How To Love in Three Easy Steps

I live in a small, urban, studio. From my desk in the corner of the room, I can see almost my entire life. Currently: The sun slips obliquely through the south-facing windows, limning the arched back of a dog on a disheveled bed. Rumpled on a chair is the heated blanket I washed, hung to dry, but never folded and put away. On top of that sits a painting that fell off of the wall early this morning. The laundry cart, crammed with clean linens, sits conspicuously in the middle of the room, and the kitchen sink slowly turns sour with a stack of dishes that need to be hand-washed. The nooks and crannies that I can’t see from here are heaps of objects out of place.

My space is actually quite lovely beneath this window dressing of chaos. I’ve been told I have some skill with design. This is a happy state of affairs since good design really matters to me, but my budget requires some feats of creative genius to actualize the aesthetic comfort that I crave. The uncanny ability to make something out of nothing is not, however, what’s on my mind just now. Rather, what’s niggling at me, and why I’m writing instead of cleaning my apartment, is this: Design—of any form— is structure that we impose upon the world. But it’s not just any kind of structure; it’s purposive, the product of intelligent agency.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a thing has been shaped by natural forces, or whether it’s the product of intelligent agency. And even when our best theories tell us that brute, stochastic forces are responsible for the most exquisite features of our world (e.g. The human brain), we often have difficulty believing it. Why, then, do so many of us treat a critical determiner of wellbeing — love— as a product of brute forces rather than the carefully crafted handiwork of intelligent agency? Some will undoubtedly argue that conceiving of love as a deliberate and well-designed practice takes the fun and excitement out of loving. To this I reply: fun at the expense of wellbeing is no fun at all.

[Confession: I had to stop writing and put my space into order. I couldn’t stand the chaos anymore…]

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I’d like to begin at the most basic level and then build up. Love is an asymmetric, binary relation. This obviously needs some unpacking, and I will try not to bore you with too much technical detail. But this part is important because it will help dispel some common misconceptions about the nature of love, so bear with me for a few paragraphs. What I mean by ‘relation’ in the claim that love is an asymmetric, binary relation is not the same thing as the colloquial term ‘relationship’. Rather, what I mean is a type of structure that exists between two or more things. Let me explain.

Suppose that x kicked y. The structure that this relation denotes depends on what it is to kick someone. Kicking is not a random bodily flailing, but an ordered, purposeful movement. So, the structure that exists between x and y in the kicking relation is the type of structure that is unique to actions. Further, the kicking relation is asymmetric. That is, the kicking relation only goes one way. If x kicks y, nothing about that state of affairs necessitates that y kicks x. For comparison: x is equal to y is a symmetric relation. If x is equal to y, then y is, necessarily, equal to x. It goes both ways.

The love relation follows the same pattern as the kicking relation. If x loves y, this state of affairs, all by itself, does not necessitate the state of affairs: y loves x. If x loves y AND y loves x, then we have a conjunction of asymmetrical relations, but this should not be mistaken for the claim that reciprocal love relationships instantiate symmetric love relations. They do not. There is no such thing as a symmetric love relation.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because it places constraints what we count as a plausible theory of love. First, love relations are not simply figments of the way we talk, they denote real states of affairs. So, love is inherently structured. We have yet to elucidate this structure in detail, but any theory of love that says love is an unstructured state of being is wrongheaded. Second, the mere fact that a love relation is asymmetrical does not entail that it must also be self-sacrificial. Any theory of love that claims otherwise is also wrongheaded. Many religious theories of love promote this idea and I think it’s unfortunate that they’ve made such an impact on mainstream thinking (it is particularly unfortunate for women, but that’s a topic for another post).

