More Lovin’: You’ve Got Questions, I’ve Got Answers!

I managed to run out of the house this morning without my charging cord. It’s only a matter of time before my iPad fails and I have to go home to work. I think I’ve got enough time to craft a response to a question about what I posted yesterday.

Let me elaborate somewhat on the line of thinking that leads to the specific question I plan to address, which is this: how does this theoretical picture apply to real life?

If the theory of love I presented is true, then loving someone entails both having a stable desire for their wellbeing and treating their wellbeing as one’s own. This is a tidy theoretical package, but how is it supposed to work in practice? Think about it. First, what is the specific content of the desire for another person’s wellbeing? If one has a stable desire for the wellbeing of another, does that entail that the content of the desire never changes? If so, what motivational role doe this desire actually play in human psychology?

Second, in order to treat another person’s wellbeing as one’s own, you have to have some idea what that wellbeing consists in. If wellbeing is tied to a person’s interests, as I claim that it is, then this seems to entail that I must have a pretty thorough knowledge of a persons interests in order to actually treat them as my own. Can we only love someone we know really, really well? (The quick answer: no. This is where shared agency/cooperation and good communication comes in. More on that below.)

First, the stable desire. There are two important points: what role in motivational psychology does a very general desire play? Further, what makes a desire the same desire over time (presumably, stability requires this)? I’ll tackle the second question first.

Desires are generally individuated by their contents (what they are about). So, what makes my desire for Jeni’s ice cream the particular desire that it is, is that it’s about Jeni’s ice cream. What makes this desire the same desire over time is a more difficult question to answer. It depends a lot on the nature of desire. Philosophers consider desires a type of mental state, so the question of what makes a desire the same desire over time will depend, to some degree, on what it is for a mental state to be the same mental state over time. Does a mental state with a particular content just sit around in my head (like an object) until I decide to access it? Or, when I need to access a particular state, does my brain construct a new instance of that state with the relevant contents? Who knows. Trying to answer the question in this way is going to send us into some really difficult terrain.

Another way of tackling the problem is to collapse the question about what makes a desire the same desire over time into the question of what functional role it plays in motivational psychology. What I mean is this. Suppose that we take the desire for another person’s wellbeing and we give it a functional role description something like this: if x has a stable desire, D, for y’s wellbeing, then x is attentive to developments that provide them with opportunities to promote y’s wellbeing.

In this case, the general desire for a person’s wellbeing is simply to focus your attention and make certain features that are relevant to your beloved’s wellbeing highly salient to you. The benefit of thinking about it this way is that we don’t need to worry about whether desire stability entails that we have the same exact desire over time. Any motivational mental state that satisfies the functional role of D counts as the relevant desire. It is worth noting here that so long as we’re being flexible about what kind of motivational mental states can satisfy the functional role of D, then things like emotions can also play this role. Does this mean that love is an emotion? No, it just means that the functional role of D can be multiply realized by a variety of motivational states.

Now, let’s think about the problem of treating a persons interests as your own. Does this entail and unreasonable amount of knowledge about one’s beloved? No. It only entails that you have a set of shared interests. That set may be very sparsely populated if you really don’t know someone that well. This is a really silly example, but perhaps all I know of my beloved’s interests is that he really likes music by Justin Beiber. If I treat this interest as my own, perhaps I’ll familiarize myself with Beiber and his music and search for opportunities to expose my beloved to Beiber facts he might find interesting, covers of Beiber songs that he might enjoy (do such things even exist?), etc. In short, I am attentive to opportunities to promote my beloved’s wellbeing by satisfying his desire for all things Beiber. Admittedly, this is a very simple kind of love, but it is, plausibly, love.

[Tangent: speaking of simple kinds of love…toddlers and dogs both display the ability to love but they are not very good at ascertaining what our wellbeing consists in. Toddlers will give you their favorite toy because they assume that what brings them joy will bring you joy. Dogs do the same thing. Some of them are better at understanding the desires, needs, etc. of humans, but that’s usually a feature of training. Animals are more capable of understanding the needs of other animals.]

Now, here’s a final, critical point: the better someone knows you, the more able they are to love you. But no one will ever know another person as well as that person knows themselves. This is why it’s always a good idea to have open communication with someone you are trying to love. If you don’t know what their interests are, ask them. If you don’t know how to best satisfy their needs, desires, etc., ask them. It’s really that simple.