Love is a word that we all use in everyday situations and refers to a concept that we believe we are well acquainted with, evidenced by our confident usage of it in discourse. I would like to argue, however, that our collective conception of love is actually tainted and confused owing to a variety of delusions which plague our clear apprehension of this and other concepts. Taking a more relativistic point of view would be to assert that in speaking of love I am simply referring to something other than that which people in everyday situations happen to refer to. However, I want to examine whether the normal referent of “love” is totally free of inner incoherencies and if so, whether my own conception clarifies this. This project will yield much benefit to those that have frequently made use of the concept without much reflection on what it is that is actually meant by it. Clarification is especially relevant in this case since this concept is ubiquitous and is the fountain-head of so many problems and disputes, miseries and stresses.
To a first approximation, “love” seems to refer to the quality of taking another’s cares for one’s own. In other words, it is the concern one takes to ensure that the recipient of love is free from pain. If this were the sole content of the concept, however, it would simply be a synonym of compassion, which is the deep wish that others are free from suffering. Also, it is interesting to note that most people differentiate love into various forms which we might call romantic love, familial love, and friendly love. Some might not even go so far as to admit that there exists any love for friends but that the phenomenon therein is simply called friendship, perhaps a more dilute form of love. None, however, would deny that the phenomenon occurring in family, especially in between a mother and her child, was an instance of love. So it seems that there are commonalities occurring in between these various manifestations of a principle we refer to as love, but that still people prefer to maintain a specification of the different kinds of love, and in particular, to reserve the usage of the term for romantic love only. In my consideration I will bypass these objections by maintaining that the phenomenon occurring in all three cases is in general love, albeit in varying strengths and manifest forms. In doing so, I am assuming a definition of love which resonates with our own internal understanding of the term, namely the concern, or desire, for another’s welfare, as witnessed in all sorts of familial, friendly, and romantic relationships.
If we are determined to perform a thorough examination of love, we must delve deeper than this surface consideration and into psychology and discern from it the underlying motives for the behavioral phenomenon in question. The first question to ask is: who are the typical recipients of love of the average human being? The answer is readily given in the form of a list which includes: romantic partner(s), friends, and family. The second question to ask is: what have all of these people in common? Again, the answer is readily given in the response that these are all human beings who have some sort of connection with the loving person. They are HER friends, or HER family, or HER boyfriend or husband, or HIS mother, or HIS brother, etc. So it seems that all love, as the word is commonly used, depends on the presence of a “bond” linking the lover with the recipient of the love. This is the reason why we would not normally say of strangers that we love them. The recipient of our love must be someone who is related to us somehow, whether as a friend, a relative, or a romantic partner, at least according to the usual construal of this concept. But I want to further probe the matter by asking what it is exactly about this bond that leads to the feelings of love. To put it better, why is it that we love people who are related to us but not people who are unrelated to us? And here is perhaps where the confusion begins to influence our way of thinking, and also where my argument will receive the most heated objections. It seems to me that the only difference in between a stranger and someone with whom I have a bond is that there is some interaction to be had with the relation but none with the stranger (for brevity, “relation” here refers to someone with whom I have a bond of love). To put it more bluntly, there is something that a relation can give me which a stranger cannot. It is clear that this relationship is reciprocal, i.e. that we give as well as take. But the fundamental motive which keeps us seeking out the relation is the value that we TAKE from them and not the value that we GIVE to them. We never go to someone hoping that we can genuinely do something to help them. That is not to say that we are always unwilling to help as that would be ridiculous. What I mean here is that the spur which initiates our seeking someone out is clearly what benefit we think we can get from this. Either we are bored so we seek out our friends for entertainment, or we are in trouble so we seek out our family for aid, or we are in lust so we seek out our romantic partners for sex. It should be kept in mind that these are just some examples of the motives that move us to maintain our relationships and should by no means be taken to be exhaustive of the list, for which purposes many more pages would be required. And if one of our relations needs our help we are very willing to give this, but subtly only on account of what help they would give us in our moments of need. That this is so is evidenced by the fact that we do not extend our love to strangers as we established above, where we feel that there is no benefit to be had by this for ourselves.
