I had long thought that the association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love was the creation of the Hallmark corporation, but it turns out it is probably owed to a prank by Chaucer. That prank lives on in the tradition of convincing millions and millions of people to consume mediocre chocolates, exchange intimate messages written by strangers, give each other trite flowers and stuffed animals, and generally set themselves up for disappointment.
Still, the day may serve as an occasion for people to think about love, and in order to offer up some food for thought, I’m happy to present a collection of posts by philosophers who work on love and related matters.
Here’s what’s in store in this Valentine’s Day edition of “Philosophers On“:
- Justin Clardy (Stanford University, University of Arkansas) provides us with “A Short Concentration on Emotional Affairs,” assessing what they are and why they might be problematic.
- Troy Jollimore (California State University, Chico) asks about the extent to which society’s views should inform our definition of love in “Society, Biology, and Love.”
- Nora Kreft (Humboldt University, Berlin) seeks an explanation for why we think of those we truly love as irreplaceable, and thinks it has something to do with desire, in “Love, Irreplaceability, and Desiring Persons.”
- Patricia Marino (University of Waterloo), in “The Problems of Love and Autonomy,” asks about whether the two are in tension. (This piece is cross-posted at her blog, The Kramer Is Now.)
- Hichem Naar (University of Duisburg-Essen) explores “How to think about reasons for romantic love (if there are any).”
- Arina Pismenny (City University of New York) explains why, if jealousy is bad, polyamory might be good, in “What Can Polyamory Tell Us about Jealousy?”
Thanks very much to these authors for volunteering their time, energy, and ideas. And thanks to all of you for reading, discussing, and sharing them. Have a Happy Valentine’s Day—and don’t skimp on the good chocolate.
A Short Concentration on Emotional Affairs
Although sexual affairs routinely disrupt the integrity of romantic relationships, a relationship’s integrity can also be threatened by a variety of non-sexual involvements. For some lovers, emotional affairs are just as detrimental to their romantic relationship as sexual affairs are. But what is an emotional affair? In this post, my aim is to elaborate what I take emotional affairs to be.
Without getting clear on what emotional affairs are, we run the risk of magnifying petty events in to major abuses of the relationship. That is, we risk the termination of salvageable romantic relationships by bypassing potential opportunities to repair them. So we do well to develop a conceptual scheme for understanding emotional affairs in order to protect our relationships against these threats.
Importantly, emotional affairs involve more than diverting one’s attentional and energetic resources away from their partner(s) and toward some personal project. When this does happen, though, it may impact on one’s romantic relationship(s) in similar ways. For example, instead of lending a tender ear to Issa and sympathizing with their troubles from the day, Mal’s is consumed with a conundrum raised in their dissertation. In this case, the intimacy between the two is weak because Mal is not entirely present in the relationship and cannot get closer to Issa.
When our already limited time, energy and attention are diverted from our romantic relationship(s), the intimacy in those relationships is less robust.
Emotional affairs needn’t involve falling in love with another person. To love means to value the beloved and our relationship with the beloved in a way that provide reasons for particular kinds of action. Suppose that Mal has been spending an increased amount of time and intimate experiences (going for lunch together, sharing stories about their personal lives with one another) with their associate, Kris. Suppose further that Mal conceals this information from Issa. This case would exhibit some of the tale-tell signs of an emotional affair, even if Mal is not in love with Kris, and even if Mal does not feel guilty about their involvement with Kris, or about their hiding that involvement.
One might think that emotional affairs are merely extrarelational relationships that impact the intimacy in one’s romantic relationship(s): so Mal has an emotional affair with Kris when their relationship with Kris impacts the intimacy in their relationship with Issa. But this is too broad. Suppose that Mal and their brother Daniel are arguing so badly that Mal can no longer properly connect with Issa. In this case, their situation would meet foregoing characterization, but there doesn’t seem to be an emotional affair between Mal and Daniel.
One might, instead, characterize emotional affairs as extrarelational relationships that mimic the intimacy in one’s romantic relationship, thereby impacting the level of intimacy or the emotional distance in one’s romantic relationship. This explains why Mal’s relationship with Daniel is not an emotional affair; it does not resemble the intimacy that Mal has with Issa.
