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Is This Love? —Why love is more than an emotional reaction

6:00:00 AMJosh Merlo


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The week following Valentine’s Day seems to be a time as appropriate as any to discuss one of the most singularly misunderstood parts of our affective lives: love. The question, “What is love?” is one that has provoked poets and philosophers, romantics and rock bands, cynics and carousers. Given the wide array of those seeking to find out what exactly this elusive concept is, it comes as no surprise that love has been defined along the entire gamut from sappy to sordid, valuable to vapid. Keeping this in mind, then, it would appear rather foolish to try to condense the vast scholarship (and otherwise) concerning love into a brief thesis. Nevertheless, such shall be done. What is love? It is most definitely a response to something (the beloved). The more fitting question, though, is what sort of response love truly is.


To call love an emotional response seems accurate. After all, anyone who doesn’t recognize that love is affective in nature has probably never experienced love, or at least doesn’t remember what it was like to be in love. Of course, there is a massive difference between saying love is emotive in nature, and love is only emotive in nature. More properly, then, it can be asked whether love can be mere emotivism. Emotivism is a theory that reduces certain values (usually moral ones) to a reflexive emotional response.


DietrichLiao I.jpgFor instance, emotivists (like A.J. Ayer) would claim that value is simply me experiencing a positive emotion. Applied to love, then, an emotivist theory would propose that saying, “I love her!” is the equivalent of — and nothing more than — saying, “I feel strong positive emotions about her!”. This is not very romantic. After all, a man can feel strong positive emotions for his trusty pair of sneakers or his first Sherwood hockey stick. If one takes an emotivist approach toward love, Camus’s words in The Stranger resound quite painfully: “A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.” If love is simply an emotion that can be prompted by the beloved, it becomes nothing more than a man’s cursing after he stubs his toe or a child’s excited squeal when she sees snow for the first time. But if love is not simply a response of compelled emotion, what is it? (Image II, Albert Camus)


If not an emotive response, could love be a value-response? To explain what a value-driven love would look like, the concept of a value deserves some unpacking. As a first and fundamental point, a value should never be confused with something natural, that is, something empirical. Why is this something fundamental about value? Because a value carries an “ought”; those who perceive a value ought to respond in a certain way. As Hume was so fond of pointing out, no “ought” can be presented by a natural “is” — just because something exists a certain way does not mean that this something offers any valid prescription about how the world should be. However, if a value is not empirical, what is it? For things like values, the alternative is not being of this world: in a word, transcendent. Values exist above and beyond the natural world, being both eternal and superior to any worldly standard. They are made available to man through an act of intuition; man “sees” the value as it is, not through any process of abstraction from sense perception, but rather through the strength of his intellect and the fittingness of the value in the world.


Value being a bit more explained, what then is value-response? Quite simply, if, say, love is a value-response, then the lover ought to act in a certain way toward the beloved. As Hildebrand writes in The Nature of Love, “It is essential for every kind of love that the beloved person stands before me as precious, beautiful, lovable … The self-giving and commitment proper to every kind of love … is necessarily based on the fact that the beloved person stands before me as beautiful, precious, as objectively worthy of being loved. Love exists as a value-response.” If love is more than mere emotive response, it must include a recognition of the worth of the other. If the beloved does not have some qualities that are both venerable and desirable (qualities that are important-in-themselves), the response to the beloved cannot be a value-response. Love as a value-response demands a response to the other. The response is to the value of the beloved, not to what the beloved provides the lover.


To be sure, the argument between emotivism and value response cannot be easily settled on philosophical grounds. This being so,  one can perhaps ask the emotivist this: when you go home to your wife and tell her you love her, do you intend those words to convey anything beyond your feeling “nice” about her? The consistent emotivist may very well have to concede he means nothing more than Camus does: love doesn’t really mean anything. Common experience indicates the opposite; love indeed seems to be something both meaningful and more content-based than simple involuntary emotional impulses. If this is the case, value-response becomes a viable alternative to emotivism as an answer to the question of what love is.

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