To give another account of love I would like to appeal to the notion of identity. By identity I mean what one takes to be one’s “self” as opposed to a very general “other”, which encompasses everything existing that is not “self”. The boundary, then, between self and other is the skin since this clearly demarcates the end of my identity and the beginning of any other thing’s identity. This discussion is useful in the elaboration on bonds of love because something curious takes place therein which we can understand by again examining the difference between a stranger and a relation. A stranger is clearly an “other” and none would dispute this claim – although in honesty I do dispute it but let us leave that argument until later. Someone unknown to me is definitely not a part of me, and hence is not my “self”; I do not identify with this stranger. However, a person connected to me by a bond of love is arguably not so much of an “other” as is the stranger. In fact, my claim is that in the usual manifestation of love, the recipient of the love is identified with in a way that makes this relation a part of the self of the lover. Thus, we identify with our families, drawing a sense of self directly therefrom, and equally with our romantic partners and our friends. What this indicates is that the skin becomes too claustrophobic a boundary to maintain and is thus penetrated through outwards into the world of people and objects which are drawn in using the bond of love and made to be a part of the self. Something similar seems to occur with the possessions that one acquires and which subsequently become identified with, such as house, car, clothes, phone, even pets. Hence the expressions: I’m a cat person, or I’m a blackberry person, or I’m a fashionable person, etc. This phenomenon in the cases of objects is better called “like” rather than “love” since that is the natural word that we would use to describe our attachments to these. But, in its essence of identification, these two are seen to be the very same phenomenon, namely that of self-love, which occurs quite naturally when there is the assumption that such a self exists and is truly separated from the rest of the universe, i.e. that it exists independently and set up by its own power and that it is something inherent. Starting form this assumption it is natural that we should all become selfish beings, seeking benefit only for ourselves and even if it comes at the expense of the “other”. What care would I have for others if I truly believed my self to be independent and separated from everything else? This is what is really meant by the word “egoism”: concern only for the welfare of the self, even if this must come about at the expense of others, for whose welfare the egoist is utterly indifferent. However, by calling a relation MY son, or MY father, or MY girlfriend, I am indicating that there is some form of subtle possession taking place here, by claiming that these people are MINE, and thus incorporating them into my image of my self. It is evidently not possession in exactly the same sense as for objects, but is of the same kind in the identification it indicates. We derive a boost to our self-image if we are associated with someone praiseworthy, for instance.
Taking these two accounts of love together we can come to see what is meant by this word in its common use in the world today. The primary account focused on what benefit can be had by associating with another, for whom one then professes love. The second account understands that humans who assume an independently and separately existing self will naturally be egoists whose love can only ever be directed at themselves and anything else identified with as “self”. So the conclusion from these two accounts is that a bond of love is just another name for an identification with someone and is constructed solely out of self-love in the perceived possibility of gaining some benefit from this identification. And if anything is ever done selflessly, as an objector to this argument might suggest, it is only from 1) some kind of an identification with the recipient of the altruism, like a mother identifying with her child, or 2) some perceived benefit to be had by the so-called altruistic act.
The solution to this dilemma lies in the understanding that there is no actual boundary between self and other. Not only is the skin insufficient for this – if we zoom in to relevant scale we would find that there is a continuum of particles between my skin and the air and no reliable cut-off point which demarcates me from other – but so is consciousness itself, which many would instinctively cling onto as a last resort measure to maintain some concept of an identity. Consciousness is no more than the mere result of the functioning of the brain, and as such is reliant completely upon the correct functioning of the body, which is itself reliant completely upon the absorption of nutriment from the environment and the release of waste into the environment. So there is no cut-off point between us and nature and there is no self to be found no matter how badly we wish otherwise. So, the conclusion is that the only truly existing entity in the universe is the entire universe as a whole, and if I am to profess any love, it can only be directed at that entity, as it is the only possible recipient of this. Any discrimination of objects or people from the nature they inhabit is delusional, which deep and careful reflection will make clear, and which indicates that everyone, and even everything, is equally entitled to our love. In this sense, then, love becomes something very similar to universal compassion, the simple wish for all beings to be free from suffering, and this is what is frequently called the “mystic’s love”. No differentiation can rationally be made between son and stranger in terms of love, for love pervades the entire universe and makes no distinctions. Love also makes no demands, contrasting with the popular use of the word, but is sufficient unto itself. It is sufficient that we feel love for all beings in equal measure, and that we expect nothing in return, for to make demands implies our belief in a self as individuated from the other, which is clearly a delusion.
May all beings be freed from suffering