Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Is love a virtue?

An obvious way to harmonize Christianity with Aristotelian ethics is to say that love is the chief virtue. For a number of years I thought something like this, but now I am not so sure. Here's why.

First, courage and justice are simply courage and justice. But love is always love for someone. There is a habit of courage or justice that goes over and beyond the particular contexts or individuals: a courageous person would act bravely in counterfactual circumstances and a just person would justly towards counterfactual people. But love is love for these particular individuals, Tom, Dick and Harry, say.

Second, virtues are not even partly constituted by particular judgments or emotions, but rather dispose one towards judgments or emotions. But if I love you, then my appreciation of you is partly constitutive of the love. In the case of just action, we have something like this picture. Katherine has (1) the habit of justice. She comes across a case where justice is called for. She (2) makes some judgments about the case which lead to (3) certain cognitive and emotional attitudes about the case and a drive towards an action type in the case. This in turn results in (4) action. There are thus four ingredients:

  1. the habit
  2. the judgment
  3. the particular complex of mental states, and
  4. the action.
Of these four ingredients, love for another is most like (3). It already includes particular cognitive and emotional attitudes, say ones of appreciation, and a drive towards things like union and beneficence in the case of this individual.

These disanalogies between love and paradigmatic virtues also suggest a certain kind of problem for Christian ethics. According to the New Testament, love of God and neighbor suffices for moral perfection. But suppose that I were only one of five people in the world, and the other four were all friends of mine. It seems that I could love God and neighbor but have a disposition to hate (and not love) everyone else, should anyone else ever come into existence. That is far from moral perfection, just as it is far from courage if I never irrationally flee from danger because I am only ever in four dangers and none of which I happen to shrink from.

What to do about this problem? One option is to posit a virtue of lovingness that disposes one to come to love persons. A virtue gives rise to a cognitive, emotional and volitive context when one comes across a particular kind of entity or event. The virtue of lovingness gives rise to love for x whenever one comes across an entity x that is a person. We can now restore the parallel with other virtues. Francis has (1) the habit of lovingness. He comes across Clare. He (2) judges Clare to be a person. Thus, he (3) loves Clare. And so (4) he acts unitively and beneficently towards Clare, pursuing the kind of union that is appropriate between two people heels over heads in love with God.

The lovingness option is philosophically attractive. And perhaps one can claim that some of the New Testament usages of the word agapê refer not to love but to lovingness. Perhaps, but I think it is a bit of a stretch.

There is another option. What is central to Christian ethics is not just love for neighbor but love for God and neighbor. Love for God then gives rise to love for neighbor, both because God loves our neighbor and because our neighbor participates in God. We have the (1)-(4) structure, except that Francis's step (1) is not the virtue of lovingness but love for God. Thus, a theist can build ethics on love rather than lovingness, because love for God already includes something like lovingness towards neighbor.

Could we take this last option and say that love for God is a virtue? Love for God isn't just one love among many: it is the root of other loves in the good life. We still have a disanalogy with courage and justice, I think. Courage and justice, it seems, are not even partly constituted by cognitive and emotional attitudes: they are constituted by a disposition to form cognitive and emotional attitudes. But love for God is at least partly constituted by cognitive and emotional attitudes.

Maybe we should just say that love for God isn't a virtue, and so an ethics of love isn't a virtue ethics. But love for God is something akin to a virtue, something more vibrant and active (less dispositional) than a virtue. This solves another Aristotelian difficulty. Aristotle thought that human flourishing wasn't constituted by having virtues but by acting on them. But human flourishing is constituted in large part by loving God. Loving God has both dispositional and the active components. It is (1) and (3) taken together, and maybe (4) as well. It's a super-virtue.

Question: Am I describing the life of nature or the life of grace?

Answer: At least the life of grace. But perhaps also the life of nature. For there is a natural and a graced, infused love for God. Maybe then natural love of neighbor should flow from a natural love for God--a love that naturally responds to God's goodness as discernible to the life of reason--while supernatural love of neighbor flows from a supernatural love for God--a love that can only come by grace.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Interesting thoughts.... What happens if the chief ethic is godliness? Now, God is love (that is to say, love is God's central attribute) according to 1 John 4:8, 16; so love (or, I prefer how you put it: "lovingness"; being "lovingly disposed") will characterize godly people. But the habit which subsumes all other ethical habits and which disposes people toward moral perfection is "godliness".

I don't know. What do you think?

StMichael said...

I have been thinking more of Confucian ethics, actually, for just this reason, insofar as its theory of love might supplement the Aristotelian naturalist ethics. The Confucians have a concept that all virtue is founded on the natural loves we have within the context of family life. They then get progressively expanded out. I am not sure how dispositional they are, but they seem to be. Perhaps they are "lovingness."

SMatthewStolte said...

It is possible to love an individual who happens to be my neighbor without loving her as my neighbor. A love of neighbor as neighbor is inconsistent with a disposition to hate some possible (but non-existent) person. This much, I think, is in keeping with the spirit of the good Samaritan parable.

I would try to explain this by saying that the name ‘neighbor’ somehow signifies a depth in the person, whereby the person is both (a) incomprehensible and (b) in that way specially related to God (insofar as the incomprehensibility of the person is a way of being an image of the incomprehensible God).*

Where I feel a little awkward on this account is that I don't see any obvious reason why the name ‘neighbor’ should signify such a thing. Maybe I could construct some sort of argument along the following lines: To be my neighbor is to be near me. But one is nearer me by being spiritually near me than by being physically near me. Furthermore, [thoughts break off here …]

*And if you want to insist that God is comprehensible because he is comprehensible to himself, and that persons are comprehensible to God, then you can just read my ‘incomprehensible’ as short-hand for ‘incomprehensible-to-us’.