This past summer, I was sitting at a friend’s house. Her two adopted children were running around playing, and I was drinking a cup of tea she made me. We found ourselves talking about love and she began telling me about her husband’s friend, Mark, who had given up on love believing he had seen too many people fail to reach it. Mark’s belief was in direct juxtaposition to my friend’s who believes that love is not only felt and seen in her life, but daily dignified in the sacrifices she makes for her family. But, Mark did not believe that man was capable of going beyond himself to care for another. He believed that man was only capable of satisfying his own ego.
I give credit to her friend for calling a spade a spade. Many guises are often labeled as love and then we move from that illusion, to being hurt, to becoming hopeless. We end up saying, “love does not exist” or at least “man is not capable of love.” The second seeming to be what Mark actually believed more than not believing in love at all. And this belief still holds hope. By saying man does not seem capable of love, he is saying that love exists, but as something unreachable. Unreachable love seems a better prospect to work through and think about than no love at all.
Mark, unaware of the hope that lay in his heart, labeled himself an “unbeliever of love”. In any event, Mark had recently taken interest in a woman. This relationship held the potential to shed light on the darkness of his somber belief, but love under the guise of mutual self-satisfaction was bound to leave him without love. I wondered whether he would encounter something in himself during his time with her that would point him to love, or if he would feel unsatisfied, unable to see her as more than a means to his pleasure.
Mark’s Utilitarian Approach to Love
Mark’s critique of man’s failed love can also be defined as utilitarianism. In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla explains that utilitarianism emphasizes the usefulness of human activity and the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain as the primary basis of human living (1). This is a lens through which many of us see the world. It’s not completely crazy. I eat the ice cream not because I care about the ice cream, but because I want the pleasure of the tasty ice cream. People also want to relate to other people through this lens. I seek friendship with this person not because I care about him, but merely because I want pleasure from him. This pleasure can look like many things, but in all its instances a problem arises when the pleasure becomes more important than the person. In these instances we have settled for something less than love. Let’s seek to understand this ‘settling’ and how what we might endeavor to rise above it.
Utilitarian “Love” Lived Out
For the utilitarian, pleasure is the end. This is important, for pleasure isn’t bad, but it’s not everything. After looking at the beauty and order of the universe, after encountering the birth of a child, after looking at the capacities of our minds and hearts, can we honestly believe that the end of our actions is simply pleasure? As if we’re in a cartoon and Porky appears saying, “That’s all folks!” There’s nothing more; only pleasure. That’s all folks! Yes, I would feel like a Looney Tune if I am really made as beautiful as I am; if I really live in this world so intricate and ordered and yet believed in my heart that the end of my actions was pleasure and nothing more. At this point, I think Mark would say to me, “I understand utilitarianism isn’t so great, but look at us. It doesn’t seem like we’re able to reach beyond the pleasure.”
Utilitarianism As Despair
I would respond, “I know there are times we don’t show the capacity to reach beyond ourselves and pleasure. I know Mark, many times we settle.” This settling is a form of despair. A loss of a hope we once had. Even children are not only concerned with pleasure. I’ve spent time with a four year old and have watched how genuinely concerned he was with serving his mom by helping her with household chores. Over time, some of us have given up our ability to reach for something more valuable than pleasure. An acceptance of this defeat is to despair in our dignity, our ability to relate to others, and in values like love.
The Harmony of Utilitarianism
“Harmony is still possible!”, objects the utilitarian, “Pleasure as our end is not a form of despair. It doesn’t keep us from each other.” Utilitarianism seeks the greatest pleasure for the both of us, and must never present something unpleasant to the other. But Wojtyla responds, “Therefore love so understood [as the harmony of utilitarianism] is self-evidently merely a pretense which has to be carefully cultivated to keep the underlying reality hidden” (2). This hidden reality is that these people don’t actually care about each other. They still are only worrying about themselves. The underlying reality reveals the mask of communion that the harmony of utilitarianism puts on. This hidden reality is what Mark is seeing when he comes to his conclusion that man is not capable of love.
A New Basis for Love
As my friend told me about Mark, I hoped that in his new relationship he would recognize something beyond pleasure. I hoped he would encounter an objective good that the relationship could bring to himself and this woman that could unite them. It is not that pleasure is not a value at all. It is only that it cannot be the highest value. Wojtyla describes a new basis for love: “the personalistic norm” (3). The value of the person is intended to be above the value of pleasure. This truth lifts us from despair to hope. It dignifies us! “The person is an entity of a sort to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love” (4).
The Risk of this Basis
Wojtyla’s thoughts sound nice, and we have a clearer grasp, intellectually, on love as valuing the person above pleasure and being in relationship with another through a common good. But, we still have not shown that man is capable of this in his life . Nor have we admitted that as nice as it sounds to value the person over the pleasure this involves a deep surrender of oneself. There is a risk, but why take it? Deeper than our desire to satisfy ourselves is our desire to be in communion with other people. True communion involves this surrender. True love involves taking a risk. A risk beyond being willing to suffer, but the risk of being hurt by one you love. There are people in our times taking this risk, but we need more, for Mark deserves to know that this deep love is possible for man.
(1) Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 35.
(2) Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 39.
(3) Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 40.
(4) Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 41.Image 2