Thursday 2/20

Contemporary Views on Love IV



Quiz Questions

  • What is the difference between caring and wanting for Frankfurt?
  • What does Frankfurt mean when he asserts that love "consists most basically in a disinterested concern for the well-being or flourishing of the person who is loved"?
  • What examples can you give in support of Frankfurt's claim that love "is ineluctably personal"?


We continued today by framing and fleshing-out our investigation of Frankfurt's essay, "The Reasons of Love". Frankfurt asks first not, "what is love?", but "how should we live our lives?" This may seem like a somewhat indirect way to start a philosophical inquiry into the nature of love. Recall, though, our discussion of Loveless Joe on the first day of class: Love will doubtless be found front and center in any discussion of how we should live our lives.

The problem, as Frankfurt points out, is that of the various norms or normative systems by which we could order our lives, be they

  • Moral,
  • Legal,
  • Religious,
  • Aesthetic,
  • Etiquettical, or
  • Cultural/Social,

Even moral norms, which presumably trump other norms, tell us very little about how we should live our lives. Indeed, an answer cannot be found even if we consult rational norms, which should raise some eyebrows since this is, after all, a philosophical inquiry into the question of how we should live our lives. Frankfurt's argument that there is no rational, foundational justification for how we should live our lives is fairly straightforward: Any rational justification for how we should live our lives presupposes criteria for deciding between the kinds of lives we might live, but those criteria are just how we should live are lives. Thus we can only rationally justify how we should live our lives if we first know how we should live our lives, which is fundamentally circular. The best we can do, Frankfurt thinks, is to understand what is important to us and live our lives accordingly with confidence and commitment.

Setting aside the puzzle over whether or how there can be a rational basis for how we should live our lives, it is important to appreciate that Frankfurt is employing a piece of theoretical machinery he originally developed and deployed to help with the problem of freedom of the will. That is, how can we have free wills if our actions are either causally determined--in which case we had no choice in what to do, contrary to appearances--or they are not causally determined--in which case they are at best random and in no way the result of our wills. Put another way, it seems the only choices are that you had to do what you did or you did what you did at random, but in neither case can it be said that you acted of your own free will. This is a long-standing and deeply puzzling problem in philosophy, one we take up in some detail in my Spring course, "Minds and Machines".

Shameless course-promoting plugs aside, Frankfurt posits a certain rather plausible psychological complexity for human persons. Animals, you see, are unreflective bundles of desires: There are lots of things at any given moment they want or desire, but they don't care about what they desire in the sense that they are never troubled by, or delighted by, the desires they have. They aren't involved in their own lives in the same way human persons are. They don't care about what their desires happen to be at any moment, but humans do. We are deeply concerned about our desires. We endorse some of our desires, while others might horrify us. The care we take with respect to our desires involves us in our own lives in ways animals are not. We are, in short, reflective bundles of desires. Thus for human persons we have it that,

1. First-order desires are desires directed on specific actions.

2. First-order effective desires are those desires that bear on the courses of actions we in fact take, have taken, or intend to take.

3. The totality of our first-order effective desires at any given time is our will.

4. Second-order desires are desires directed on first-order desires: Recall in this regard Frankfurt's distinction (discussed in class) between the Willing Addict, the Wanton Addict, and the Unwilling Addict.

5. Second-order effective desires, or volitions, shape the content of the will by being directed on first-order effective desires.

His theory is somewhat more complicated than this, but this should be just enough of the machinery to help us understand his account of love in the next two chapters.

Specifically, caring is volitional: To care about something or someone is to have second-order effective desires determining ones (first-order effective) desires with regard to it or them. Love, for Frankfurt, is a kind of caring. Being volitional, love, for Frankfurt, is central to how we order our wills and give meaning to our lives, which fits rather neatly with our original thought experiment concerning Loveless Joe.

To underscore the point, whenever Frankfurt talks about volitions, caring, or love, he is talking about reflective, or second-order desires.

Incidentally, as Frankfurt describes in this chapter, we have freedom of the will (and thus, perhaps, a solution to the problem of freedom of the will) to the extent that our wills are the wills we want to have--to the extent, that is, that our wills are a function of, or directed by, our second-order effective desires. Whether his version of compatibilism succeeds or not is a matter for another course.

In any case, to care is to have a second-order disinterested desire for the welfare of the object of care. There is a lot of work being done in this statement, so perhaps it would help to unpack Frankfurt's conception of caring--and thereby to set the stage for understanding his conception of love--by explaining what caring is not on his view.

