Monday, March 13, 2006

Love and Marriage

Why marriage? It's an impertinent question: why the hell not? But "An Argument Against Marriage" has recently been proposed.

It takes the form of a dilemma, framed around a question: is the marriage vow binding in the unilateral absence of love? If it is, then the risk of ending up in a loveless marriage ought to be a strong deterrent. If not, then the vow will be redundant. So, why bother?

The issues raised by this argument range from the exalted to the tawdry. Tawdry, first: even while it lasts, love is no guarantee that one will be honoured and cherished, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others. Neglect and adultery need not signal the end of love; a commitment to avoid them, even if conditional, would not be redundant.

The more exalted question is: can love be promised, or given at will? On the face of it: no. Love is not voluntary; it is a passion, and therefore passive. But the orthodox view among philosophers is (I think) that love is active at least in the way that judgement is: there are reasons for love, as there are reasons for belief, even if we cannot decide to love, or to believe.

There is something right about this. But it is immediately worrying. We don't want to be loved for our qualities: that would seem to make love conditional, and to allow for fungibility and "trading up". Nor does it help to appeal to relational properties, or relationships: love can be capricious, unfounded, unrequited; there can be love at first sight. (In any case, how self-centred to love people only for how they relate to me!)

We need to re-examine the arguments for taking love to have reasons in the first place. It is true that love seems intelligible from the first-person perspective. But so do many things that have no reasons, in the ordinary sense: tearing one's clothes in grief; stabbing out the eyes of a photograph in anger; jumping for joy.

It is also true that love can seem appropriate, desirable – or not. It is bad to be in love with an abusive spouse. But why conclude that there are reasons for love, not just reasons to wish for love (or for its absence). Compare: it might be good to believe in God; but that is at most a reason to wish for belief, not a reason for belief itself.

In its typical form, the idea of reasons for love seems to conflate the feeling of love with such things as caring for someone, or with emotions and judgements directed towards them. Love need not go along with caring, or valuing, or judging to be good. (Back the tawdry point, above, about the marriage vow.)

I wonder if the truth is more like this. There is love as passion, which has causes but not reasons, and which lies outside of our control. (The causes are often trivial, and so the "reasons" that we give for love are often trivial, too: think of the final scene of When Harry Met Sally.) And then there is the activity of love, which has reasons in the way that any action does. (The reasons may be good or bad; selfish or disinterested; tied to relationships, obsessions, or genes.) Love in the active sense is struggling to see the beloved in ways that sustain the passive sort of love. It can be promised and it is, in part, the object of the marriage vow.

Perhaps this is quite wrong: I'm not sure. It would explain how love can be unconditional, even though it has reasons. And it would explain the point of asking, "Why do you love me?" – wanting in answer not reasons for love, by which it might be justified, but for signs of what Iris Murdoch called "the capacity to love, that is to see."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You suggest: "Love in the active sense is struggling to see the beloved in ways that sustain the passive sort of love." In other words, keep the passion (the suffering) alive. But this is to fall into the trap of Proust's narrator, is it not? Actively seeking to recreate the distracting uncertainties, lust, and longing of the beginning of a relationship hardly seems the best way to love someone for life.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...


I appreciate the worry, which may turn out to be right. A partial response is that "passion" here just means the passive aspects of love, whatever they are. So, it needn't imply the thrill of romance. It could just as well be tenderness, or the comfort of an adoring familiarity. Is there anything insidious or perverse about the attempt to sustain a passion like that?

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. Nothing insidious or perverse, but how can you be sure it's passive? How do you know that the tenderness and comfort are not born of your conscious decision to commit to loving your partner?

1:01 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Part of my thought was that one can take steps to affect and control one's feelings by making a decision to commit to one's partner. These feelings count as passive in that they are not directly subject to the will, and because we do not have them for reasons, at least not in the way that we act or believe on the basis of reasons. It doesn't follow that they don't have causes, or that our own deliberate efforts are not among them.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write: "Love in the active sense is struggling to see the beloved in ways that sustain the passive sort of love." and "Part of my thought was that one can take steps to affect and control one's feelings by making a decision to commit to one's partner."

Accepting your credible distinction between being in love (the passive sort of love) and cultivating such love (stuggling to sustain, or I suppose induce, passive love), I suggest that cultivation is itself a complex mixture of states, some of which can be done for reasons, and some of which we can only wish for or try to induce/cultivate (by second order cultivation, so to speak.)

Cultivating love seems to often require, for example, dispositional patterns of directed attention that are not under our direct voluntary control. This does not belie your thought that some other aspects of cultivaiton are indeed active (in your sense.)

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi K

There's a card-change in your second paragraph here, I think: I don't see how ruminating on the causes/ definition/ existence of the experience known as love bears on the validity/ desirability of marriage – which is a primitive intrusion on the part of the state into the private lives of individuals, descending from a now-obsolete religious ritual, and which should be abolished as a legal institution.


12:23 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Andy: You are right that the legal status of marriage isn't touched by anything in this post. It is really about promising to remain in a relationship, which is a secular, extra-legal part of what happens in a typical wedding. I am earnestly struggling to hide from politics here!

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Leah K said...

"Love in the active sense is struggling to see the beloved in ways that sustain the passive sort of love. It can be promised and it is, in part, the object of the marriage vow."

That is essentially Iddo Landau's response to Moller's paper. Personally, I regard love solely as a voluntary act, requiring reasons and justification and ongoing commitment. Furthermore, if love be an act, it is undoubtedly within the bounds of our conscious control - at least as much as any other voluntary act.

You also touch on the desirability of "unconditional love," but I have always felt that the only desirable sort of love is the conditional sort. I do not think anyone wants to be loved for no reason (unless he is starved for any sort of affection whatsoever, genuine or no). I have always felt that to be loved for one's wit, compassion, integrity, etc. would be far more rewarding than to be loved for no reason. For if there are no grounds for love, what is to stop it from disappearing at any given moment, or being transferred to another? I worry that unconditional love which is not grounded in reason is far more susceptible to "fungibility and 'trading up'" (as you put it). But at this point, we may want to distinguish between "reasons" and "conditions," as well as have a discussion about what makes a reason legitimate or illegitimate, etc.

4:42 PM  

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