Wednesday, February 19, 2020

On a criticism of union theories of love

On some union models of love, like Robert Nozick’s, our well-being extends to include our beloved: good and bad things happening to our beloved count as happening to us.

A standard criticism of the union models (I first saw it in Jennifer Whiting’s criticism of Aristotle) is that we end up pursuing the other’s good not for their sake but for our own, since their good is a part of our well-being.

This criticism seems to me to only apply if one adds to such a union model the thesis that our actions are always solely in pursuit of our own good. But such a thesis leads to the problem that we don’t pursue other people’s good for their own sake independently of the union of love. The criticism, thus, is not a criticism of the union model of love, but of an egoistic theory of motivation.

The fact that the other’s good is a part of my good does not entail that I pursue the other’s good because it is my good. After all, we sometimes do things that we know benefit us but do them for reasons other than the benefit to ourselves. If after adding up the scores, I see that I am the winner of a game, my announcing the scores benefits me. However, I do not announce them because this benefits me, but because it’s the truth.

It is true that if I were omnirational, and if my own good were not excluded by a higher-order reason, then whenever an action benefited me, that benefit would be a part of my reasons for the action. But that is not objectionable: on the contrary, it is a part of the charm of love that the lover acts not just for the sake of the beloved but also for their own sake. That fact helps make the lover’s generosity not be a demeaning condescension.

Perhaps the criticism comes from a deeper mistake about love, the mistake of thinking that when we act lovingly, then typically the love is itself a part of the reasons for the action. For if the love is constituted by the other’s good being included in mine, and if the love is a reason for the action, then it does seem that when I act because of the love, I act because of the other’s good being included in mine. However, typically when we act lovingly, we do not act because we love. If my friend needs help, helping them is loving, but to reason “I love, so I should help” is to think a thought too many. Instead, one should just reason: “They need help.” My antecedent love makes it more likely that I will act on that reason, and my acting on that reason is partially constitutive of the continuation of the love, but the love is not itself the reason. After all, imagine that five minutes before finding out that my friend needed something, I stopped loving them. That would be no excuse not to help!

In fact, it seems to me that the best kind of union model would say something like this: What makes it be the case that my beloved’s good is a part of my good, what makes my beloved be “another me”, is the fact that I am pursuing my beloved’s good for their own sake. In other words, one could hold that love is constituted by union, but the union is constituted by pursuit of the beloved’s good.


Atno said...

I guess this would not a direct response to Whiting's point, but couldn't we say that having one's own good dependent on (or influenced by) the good of another exactly a testament of how selfless one is? If someone's self-interest includes the good of others, isn't that a case of practical reason achieving perfection and transcending itself? In a way it becomes "selves"-interest instead of self-interest, and that is the opposite of selfishness.

Maybe there is some analogy to be made with the intellect in a Thomistic understanding. The intellect is that which can have forms other than its own; it is not just limited to its form, but includes within itself the forms of other things (as abstract ideas), and is therefore more perfect than non-intelligence. The properly developed will or self-interest not only includes itself, but also other beings, and the more beings it includes in its interest, the more perfect it becomes. But this would require lots of development

Alex H said...

This is a concern that I have seen come up in relation to Aquinas's understanding of compassion and mercy. All instances of mercy begin with sharing in the sadness of another which then moves one to alleviate that sadness. One way this can happen is through a unity of affection or love of the other person. But insofar as alleviating the other person's sadness also alleviates your own, some want to say that we are acting for our own good as opposed to for the good of the other.

I wonder though if the criticism doesn't properly take into account what it truly means to be united with another. As Aristotle talks about it, a loved one becomes another self. To unite with someone is to, in a sense, become one. But to ask whether one is acting for the sake of oneself or the other seems to presuppose a distinction between the lover and the beloved, and I'm not sure there can be this distinction in such a unity. Insofar as the lover and the beloved are united, their good simply becomes one good. To speak of acting for the one's good as opposed to the other is to pry them apart.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's really interesting!

Here's a perhaps crazy thought. We each have different aspects of our personality. And sometimes we do actions that benefit one aspect and (at least) leave other aspects cold. "This appeals to my geeky side." In those cases, we don't reason: "My geeky side is a part of me. By benefiting it, I benefit myself. So I will do it." We just directly reason: "This appeals to my geeky side, so I will do it." But of course the fact that the geeky side is a part of me is not irrelevant. And perhaps we can compare friends to aspects of our personality.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is a nice suggestion, too. Thanks!

Gary Tracy said...
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