Suppose Ludwig cares for Elise. Then under Frankfurt's conception of caring,

It is not the case that Ludwig cares for Elise because doing so will get him a better job, sexual gratification, social status, or even the pleasures of emotional attachment.

Discussion: Ludwig seeks nothing nor hopes for, plans for, or in the slightest way anticipates any personal gain for himself in caring for Elise. Ludwig's desire for Elise's welfare is thus wholly disinterested. Put another way, caring is crucially selfless. To desire the welfare of another for selfish reasons is not to care for Frankfurt, since that is merely to manipulate or use the other person towards one own ends, even if the manipulation/using results in bettering the welfare of the person.

It is not the case that Ludwig, in caring for Elise, wants her to always be happy, to always take the utmost pleasure in everything she herself does, and never to struggle, fail, or otherwise suffer hardships.

Discussion: Remember that under Frankfurt's conception of caring, the object of Ludwig's desire is not Elise, her happiness, or her pleasure. His desire is for her welfare. If we understand Elise's welfare in terms of what is best for her, or what is in her best interests, then it is clear that he wants for her to grow and develop for her own sake. In Aristotelian terms, he wants for her eudaimon, but not in the way eudaimon is usually translated--viz., as happiness. Rather, he wants for her eudaimon in the sense of her genuine human flourishing. Living a life of no hardship and only pleasure is not, clearly, to flourish as a human being.

It is not the case that Ludwig, in caring for Elise, merely or simply wants to do what is best for her.

Discussion: Wanting to do what is best for Elise is a first-order desire, but caring for Frankfurt is a second-order desire, something he often calls a volition. To have a volition is very different than having a first-order desire. For example, Ludwig might want to do what is best for Elise, but might also not want to want to do what is best for Elise. Ludwig would in this case be like the Unwilling Addict. He has a first-order desire which is not a desire he wants to have. Given the chance, he would kick his Elise habit. Or suppose Ludwig has no volitions regarding Elise's welfare. He may want to do what is best for Elise, but it's only by accident. He's unconcerned about her welfare even has he tries to promote it, in the sense that he's uninvolved in, or unreflective about, his desire to do what is best for her. He could as well not want to do what is best for her even in the next minute, and not be in the least bit troubled by his change in desires. Caring, then, is volitional in the sense that it directs, orders, and unifies the desires Ludwig has to do what is best for Elise and to have what is best for Elise brought about by circumstance and others efforts. To care is to want to have the kinds of desires one must to have a genuine, selfless interest expressed for the welfare of another person.

Now, love, for Frankfurt, is a kind of caring which is distinguished from caring in general by having four necessary conditions. Quoting in whole from pages 79 and 80 of "The Reasons of Love",

  • First, it consists most basically in a disinterested concern for the well-being or flourishing of the person who is loved. It is not driven by any ulterior purpose but seeks the good of the beloved as something that is desired for its own sake.
  • Seccond, love is unlike other modes of disinterested concern for people--such as charity--in that it is ineluctably personal. The lover cannot coherently consider some other individual to be an adequate substitution for his beloved, regardless of how similar that individual may be to the one he loves. The person who is loved is loved for himself or for herself as such, and not as an instance of a type.
  • Third, the lover identifies with his beloved: that is, he takes the interests of his beloved as his own. Consequently, he benefits or suffers depending upon whether those interests are or are not adequately served.
  • Finally, loving entails constraints upon the will. It is not simply up to us what we love and what we do not love. Love is not a matter of choice but is determined by conditions that are outside our immediate voluntary control.

We might summarize these four "conceptually necessary conditions" by saying (in the same order) that

1. To love is to care.

2. None other can be the lover's love than the she he loves (or, to be fair, the he she loves, or the he he loves, or the she she loves.)

3. The beloved's interests are the lover's in the sense that what is good for the beloved is good for the lover, and what is bad for the beloved is likewise bad for the lover.

4. We do not will our loves, rather our wills are constrained by the loves we have, over which we have no direct control.

This last bears some explanation. Since love, as a kind of caring, is a second-order desire, our will--which is the totality of our first-order desires--is determined or directed by our loves. It is not the case, then, that we can will what we love. Rather, our loves determine the content of our wills.

A great deal follows from all this, including the notion that love is not immediately up to us. We cannot choose to love or not love, but we can influence ourselves by the environment we create for ourselves.

Next time we take up the closely intertwined topic of lust insofar as it bears on erotic or romantic love. Note that it seems there is a lot of reading, but in fact the individual chapters are quite short and written in an admirably accessible style.