Still, this view of emotional affairs is incomplete. In some cases, extrarelational relationships—such as best friendships—do mimic the level of intimacy or emotional distance one has in their romantic relationships. Some friendships involve more intimacy than one’s romantic relationship—especially when the friendship has existed for quite some time and the romantic relationship is beginning anew. We sometimes talk with our friends about things we don’t want to share with our partners. We also talk to our friends about our romantic partner: about fights, things we don’t like about partner(s), or things we may have done to our partner(s). It might also be because there are things about ourselves that we wish not to share with our partner: maybe things that we are ashamed of, or things about our past that we wouldn’t want the partner to know about, or things that would hurt them (such as former partners etc.). Indeed, sharing with our friends and not our romantic partners in this way suggests that our romantic relationship is not as intimate as it could be. But it would be odd to characterize these kinds of intimate self-disclosures with friends as emotional affairs.
I maintain that emotional affairs are extrarelational relationships that mimic the intimacy in one’s romantic relationship, thereby impacting the level of intimacy or the emotional distance in one’s romantic relationship, and that involve at least one of the involved parties considering a romantic commitment with the other(s).
The consideration of a romantic commitment with the person the affair is with is, in part, what distinguishes long-term, deep friendships from romantic relationships. It’s the idea of a romantic commitment, which for many people is exclusive and for others is partially exclusive that threatens the stability of our romantic relationships. Lovers worry about their partner choosing some other person, qua romantic partner. This consideration explains why some people find emotional affairs problematic; it is that for a time, we entertain and cultivate the possibility of developing this kind of shared project with another person—we think of the other person as some kind of substitute.
Some emotional affairs begin as friendships and because there is no sexual involvement, these situations can be difficult to identity. Nevertheless, Mal’s relationship with Kris might impact the emotional distance and resemble the intimacy in their relationship with Issa. Mal’s feeling the need to keep the involvement with Kris concealed is evidence of this distance. The reluctance to disclose this information keeps this element of Mal’s life private and away from Issa.
Free self-disclosure in relationships is the basis for genuine closeness. As Gary Chartier has stated, “A person is not only a story but, in another sense, a set of stories—the stories, already past, that have made her or him who she or he is, and the ongoing stories that she or he is telling with her or his life. In a metaphorical sense, this is what it means to give one’s self to another.” In refusing to share these parts of their narrative, Mal is refusing to share part of themselves with Issa. Relationships are at best only superficially intimate when partners withhold deeper aspects or elements of themselves. When Mal shares stories from their personal life with Kris, Mal is giving themself to Kris in a way that might make Issa uncomfortable.
In some romantic relationships, people accept limits such as exclusivity—i.e. sexual, emotional, intimacy etc.. That is, they forgo certain liberties in order to pursue stable romantic relationships with other people. Mal’s behavior with Kris threatens the emotional exclusivity that some lovers find important. This is why one would be upset if they were to find that their romantic partner(s) were fantasizing about sharing a life with some other person outside of their romantic relationship. In some cases, this kind of emotional involvement foreshadows sexual involvement. So the existence of an emotional affair signals a potential loss in other valuable resources that contribute to the stability of our romantic relationship such as intimacy, emotional exclusivity, and sexual exclusivity. When the deeper elements of our lives are shared with people outside of our romantic relationship(s), our partner(s) feel as if they are not important enough to us to confide in them and thus creates more distance between them and us. Emotional affairs often stand in the way of full verbal openness between partners. When we conceal our actions from our partner(s), we disconnect our hearts form them.
When we have emotional affairs, it is possible that we become emotionally affected in a way that might disrupt the connection that we have with our partner(s). Whether intentional or unintentional, we can displace our lovers from the center of our affections and create a space that they cannot share. In many cases this results in the slow erosion of (and in some cases the dramatic disruption of) the intimacy that we have with our romantic partner(s).