That said, I am going to make an uncontroversial assumption: love is fundamentally tied to wellbeing. If this is true, and love is not essentially self-sacrificial, then a plausible theory of love must be able to explain how the wellbeing of both the lover (x) and the beloved (y) in the asymmetric love relation (x loves y) can be positively/negatively impacted by the relation. In other words, loving someone who doesn’t love you back can be good for you and good the other person. Finally, a plausible theory of love will explain how, and why, a conjunction of asymmetric love relations (x loves y AND y loves x) can have a greater impact on the combined wellbeing of participants, than a single asymmetric love relation has on the sum of the individual wellbeing of participants. In other words, a really good theory of love will explain why loving someone who loves us back is usually better for us than loving someone who doesn’t love us back. This is the story about love that I aim to tell.

The central character in our story about love is wellbeing. We all have some intuitive sense of what wellbeing is, but once you start an explicit discussion about it you’ll often find that people have very different opinions about what it is and how to achieve it. We are not likely to come to a consensus on the matter, but I am going to assume a view about wellbeing that is well-represented among both philosophers and non-philosophers. That view is this: wellbeing consists in more than just momentary pleasure. Pleasure can certainly contribute to a person’s wellbeing, but so can meaningfulness in life, success in one’s life projects, the satisfaction of desires, the absence of systematic injustice/oppression, the absence of physical and psychological pain, etc.

Wellbeing can be measured at a moment, or measured over a period of time. Wellbeing over a period of time—say, a year or two—is not reducible to the sum of momentary wellbeing for that same time period. For instance, a life story that begins in a series of failures but progresses through failure to success may involve low levels of wellbeing at any given moment, but the narrative structure of success-from-failure adds to a dimension of wellbeing that is completely distinct from the dimension of wellbeing that captures what happens in any given moment. A life that has a narrative structure with an upward trajectory is better for the person living it than a life that, say, begins with success and ends in abject failure. There are a number of narrative relations that can add value to a person’s life (over and above momentary wellbeing), but I need not enumerate them all to illustrate the point. How our lives unfold, and the narrative relations between the periods of our lives, matter just as much (if not more) to us as the amount of pleasure or desire satisfaction we have in any given moment. Narrative structure gives a life meaning, and meaningfulness contributes to wellbeing.

Suppose, now, that everything I’ve just said about wellbeing is true. There are a number of structural elements that must be in place for a person to enjoy most types of wellbeing. First, there is motivational structure. Desires are motivational mental states. Most of us have a variety of desires of varying strengths and complexity. Because it’s impossible for us to get everything we desire all of the time, we generally prioritize desires and act only on those that we think we have a good chance of satisfying. That is, we naturally order our motivational states into a distinctive type of structure that largely dictates what we pursue and how we pursue it. If the satisfaction of desires contributes to wellbeing (and I think it does) then wellbeing depends on a well-ordered motivational structure.

Second, there is rational structure. Any time we pursue an interest, we have to engage in means-end reasoning. For example, if I desire Jeni’s Goat Cheese and Cherries ice cream, I have to engage in practical reasoning to figure out what resources I will need to invest in order to get Jeni’s ice cream and I have to actually have the required resources to invest. So, for instance, if getting Jeni’s ice cream requires that I drive a 2018 Corvette Z06 to New York City and back, then my desire will remain unsatisfied. I don’t have the requisite vehicle, nor do I have the time to make the trip. There is nothing wrong with my continuing to desire Jeni’s ice cream given the fact that I do not have the necessary means to satisfy my desire. There is, however, something very wrong with me planning to actually get Jeni’s ice cream if I do not have the means and cannot acquire them in a reasonable manner. (I think we can all agree that taking out a second mortgage to buy the car to drive to New York City to get a $4 scoop of ice cream would be highly irrational.)

Third, there is social structure. The absence of systematic oppression contributes to wellbeing in a number of ways, but the most obvious is that it provides greater opportunity for people to pursue their interests.

Finally, there is moral structure. Sometimes there are strong moral reasons not to pursue some of our interests, so moral structure places constraints on which of our interests we deem worthy of pursuit. For instance, one might take great pleasure in harming innocent people, and pleasure contributes to wellbeing. However, moral reasons outweigh reasons of wellbeing in cases like this.

