A political leader, or a pop singer, might want to be loved because of their carefully constructed (but misleading) image. Wanting love of this sort (if it really is love at all) is bound up with other objectives. It is a way of gaining votes, or securing strategic support or selling a product. For the sake of some other goal it may be better to be loved than, for example, feared. The rest of us (and even politicians and pop stars in their private lives, away from the public gaze) want to be loved for who we are. If we are loved in any other way then we may wonder if we are truly loved. We want to be loved “warts and all”.
This desire to be loved, for who we are, is rather awkward for two reasons. The first has been pointed out by contemporary philosopher of love, David Velleman of New York University, who claims that we may want to be loved “warts and all” but we don’t actually want to be loved “for our warts” or because of any other peculiar and distinctive features or traits (good or bad). That would simply be odd, weirdly fetishistic. Similarly, if my wife, Suzanne, were to love me because of my tendency to argue with the television and my inability to master the (apparently simple) business of driving, this would be a strange state of affairs. Worse still, I might begin to fear that someone who has a wider abusive vocabulary and more or better arguments with the television might show up and then where would I be? Second best perhaps. Long and awkward conversations might ensue. “You don’t grumble at Oprah and rail against Jeremy Kyle like you used to. Why aren’t you more like Dan? He can get annoyed by the weather forecast … he’s so dreamy … I don’t think we’re working any more. I’m leaving you. I’m leaving Scotland. I’m going to run off and watch Dan argue with the cricket commentary on Yorkshire television.” And so the nightmare begins. My flawed character turns out to be not quite flawed enough, and Suzanne trades up to another model with all the warts and weaknesses that she could desire.
Thankfully, love does not seem to work like that. When we answer questions such as “Why do you love this person” we tend to use placeholders. We cite character traits (good and bad) which we have come to see as part and parcel of the other person. We may be confident that we do have some sort of legitimate reason for loving, but it is hard to pin down exactly what it might be. So we use what comes ready to hand. Much the same applies when we try to make sense of why we, in turn, are loved by someone else, in spite of our many and obvious flaws.
Our desire to be loved for who we really are is also awkward for a second reason. There is a long and plausible tradition of associating love with excellence, or goodness or perfection. Plato thought that love was ultimately an aspiration towards The Good. Some Christian scholars (such as Søren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil) have argued that all love for persons is, indirectly, a love for God. More prosaically, Kate Abramson and Adam Leite at Indiana University have argued, recently, that love responds to “particular kinds of morally laudable features of character”. On whatever formulation, religious or secular, love then seems to involve an admirable form of recognition. It picks out what is good, virtuous, even transcendent, or what carries intimation, hints, of true goodness. But a concern here is that our stock of the latter may not be particularly high. Morally unexceptional agents (such as me, you, and almost everyone we know) may then have to rely upon a form of mistaken identity, not the recognition of who we really are but the bestowal of an imagined excellence, the projection of a better self. There has been no shortage of philosophers and novelists who have been prepared to argue that this is exactly how the work of love gets done. Schopenhauer believed that we are love’s dupes, tricked into breeding by an illusory image of the other. Stendhal believed that we imagine fascinating traits onto a commonplace surface, like crystals forming on a branch of wood thrown into a salt mine. Eventually the entire surface is covered and the base material is hidden. These are not grounds for optimism. This is not what we (ordinarily) want love to be.
And so it seems that we do not want to be loved because of our (very real) faults or because of imagined accomplishments or fictional goodness. We want to be loved for who we are in a sense which involves a genuine recognition of the good and the bad, the messy and complex totality of who we are. And while this is rather different from wanting someone to actually be attracted by our weaknesses (or to fantasize them into strengths) what this does seem to involve is a form of acceptance. We want to be accepted for who and what we are, even if we also want to be encouraged to become slightly better as a result of being loved. This is rather different from mere toleration, but the two may be hard to separate. If Suzanne only tolerated my weaknesses our relationship might soon be in trouble. Instead (and the wisdom of this is sometimes hard to fathom) she accepts some of my flaws and tolerates others. Above all, I do not need to be perfect in order to be loved by her. But I do need to be accepted for who I am.