In a fuller treatment of emotional affairs, I argue that emotional affairs are morally wrong when they violate relationship defining demands that preclude them. On my view, since relationship defining demands are agreement-based, they are grounded in structures of moral obligation. Not all romantic relationships will demand certain forms of exclusivity. In these cases where there is no constraint of emotional exclusivity, what might otherwise be thought of as an emotional affair is located in the domain of acceptable extrarelational encounters.
The small take away from this short concentration is perhaps the realization that our romantic relationships do not always go smoothly. Indeed it is rather unrealistic and naïve to expect otherwise. It may be that emotional affairs, as I understand them, occur far more frequently than we thought. As result, it may appear that our romantic relationships are constantly under siege. However, whether the emotional relationships we have with people who are not our partner(s) are problematic largely depend on the bounds of the relationship that the parties to the romantic relationship set. A heightened sensitivity to what emotional affairs look like, then, should not make readers worry too much about their own extra-relational relationships. For readers in romantic relationships, however, this concentration should encourage you to have the kinds of conversations with one’s partner(s) that uncover just where their own relationship boundaries lie. This, I take it, is a healthy practice for any romantic relationship if it is to flourish.
Society, Biology, and Love
How do you know when you are in love? This isn’t a question philosophers had to invent. A great number of people, at one point or another in their lives, have had to ponder some version of this question. If nothing else, our tremendous capacity for self-deception can make this a pressing issue.
But there are also versions of the question that have little if anything to do with self-deception. Knowing that you are in love presupposes knowing what the phrase ‘in love’ means, and love is notoriously hard to define. What’s more, it seems plausible to think that the definition of ‘love,’ like the definition of any word, is in some sense determined by the community of language-users. But this seems to raise the possibility that one’s community might, in fact, define love in a way that excludes one’s own particular feelings or relationships.
Suppose, for instance, one agrees with philosopher Carrie Jenkins (in her recent book, Love: What It Is and What It Could Be) that the best account of romantic love sees it as having two aspects: a social aspect and a biological aspect. If your biology happens to be deviant—if, say, you are a Martian, or a hyper-intelligent turtle—you are out of luck: even if you act the same way humans in love act, and even if you feel the same way, you aren’t going to count as being in love—at least, not fully. You simply don’t have what it takes under the hood, so to speak. (Of course, that’s assuming that it is we, the humans, who are making that decision. If you are part of a distinct linguistic community then your uses of the word ‘love’ may, it seems, refer to something different. It’s hard to know exactly how to think about these issues; it’s certainly more than can be adequately addressed in a blog post.)
But put the biology aside. On this account, even a human’s relationships won’t count as love relationships if they don’t play the proper social roles. If the social role of romantic love is to encourage people to have children and bring them up in a certain sort of stable environment, for instance, then childless couples may turn out not to love one another (genuinely or fully). If romantic love’s social role is to unite one man with one woman, and you happen to be a man who loves another man, or a woman who loves another woman, or one person who loves multiple others, or … well, it might feel like love, but on this view it just ain’t.
Jenkins, if I understand her correctly, is willing to bite this bullet. Herself a practicing polyamorist, she writes: “[M]onogamy may still be too close to being a core norm, here and now, for my situation to be clear-cut … Perhaps monogamy is still so firmly built into the script that my biological actor doesn’t count as playing the Romantic Love role in the Modern Society show.”
Well, perhaps. It’s certainly clear that many people in our society would be hesitant to apply the word ‘love’ to what goes on between Jenkins and the two people with whom she has long-term committed romantic relationships—or, for that matter, to what goes on between two women, two men, and so on. But does this necessarily mean that such relationships don’t count? While it is true in some sense that communities determine the meanings of the words they use, they do not have unlimited power to shape those meanings in any way they please. (The community decides what stuff the word ‘water’ refers to; but having decided that, it is then already true that water is H20. And water is H20 all the time, every day of the week—even if, for bizarre ideological reasons, some members of the community decide that in their view, water is H20 every day except Tuesday.)