By now you are surely wondering what love has to do with any of this. Let me explain. Love is something that necessarily impacts wellbeing (either for better or worse) of both the lover (x) and the beloved (y) in a love relation (x loves y). In order for x’s loving y to have any impact whatsoever on the wellbeing of either x or y, there has to be some kind of underlying motivational structure. At the very least, x has to desire the wellbeing of y. And as long as there is a motivational structure, then there is very likely a rational structure that corresponds to the desires/interests x has decided to pursue. So long as we think love is tied to wellbeing, then we have very good reason to think that love is a highly structured relation between individuals.

According to a philosopher by the name of Harry Frankfurt, loving is a special case of caring. When someone cares about you, they have a stable desire for your wellbeing. A stable desire is one that persists even when it goes unsatisfied. If the person you care about experiences a high level of wellbeing, your desire is satisfied and your wellbeing is increased through that desire satisfaction. If the person you care about fares poorly, then your wellbeing is negatively impacted by desire dissatisfaction (and possibly any negative emotions associated with that state).

Loving someone involves having a stable desire for y’s wellbeing (i.e. Caring about them), AND identifying their wellbeing as your own. What, exactly, does it mean to identify another person’s wellbeing as your own? An obvious answer, and the one I think Frankfurt has in mind, goes something like this. Identifying another person’s wellbeing as your own involves weighing their desires, goals, projects, etc. as equal in weight to your own. When you deliberate about where to invest your resources (time, money, emotional energy, etc.), you don’t favor your own projects over those of the person you love. Because of this, you don’t see their wellbeing as fundamentally at odds with your own. Rather, the increase of their wellbeing through the satisfaction of their interests is good for you in the same way that the satisfaction of your own wellbeing is good for you. In short, there is no difference between your interests and the interests of your beloved. You now have a single set of joint interests rather than two distinct sets of individual interests.

As intuitive as this theory seems at first glance, it has some problems. The most notable problem is that it appears to license a pernicious form of paternalism (c.f. Ebels-Duggan). For instance, suppose that someone you love decides to quit a high paying job that they really enjoy and pursue humanitarian work instead. This move is likely to result in decreased wellbeing in the short term, and possibly even in the long term. If you identify your beloved’s wellbeing as your own, then you seem completely justified in undermining her life choices for the sake of preventing her inevitable state of lower wellbeing. Your opinion about what’s best for your beloved overrides your beloved’s choice of goals/ends. And yet it seems like this sort of manipulative and domineering behavior is the antithesis of love. In theory, one is justified in doing this for every choice another person makes so long as one’s reason for acting is grounded in the wellbeing of the other person. There has to be a way to fix the Frankfurtian view so that love never justifies treating another person in this way (this is particularly important for women, who are most often the subjects of such machinations in the name of love).

There are several ways to fix the problem. For instance, we could stipulate that personal autonomy is a necessary component of wellbeing, and that undermining the autonomy of one’s beloved (i.e. Ability to choose her own ends) actually harms rather than benefits. However, it is far from clear that this is true. In order for personal autonomy to contribute to wellbeing it has to be intrinsically valuable. We have little reason to think autonomy is intrinsically valuable, so we have little reason to think that it contributes to wellbeing. Further, there might be conditions under which a person’s autonomy should be undermined for her own sake (rare as these instances may be). Another way to fix Frankfurt’s theory is to add a third condition that prevents one partner from dominating the other, and that’s what I propose we do.

Frankfurt argues for the following two conditions: x loves y, if, and only if, a.) x cares about y, and b.) x identifies y’s wellbeing as their own. I think we need a third condition that stipulates the way in which the joint-interests identified in condition b. can be pursued. Something like this: c.) x cares about satisfying their joint interests with y through shared agency. So, if you say that you love me, but you are utterly disinterested in doing things with me (rather than just doing things for me) then I have good reason to suspect that you don’t really love me. After all, the person that I am consists in my interests and aims.

Ok, so let’s briefly take stock of where we’ve been. Love is an asymmetric, binary relation. The fact that x loves y does not necessitate y loves x. If the modified Frankfurtian view that I just presented is true, then the love relation is structured in the following way. First, it consists in a set of shared interests. Second, the satisfaction of shared interests through planning, investing, and acting to satisfy shared interests contributes to the wellbeing of both individuals. It’s worth noting that there is an important difference between the state of affairs where a.) x loves y, and b.) x loves y AND y loves x. In the first case, x treats y’s interests as their own, but y does not treat x’s interests as their own. So, x has reason to do things for y and with y, but y has no reasons to do things for x and with x. Even though the satisfaction of y’s wellbeing contributes to the wellbeing of x, that doesn’t necessarily give x good reasons to invest a great deal of resources into making sure y’s wellbeing is satisfied. There have to be other reasons to justify this. For example, if the love relation is between a parent and a very small child then there are reasons related to one’s role as a parent that make it rational to invest a great deal. Love, in and of itself, is no justification for irrational investment of resources. This is why loving someone who loves us back is better for us than loving someone who does not love us back: there are greater opportunities for increases in wellbeing when someone else treats our interests as their own, and fewer risks of unwise/irrational investments.

A third type of structure that can be identified in the love relation is this: the structure of shared agency. This is particularly salient in romantic partnerships. I don’t want to get into too much detail about shared agency but I do want to highlight a few key elements. First of all, shared agency is something we engage in when we pursue a shared end with another person (or group of people). It manifests in the development and execution of plans. Shared agency has a feature that is notably lacking from individual agency. Namely, accountability. If I want ice cream, but I fail to do what is required to get the ice cream—say, I spend my money on shoes instead—no one really has a right to criticize my failure to secure the necessary means to achieve my end of getting ice cream. They can say I’m irrational, but they’ve no personal stake in the matter. However, when we’ve consented to pursue an end with someone else we open ourselves to various forms of correction and criticism from our partners if we fail in exactly the same way. Suppose that you and I made plans go and get ice cream together at Jeni’s, and suppose that I also spent all of my money on shoes so that when it comes time for us to go ahead with our plan, I have to cancel. You have very good reasons to criticize me. What I’ve done is irrational, but I’ve also made it difficult for us to pursue our shared interest and enjoy the wellbeing that comes with successful pursuits. In this case, I have failed to identify your wellbeing as my own. In short, I have failed to love you, and that’s a big deal. Especially if these failures to love happen frequently.

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Is love a type of ‘chemistry’ (i.e. Mutual attraction)? No. Attraction motivates us to pursue and stay in love, but it is not love. Is love an emotion? No. Love can give rise to the very complex, very dynamic emotion syndrome that we’ve come to associate with love, but this syndrome is not love. Love is a product of intelligent agency. Love is designed through a series of decisions that you make every single day to care about someone, to identify their wellbeing as your own, and to care about pursuing joint interests with them through shared agency. If you can’t do these things you have no business telling someone you love them.

The theory of love that I’ve just presented may not be true, but I think it’s in the ballpark. If it is true, then it entails that people who have the following qualities are likely to make better lovers than people who don’t:

1.) A demonstrated capacity for, and willingness to engage in, successful, cooperative endeavors. I think empathy is a precondition for this, as are the abilities to give and take constructive feedback and manage emotions.
2.) A rational level of generosity with personal resources (including, but not limited to, knowledge, time, emotion management skills, financial resources, etc.).
3.) A demonstrated capacity for, and willingness to engage in, effective means-end reasoning.
4.) A demonstrated ability to distinguish between goals that are objectively worth pursuing and those that are only subjectively worth pursuing (or not worth pursuing at all).
5.) A demonstrated ability to self-govern.

The moral of this story about love: choose wisely.

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Special thanks, again, to my readers for slogging through this post. I apologize for any typos or unclarities (it’s not you, it’s me).