There are, however, limits to a reasonable acceptance, a point beyond which love, or at least an intimate eroticized love, would become difficult to defend. And to say this is to say that love or at least this sort of love is always, in the final instance, conditional. If I were secretly some modern-day equivalent of Jack the Ripper or, privately and unknown to the world, a raging anti-Semite with an extensive collection of Hitler memorabilia, these are things which no reasonable love could be asked to accept. Although perhaps a qualification is due here. There are many different kinds of loves, parental love, the love between friends, intimate erotic love, and so on. And perhaps there is some manner of love which might accept even the worst of flaws and moral failings.
The obvious candidate here is some manner of love thought of in religious terms, what Christians call agape and Buddhists call mehta, an unconditional concern for the other for the other’s sake. On such approaches, love is owed to all others irrespective of who or what they are and irrespective of what they have done. We must love the person but not the failing, the sinner but not the sin. Also, because such love is offered to all, we should not merely welcome the stranger in our midst, we should do so as an expression of love. If this is love at all (as opposed to compassion or universal benevolence) then it is love of an extremely demanding sort. I recall as a child travelling to a chess tournament (a combat sport in which I did not excel) and finding myself lost with a group of people in a housing estate in Dundee. We couldn’t find the bed and breakfast and eventually knocked on a door to ask for directions. The ageing woman who answered not only took us in but fed us and gave us a place to stay for the night. While she was cooking, we saw the tattooed numbers on her arm, an indication that here was a survivor of the camps. Years later, I discovered that one of our group, a man of around 50, had been forced, as an “aryanised Pole” into the Hitler Youth and then the German army. When hospitality was extended from the camp survivor to stranger with an unknown past, was it also love? Should it have been love?
I tend to be somewhat sceptical about the idea that love is in play in such contexts, when strangers meet, although not because of the connection to religiosity (to which I have no objection at all). What drives me to the thought that this all-accepting response is something other than love is an association between love and loss. The things we truly love seem to be those things we may grieve over. This makes it difficult to understand how we might ever love strangers while they remained strangers. After all, I would be filled with a sense of sorrow if a stranger should die on my doorstep, but sorrow of this kind is very different from the dark and protracted void of actual bereavement that each of us goes through when we lose someone close.
But perhaps this is overly sceptical. Perhaps there is a sense in which such religious conceptions of unconditional love for others really are concerned with a special, demanding, form of love. Its object could, for example, be humanity rather than the particular stranger, and this might re-establish a link to grief. Many of us would certainly grieve over humanity’s demise. Is this, then, a good example of what other loves, intimate personal love in particular, ought to be like? Should Suzanne still continue to love me no matter what I have done and no matter what I do? The case for this kind of acceptance seems to be much harder to make. Harder, but not perhaps impossible. Kamila Pacovská, at the University of Pardubice, has recently been working on a conception of intimate love which embraces just such an acceptance of villainy and vice. The background thought which drives this approach is one which draws upon some ideas from the Australian philosopher Rai Gaita and, indirectly, from the Christian tradition.
Some years ago, Gaita set up what is perhaps the most commented upon example of unconditional acceptance in modern philosophy of love, the example of a nun who is a hospital visitor. While the doctors do a fine job and show patients respect and concern, their attitude is somewhat superior. The patients are ill and, up to a point, helpless. The doctors are well and in a position of greater authority. The nun, by contrast, shows the patients an unconditional love. It does not matter who they are, they are fellow humans. And here, the love is a recognition of a common humanity. Drawing upon various literary sources, Pacovská has attempted to extend this approach into cases of intimate love. There is surely, she suggests, something especially admirable about the kind of love which understands all and accepts all, the kind of love which involves even “loving villains”, seeing beyond their villainy and responding to the human who is not erased by wrongdoing or sin. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the ever-suffering Sonia has to come to terms with the murders committed by the central character, Raskolnikov. She does so without either embracing his vice or turning away. She continues to love him and shares the burden of his wrongdoing. In George Elliot’s Middlemarch, the respectable wife of the super-respectable (and somewhat puritanical) Banker Bulstrode has to come to terms with Bulstrode’s shady, hidden, past as a dealer in stolen goods, and with the questionable steps he has unsuccessfully taken to try and conceal it from herself and others. Again, she does not turn away.
How could we not admire love of this sort? The narratives in question are set up in order to ensure that we do. But is this love of the best sort, or love of a better, more saintly sort than the love which refuses to accept at least some great wrongdoings or evil beyond vice? One concern which we might have about this unconditional, all-accepting love is that it may be all very well for storybooks, but perhaps that’s where it ought to stay. Would we want someone we cared for to actually love another person in this way? One worry is that it might be a recipe for all manner of abuse, it might be a love which makes acceptance, and perhaps even a form of forgiveness, too readily available. We would not, surely, want a woman who is repeatedly beaten by her husband, to continue to love him, at least not in the same intimate and erotic way. At most, we might want her to love him in a different way which involved removal to a safe distance and without any feeling of the need to be near. This is also, surely, a dangerous way for anyone to be loved. I do not think that I am loved in this way, and I hope that I am not. Instead, if I ever become morally monstrous (instead of just mildly aggravating and quirky), Suzanne will hopefully cease to love me. And my wanting her to do so under such dreadful circumstances is perhaps integral to my way of loving her now, integral to my longing for her to have a good life and not to be caught up in some tragic and self-destructive drama.
A rather different concern is that a love which accepts all seems to involve hubris or what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch called the attempt to act above “our own moral level”, and not simply a little above this level, but way above it, to infinity and beyond. Perhaps a God, if there were such a being, might love in an absolutely unconditional way. After all, we would be his children and perhaps parents cannot choose whether or not they love their children, no matter what the children do. But we are not gods and gods (with due apologies to some ancient deities with an open heart and a wandering eye) ought not to be in relationships of the relevant intimate sort. An unconditional love simply does not seem like a love which is for us and the attempt to live it out could be fraught with dangers. And perhaps all of this talk about the difference between our human love and the love that gods might enjoy boils down to a simple observation, something which should have been obvious all along: there are some loves that we can do nothing with, some loves that simply lacerate and harm, some loves which are better ended than continued. Murdoch again puts matters nicely when she observes that falling out of love is a skill which we may all, at some point, need to learn.
This raises at least two difficulties. Firstly, there is the worrying task of making sense of what can and cannot be accepted or what can and cannot be forgiven. My arguments with programs on the television (programs which really ought to know better and vex me needlessly) look rather more like a good candidate for acceptance than the corrupt and dishonest actions of Banker Bulstrode which, in turn, look like a better candidate for both acceptance and a kind of forgiveness than the murderous actions of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. But these shortcomings are embedded in very different shared lives, which leads me to suggest that finding some rule for determining appropriate and inappropriate acceptance might not be a particularly helpful thing to do.
Secondly, is there not a danger here of degrading love itself by undermining its connection to constancy? A better love is, surely, always a more constant love. Theresa of Avila remarks somewhere that the only love worth having is a love which lasts, a love which goes on forever. But here I want to suggest that this is not necessarily so. Love may often have such an inbuilt desire for constancy. We may often love someone and want to go on doing so. But love has a far deeper connection to vulnerability and loss. Acceptance that the love of another, or love for another is never guaranteed is not only a counterbalance to complacency, it also helps us to pick out a way of caring with which we can feel at home, one which is a perfect match for our human predicament. To be human is, after all, to live out a life in which fragility and a vulnerability to loss and harm are thrown together with a need to love and to be loved. If there were any gods out there, they would surely be entertained.