To say this is not to say that it does not matter at all how society decides to view one’s life choices. As Jenkins has written, “I can’t just stop caring about the monogamy norms because too many other people care about them… it’s impossible for me to stop caring about [this issue] because I know that its being recognizes as such could be a powerful way of convincing people to take my relationship seriously.” This makes sense—obviously one will care about social norms if those norms are making one’s life more difficult—but to care about the norms in this sense is not to endorse the norms, and endorsement seems to be what matters here. Given what has been decided about the meaning of the phrase ‘romantic love,’ it seems clear that what matters, in determining whether two (or more?) people really are in love will be things like: what are their feelings toward each other? How do they treat each other? How have they adjusted their lives to accommodate each other? And so forth.
If people meet those conditions, I would argue, they simply cannot be excluded on the basis of irrelevant circumstances. The fact that the two people are members of a certain ethnic minority, for instance, might be taken as such a basis by people with racist beliefs. They might claim that members of this minority are incapable of such feelings, of genuine commitment, etc. (Some religious believers might make the same claim about atheists, or those who belong to other faiths.) But such claims are simply false. And given that they are false, there is no basis for denying that people who have the right feeling and act in the right ways genuinely love each other. This would be true, moreover, even if a large majority of people in a given society wanted to restrict the use of the word ‘love’ so as to exclude such relationships.
Some people may resist this view, for the following (scientistic?) reason: it puts quite a bit of emphasis on feelings, and since feelings are inherently subjective, it’s a mistake to rest our definitions on them. (Does Jenkins think something like this? Her biological-social account of love makes little mention of feelings, but I am not certain why.) To this worry I can only reply that trying to think about love while avoiding feelings is, by its very nature, an ill-conceived, doomed effort. Which brings us back, perhaps, to the Martians. Personally, I don’t much care what’s going on under the hood, with Martians or anyone else. If they act in the right ways—and, more importantly still, feel the right ways—then they are in love. Love may be, by its nature, humane, but there is no reason to define it as necessarily human.
Love, Irreplaceability, and Desiring Persons
Lovers relate to their beloveds as particulars, rather than as instances of some type—say, the type ‘beautiful’ or ‘wise’ or ‘kind’. If they were related to them as instances of some such type, it seems that they should be neutral between the options of interacting with their beloved (in whatever ways they interact with them qua lovers) and interacting (in these same ways) with relevantly similar persons; and they should probably prefer interacting with someone who instantiates the type to an even greater degree, where ‘should’ can be understood in both an expectant and a rational sense.
Lovers are not neutral in these ways and they don’t simply prefer ‘better options’, however. The loss they would experience if their beloved was replaced by another person does not decrease the more alike or ‘superior’ the replacement person is to the beloved. So, they wouldn’t be willing to replace their beloveds, at least not for this reason, that is, not because someone else is similarly or more beautiful etc., and we would neither expect this nor take this to be rationally required of them. In fact, I think we would doubt that someone really loves another person if they were willing to replace them in this way and didn’t experience a serious loss once the exchange had taken place. Refusing such replacements seems to be a requirement of love then (which is not to say it’s a rational requirement). Lovers might leave their beloveds, or fall in love with others, and all of that is compatible with still loving them. But being in principle willing to replace the beloved for others of the same type is not.
This may be particularly obvious in the case of parents who love their children, but it is also true for romantic lovers and close friends. Part of what it is to relate to someone lovingly is to relate to them as irreplaceable in the above sense, no matter whether it is parental, romantic or friendship love. And so, part of explaining what it is to love someone in any of these ways is to explain why lovers relate to their beloveds as irreplaceable. Different theories of love have offered different kinds of explanations.
I think those discussions often miss the following aspect of the phenomenon: the fact that lovers also believe that they ought not to relate to their beloveds as replaceable, in a moral sense of ‘ought’. Imagine a case in which a lover has a momentary lapse of judgment—-perhaps because she is unsure about her love for a moment, or not properly attentive to it—and accepts a deal to replace her beloved for someone relevantly similar (and accepts it because they are relevantly similar). This lover would not only experience a terrible loss after the replacement has taken place. I think she would also feel guilty, as if she had somehow wronged her beloved, or at least: damaged a morally significant ‘bond’ between them. Intuitively, relating to her beloved as irreplaceable—as a particular and not as an instance of a type—seems to be of moral significance to her.
I think this moral aspect of the phenomenon distinguishes the way in which a beloved person is irreplaceable for us from the ways in which other objects can sometimes be irreplaceable for us (like GA Cohen’s pencil eraser, for example, or your favourite childhood toy). Interestingly, however, there is another attitude we can have towards other persons that is similar to love in this respect, namely respect. At least, this is how Kant understands respect. For Kant, respecting a person means relating to them as fundamentally irreplaceable, not merely as an instance of a type, and it also means taking this to be morally significant. Respect is compatible with relating to someone as replaceable in all sorts of roles and functions, but not as a person. It is tricky to spell out what ‘as a person’ means here, but roughly, I think it means: ‘as someone who has a perspective on the world, including beliefs, values and desires, and who is capable of determining this perspective by way of some kind of thoughtful activity’.
We often come across respect in this sense when we face another person’s death. We see it in others or experience it ourselves: we believe that we lose something irretrievable when they die, whether or not we were personally related to them, and thinking of them in this way is morally significant to us. In other words, respecting someone also means being morally alienated by the denial that they are irreplaceable as persons. It is a difficult but important task to explain why this is so and what explains and potentially justifies respect for other persons. (Why are individual persons not just replaceable for others of the type ‘person’?)
Because I am interested in this connection between love and respect, I am also struck by David Velleman’s (by now well-known) proposal to think of love as a sister attitude of respect. According to Velleman, both respect and love are ways of relating to someone as a person. Love is not just ‘respect plus x’ here, but itself a distinct sort of relation towards someone as a person. But what kind of relation is it and how does it differ from respect? Velleman says it is ‘seeing’ someone as a person, but there are problems with putting it that way. It doesn’t properly capture the phenomenology of love, and why we would grieve over losing a beloved a person in a way we don’t typically grieve over someone we ‘just’ respect.
Instead, I propose that we conceive of love as a desire for someone as a person. Given my brief sketch of personhood, this would mean: desiring them as someone who has a perspective on the world. And I suggest that this is best understood (quite Socratically) as desiring to engage with their perspective, trying to understand it, make oneself understood in return, develop or change it together. Put differently, it is a desire for acting out personhood together. This can take different forms and doesn’t have to be intellectual or verbal even. It can be physical. I’ve been trying to work this out in more detail in my recent work, to see whether taking this route helps to understand love and the beloved’s irreplaceability.
Anyway—happy Valentine’s day!
The Problems of Love and Autonomy
It’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about… death! In the grand tradition of philosophical debate, I’ll start with an anecdote:
Kay Sievewright and Ernie Sievewright of British Columbia were married for 55 years, and when their health declined, they hoped to die together. They were each approved for Medical Assistance in Dying, which became legal here in Canada in 2016, but their request to die at the same time was turned down. Instead, they died four days apart, in early 2017.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which provides legal advice to physicians, said they couldn’t comment on this case, but they did make a general statement: “The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence… It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they’re agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence.”
You might think this has little to do with Valentine’s Day, but I think this case highlights in an interesting way some deep complexities of love and personal autonomy. It’s often thought to be in the nature of love that you come to feel the way you do about things partly because of the influence of the other person. In union theories of love, merger can mean curtailing individual decision-making, and in caring concern theories, the fact that something will increase the well-being of the beloved is a reason to do it. Drawing on accounts of shared agency, Andrea Westlund proposes shared egalitarian deliberation, in which each person should be open to guidance by the perspective of the other.
On the face of it, love is thus in tension with autonomy, where there is an emphasis on the importance of doing things for your own reasons, free, as the statement says, even of “influence” from others.
This tension can be resolved in various ways. Some concern theorists point out that if you act for the other person because you love them, this is acting for your own reasons. And as relational theorists of autonomy like have long emphasized, what enables people to be autonomous is not isolation, but relationships. Westlund says that autonomy is about being “answerable” for your commitments, so love means mutual answerability.
These ways of resolving the tension aptly show how autonomy and love are compatible, but as is often pointed out, they may not fully resolve deeper questions of undue influence from our intimates. What makes influence inappropriate? When one person prioritizes the interests of another, this can be because of love, but it can also be because of pressure, coercion, or socialized deference. How should this distinction be understood?
Even when deference is systematic and gendered, a result of feminine socialization, there is debate over how “autonomy” should be conceptualized. On the one hand, a person who is systematically deferential to another in this way seems paradigmatically non-autonomous, since they are not deciding for their own reasons. On the other hand, if a person chooses deference, that’s their choice; who are we to say they are not being themselves?
Anita Ho highlights the relevant complexities in bioethical decision-making. Given the vulnerabilities and stresses of illness and treatment, relational perspectives force us to acknowledge that for whose whose family is central to their existence, consideration of family members’ “advice, needs, and mutual interests” is part of being autonomous. Still, she says, exploitation, indoctrination and false consciousness are real possibilities. Clinicians should “listen to the family’s concerns and reasoning process, and then explore with them various options that can best respect the interests of all parties.” By default, however, Ho says that health care teams should trust the patient’s own final expressed wishes—not because manipulation is impossible, but rather because family relationships are highly complex and typically opaque to clinicians.
This brief investigation highlights some of the limitations of appealing to autonomy to solve complicated ethical problems, especially where love and intimacy are involved. It seems appealingly simple to say that for important decisions, we should prioritize individual autonomy. But autonomy is complicated and contextual, and may not be able to bear all this theoretical weight.
The Sievewrights may have come to their decisions in a context of mutual respect, or one may have felt obliged to go along with the other out of love, or one may have pressured the other. From the outside, we may never know—and in a deeper sense, there may be no answer to this question, even if we had the transcript of the Sievewrights’s intimate thoughts.
The same is true for any difficult and important decision, no matter when or how it takes place. The presence of people we love has a powerful effect on us. Sometimes that shapes us to make us who we are. Sometimes it shapes us in more disturbing ways. We may not ourselves always know how to tell the difference.
How to Think about Reasons for Romantic Love (if there are any)
The idea that there are reasons to love (or not love) particular people as opposed to others appears both natural and puzzling.
It is natural to take our love for others to be perfectly justified or appropriate. My love for a particular special someone makes perfect sense to me. Additionally, we sometimes criticize others and ourselves for loving a particular person, offering reasons concerning, for example, their character or actions.
The idea that there are reasons for love, however, is puzzling in that, for one thing, we do not tend to think about love in these terms. Love, the thought goes, is something that simply happens to us, and not something we have formed in response to normative considerations. Love for particular people can certainly be explained, but it is far from clear that it can be justified.
I think though that a major motivation for attempting to work out a view of reasons for love is not just based on ordinary thought about love of the sort I gave earlier, but on a larger conception of affective states we form in response to particular aspects of our situations. Take admiration. Are there reasons to feel admiration towards certain people? It seems so. If you have achieved something great, then I have a strong reason to feel admiration in turn, a reason I would not have had otherwise. The question, then, is why love should be seen as different.
Perhaps it should be seen as different because, in contrast with other affective states, it is just unclear what reasons there might be for loving particular people. I think, indeed, that developing a plausible conception of such reasons is the major challenge facing anyone committed to their existence. And doing so has proved very difficult indeed.
Usually, the discussion starts with the so-called quality view. According to this view, reasons for loving a particular person are some of his or her valuable intrinsic features. Such features may include intelligence, beauty, generosity, and any other feature we may value in other people.
One problem commonly cited for the quality view, however, is that, in appealing solely to intrinsic features, it makes the beloved replaceable in a problematic way. If my reason for loving Sophie is that she is smart, kind, and beautiful, then I will have a reason to love just about anyone who happens to have these features. Perhaps this is fine; perhaps I would have such a reason to extend my love if I came across another person fitting the description. But there is an even more troubling implication, namely that, on the quality view, if I happen to be in a situation in which I cannot love both Sophie and the other person, I would have no reason to love Sophie as opposed to a person who happens to be – in and of herself – just as wonderful.
It seems, then, that an adequate conception of reasons for love should not construe them as an impersonal matter; it should not imply that one has a reason to transfer one’s love to someone one knows to have the relevant qualities, including, arguably, a clone of him or her.
A natural strategy at this stage is to appeal to features of the beloved which are not shared by the equally wonderful counterpart. And one thing my beloved and her counterpart clearly don’t share is a certain history. On one influential version of this idea, put forward by Nico Kolodny, the reason why you should love a given person as opposed to an equally wonderful alternative is the fact that you are in a good relationship with him or her and not with that other person. One might wonder though what place the other person has in all this. Indeed, on this view, it seems that since it is the relationship that provides the ultimate ground for love, it doesn’t really matter who is at the other end of the relationship. Kolodny might reply, however, that we would simply have a different relationship if the beloved was replaced. But we might wonder what would be so bad with trading the relationship for an equally good one. Moreover, if a relationship provides the ultimate ground to love a given person, and that the relationship is good in part because of the good qualities of the beloved, then it seems that the beloved’s role in the generation of reasons for love is at best merely instrumental. The general worry, then, is that the relationship view fails to give us something we want from a conception of reasons for love: that the beloved should take center stage.
I think that the quality view and the relationship view both get something right, though. If there are reasons for love, it has got to have to do with how wonderful the beloved is in and of themselves (i.e., intrinsically). At the same time, the relationship appears relevant as to when one has a reason to love a particular person. Indeed, it should not be the case that I have a reason to love just about any wonderful person I come across; I should have special reasons to love certain people. I think that a way forward is to combine these two plausible ideas in a way that avoids the problems facing the quality and relationship views. On my view, reasons for loving a given person are valuable intrinsic features of the person as manifested in the context of a relationship with one. Suppose a reason for me to love Sophie is her generosity. Generosity is something that many people have, however, and I know it. But not everyone has manifested their generosity in the context of a relationship with me. As a result, I have a special reason to love Sophie.
Before raising a challenge for the view, let me compare it to Kolodny’s. On the relationship view, the ground of one’s love is the relationship (insofar as it is good in some way), and the beloved plays an enabling role in forming and maintaining that relationship, and therefore in the generation of the relevant reasons. By contrast, on my view, the ground of one’s love is the other person (insofar as she has good qualities), and the relationship plays an enabling role in the generation of the reasons provided by the beloved.
The challenge, now, is to say more precisely why a relationship should be in place for the good qualities of a person to provide me with special reasons to love him or her. A satisfactory response will avoid saying merely that the relationship matters because it enables me to know about the value of the beloved. For I could well come to know about someone’s value by observing him or her from outside the context of a relationship, or by being told about how wonderful he or she is. However, in such a case I would not thereby have the sort of reason I have when a relationship is present.
My suspicion is that relationships are crucial because they make possible the attainment of a proper appreciation of the beloved. And this is something mere observation is typically unable to do. In particular, certain good qualities of persons – plausibly some of their virtuous traits – can only be properly appreciated when one is in direct contact with their manifestation, an appreciation which cannot be transferred to the qualities one merely knows other people have. The details of such a story, however, are still to be filled in.
What Can Polyamory Tell Us about Jealousy?
Jealousy is not a noble emotion. Although some take jealousy to be a mark of love, most of us are embarrassed to appear jealous, taking it to be a sign of possessiveness, neediness, and insecurity. While most cases of romantic jealousy are likely to be just that, is there room for justifiable jealousy?
Jealousy can be characterized as a complex emotion comprised of anger, fear, and sadness, representing a potential loss of the beloved’s attention or desire to a rival. Thus, jealousy involves three parties: me, my beloved, and a rival. The rival is usually another person but can also be an object or activity: my beloved’s devotion to tennis, their pet, or their phone. Sometimes it’s about sex; sometimes it’s about emotional closeness. The pain of jealousy makes me want to lash out at the culprits to protect my relationship.
When I feel the rival might now be the beneficiary of my beloved’s love and affection, I take their interaction to mean the forming of a new monogamous pair, from which I will be excluded. I will lose everything.
