Velleman, love, like perception, is objective, which means that the incommensurable value of the ones we love is objectively there —like a rock, like a fact of life— for us to see.
Love being an involuntary response to the value of one’s beloved explains why for E. the breakup felt like a loss —quite literally, an incommensurable loss—, and why his friends’ advice to decide to move on and simply will to interrupt this love were like advising the dazzled to buck up and unsee the blinding lights. Even though neither J. nor E.’s grandmother are present to E. anymore, their respective ‘true selves’, that is, their essences as persons, did not change, which is why E.’s response to their value, i.e. his loving them, cannot change either. This also explains why one can continue to love one’s grandma even though one can’t buy her presents every Christmas anymore, and why one can love one’s ex whilst acting against his or her wishes. As Velleman writes, ‘love is an attitude towards the beloved himself but not toward any result at all’.
It’s been some time now and E. has met someone towards whose value he seems, to put it in Velleman’s terms, ‘responsive’. But there is trouble. It is hard for ‘someone’ to understand that E. will always, as he says, love J. And although this seems natural to E., he has a hard time explaining it. Let us recap why.
Frankfurt’s theory, and the intuition that love is subjective like preferences and desires, would help to explain why E. may stop loving J. and start loving someone new just like he might stop preferring ales and start preferring lagers. But that is not the case: just like E. feels that he will always love his grandma, he will also always love J. By contrast, Velleman’s theory, and the intuition that love is objective like perception, would help to explain why E. may love J. and his grandma and anybody new without those things competing, just like one’s vision can encompass various objects at any given time. But here Velleman’s view has a little theoretical problem. If, as he says, all persons have an incommensurable value just in virtue of being persons, then there is no explanation for a crucial feature of love: its partiality. There is no explanation, that is, for our loving person a rather than person b if love is an involuntary response to what both persons a and b exemplify: personhood, or end-in-itself-ness. This is a problem Frankfurt’s view doesn’t face because if the locus of love were our volitions, our loving a but not b would be subjectively explained just in the same way that our desiring ales but not lagers is.
The puzzle then comes down to the question: how can my love for person a be a response to a’s incomparable value if having incomparable value is a general feature of all persons? To answer without rendering love subjective, we might look outside the philosophy of emotions. Consider the theory of tropes in metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with, inter alia, things’ identity. Trope theory is just the view that an individual thing’s properties are distinct from other individual things’. Where its competitor, the theory of universals, says on the contrary that there is one and the same property, say, redness, identical between, say, an apple and a cherry, trope theory recognises this particular apple’s pinkish redness as distinct from that particular cherry’s crimson redness, such that every red thing, in other words, has a unique way of exemplifying that property. If we help ourselves to this view of the world, it turns out that every person has a unique way of being an end-in-itself, and so that, whenever we perform the ‘exercise of justice and realism of really looking’ at some two persons a and b, what we see are their distinct ways of being an end-in-itself, i.e. their distinct ways of having incomparable value.
Now, to Frankfurt’s credit, why I but not you respond to a’s value in loving a and you but not I to b’s may well be explained by our personal psychologies, just like a bee’s responsiveness but not mine to ultraviolet is explained by our visual systems’ peculiarities. Somehow, a’s particular value dovetails with my particular psychological dispositions, or what Frankfurt calls my ‘essential nature as a person’—which is partly constituted by, as he puts it, ‘what I cannot help caring about’. So understood, further, my loving a does not exclude my also loving c because what I respond to in loving a is not what I respond to in loving c. Our attentional range, though limited, is not one-object narrow.
As long as bright lights don’t dim, whoever sees them can’t stop being dazzled. As long as the ones I love are who they are (and as long as I am too), I can’t stop responding to whatever it is about them that I simply cannot help being able to see.
Try explaining this to someone you love tonight. Tell them your love is unique because it is not only a response to their incommensurable value but to their unique way of being incommensurably valuable. Or, in their absence, explain it, like this story’s real E., to yourself.
In either case, good luck not choking on tears.
Image: Still from Solaris (1972), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky