Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is love a virtue?

The following claim is very plausible:

  1. When x loves y, the love creates the reasons for the central cases of x's acting lovingly towards y.
Christians, however, will also find very plausible:
  1. Love is a virtue.
What is odd is that (1) and (2) are in tension.

For consider how it is with other virtues. A person who is courageous does not have any more reason to stand firm in the face of danger than a coward. Indeed, the coward has just as much reason to stand firm as the brave person, and that is why it is no justification of running away to say: "But I am a coward." Thus, courage is a disposition to act on reasons antecedent to having courage. When we say: "Courage requires you to do A", it is no answer to say: "But I don't have courage." For the central cases of what courage requires you to do are things that it is virtuous to do, whether or not you are in fact courageous. The logical grammar of "Courage requires you to do A" differs from its surface grammar, in that the surface form suggests the actual existence of courage, but in fact courage would require us to stand firm in the face of danger, when reasonable, even if nobody was courageous. (Challenge: Come up with a good analysis of the logical grammar of "Virtue V requires you to do A".) The same is true of other virtues. One has reasons of generosity to act generously, whether one is in fact a generous or a stingy person. The central reasons of justice are independent of whether one in fact is just. And so on.

By analogy, then, if (2) is true, then the central reasons of love should be independent of whether one has love. I think that is actually true. It is almost certainly true of love in general. But it may to a large extent be true even of particular forms of love. "Filial love requires respect," one may say. But the respect is no less required if one does not actually have filial love. And the respect is a constitutive part of what it is to have filial love. If I am right, then the tension between (1) and (2) should be resolved by denying (1).


larryniven said...

I think most people would intuitively read "reasons" in (1) as being motivational when in fact you mean them to be philosophical - if I had to guess, that's where the problem comes from. Not that I disagree with you: people's motivations for doing things are very often not particularly solid from a philosophical point of view, but it at least helps point to a source of the tension.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Larry.

I had Harry Frankfurt in mind (his book The Reasons of Love), and for him the reasons are not just motivational but also justificational. I was also corresponding recently with a Christian ethicist who definitely seemed to believe (1) in the justificational sense.

But I like your suggestion. It may be that people's intuitions are somewhat skewed by the fact that obviously, love creates motivational reasons for x's acting lovingly towards y. (I don't think my correspondent, though, was committing this error, and I don't know that I want to accuse Frankfurt of it.)

Heath White said...

I would think that love does not, in general, create central reasons for x act lovingly towards y, and that this is not going to change if x comes to love y. Thesis (1) is most plausible in cases of "elective affinity" like your typical friendship. And in those cases I would think it is more like the history of the relationship (=love), rather than any present feeling or intention, which give reasons for x to act lovingly toward y.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good, good. I am glad to have people agree with me on this one. I was thinking I'm crazy to deny (1).

Eric said...

I think that (1) and (2) are using the word 'love' in two very different ways. (1) is referring to something like philio while (2) is referring to something like agape or caritas.

But, I think you're right, the proper way to resolve the tension is to reject the Frankfurtian account of love behind (1).

I think that love is a response to personhood that is shaped by the objective relationship we have with someone. Thus, the lover's reasons for action are not radically subjective... my attitude towards someone does not create my reasons for acting in particular ways; their personhood and our relationship does. Yet, to the degree that relationships are the result of my own choices (e.g. friendship, marriage, etc.) the way love ought to be expressed is shaped by those choices (and by my attitudes due to their influence on those choices). Of course, many relationships are not shaped by my choices (e.g. brother, parent, cousin, fellow-citizen). And, in the Christian tradition, no one is a 'stranger' but the default relationship is that of 'neighbor.'

Thanks for another interesting post... I should check your blog more often.
Eric Silverman