Importantly, the loss of love or relationship is not all there is to jealousy. People fall out of love and break up without there necessarily being a rival. Neither are betrayal and promise-breaking necessary for they are not the focus of jealousy. Instead, jealousy arises when the rival becomes the recipient of whatever it is I want for myself, on the assumption that two people can’t share it. It is the assumption that romantic relationships should be monogamous, then, that encourages jealousy.
Is the assumption that monogamous relationships are best justified? And how effective is jealousy in protecting relationships?
The first question raises practical and moral concerns. It may be argued that exclusive monogamous relationships are both easier to maintain and morally superior, since when there are more than two parties involved, each receives less love and attention than they otherwise would. Furthermore, if there are more than two, I will lose my special status of being the only one. Instead, I’ll be just another lover.
However, monogamous relationships might be harder to maintain precisely because of the restraint they require, and because they are so easily threatened by other relationships. For many, a partner’s affair with another person is a decisive reason for terminating the relationship. However, this way of thinking does not recognize how allowing other relationships can actually strengthen the bond in the original one through empathic sharing, build trust by embracing our vulnerabilities, and increase the value of time spent together since we will be less likely to take each other for granted.
The moral superiority of monogamy is also questionable. For the demand that the beloved not act on the feelings they have for another already implies that their feelings are no longer exclusively for me. The sacrifice monogamy requires is interpreted as commitment and loyalty. However, non-exclusivity need not be equated with the violation of these values. To require exclusivity of my beloved, when my beloved would like to have sexual and romantic relationships with others, expresses my willingness to make my beloved unhappy; abandoning that requirement is a way of supporting them on their sexual and emotional journey, and shows my commitment to their wellbeing and autonomy.
Lastly, the supposition that the amount of love I will receive will be cut in half because of the rival is also unwarranted. A first child isn’t loved less when the second child is born; so why think that I will be loved less if my beloved has another lover? Am I no longer special for my beloved if they have another lover? Not at all, since each romantic relationship is unique to the people involved. That you have another relationship does not make ours any less valuable and distinctive. Jealousy’s effort to protect my relationship may be irrational because it unjustifiably takes monogamous ideology for granted.
In any case, jealousy is not very effective in protecting relationships. While my lashing out at my partner or the rival might physically force, guilt, or shame them into stopping their interaction, my aggressive behavior and my willingness to manipulate my beloved signal that I am possessive and controlling. Indeed, it might drive my beloved away if I start making demands on them. This is why jealousy is so unattractive—it aggrandizes the lover by forcing the beloved to recognize them as the sole recipient (and the rightful possessor) of their love and attention.
While monogamous ideology may typically promote it, jealousy also occurs in ethical non-monogamous relationships. Polyamorists, who choose to respect the freedom of their beloveds and to explore their own, sometimes report feeling jealous when a partner goes on a date with others. In many cases, a polyamorist will recognize that their jealousy is irrational, and will take steps to unlearn it. This is because the involvement of another is not necessarily to be perceived as a threat; another lover is not necessarily a rival. For them to be my rival, they would need to aim to take my place, forcing me out of the relationship, or significantly diminishing my role in it, and my beloved would need to go along with it—all of which would likely be in tension with their commitment to polyamory. Is jealousy rational in this scenario? Its manifestation in lashing out is likely to be unproductive as aggression tends to alienate rather than bring people together. However, the attitude correctly represents my wish not to lose the affection of my beloved to my rival, and so in that sense it is fitting.
If this case of jealousy in a polyamorous context is rational, isn’t it even more likely that cases of jealousy in monogamy are bound to be rational, since, owing to its exclusivity, there would be more possibilities of real threats? Indeed, it is very likely. I conclude by making a pragmatic argument for polyamory. Monogamy provides favorable conditions for rational jealousy. But jealousy tends to be counter-productive in motivating aggressive behavior. Embracing ethical non-monogamy will reduce the number of occasions for rational jealousy, thereby reducing our futile desire to ‘fix’ things by lashing out.
art: Val Britton, “Map of Stars”