Guest Post by Harry Chalmers: One Cheer for Conditional Love

Our second guest blogger is Harry Chalmers.

Submissions are still being accepted until June 30th. If you'd like to share your ideas on the blog, check out the details of what we are looking for and how to submit!

Conditional love often gets a bad rap. The thought of conditional love brings to mind people who love others for their looks, their wealth, their prestige, and so on—in other words, people in relationships which strain the very use of the word "love." Meanwhile, unconditional love basks in the spotlight, glittering in its reputation as the truest and most desirable form of love. In this piece I intend to redirect the spotlight and reveal the dark side of unconditional love. In particular, I aim to show that to love a person unconditionally is to love that person arbitrarily. Conditional love, for its part, escapes this problem of arbitrariness.

That unconditional love is arbitrary is true analytically. If a love truly is unconditional, then by definition there can be no reason for it. After all, were there a reason for it, the love would have a condition: namely, whatever the reason was. Were that reason no longer to hold, the love would disappear, thereby revealing itself to have been conditional all along. Suppose, for example, that Stephen loves Alice for a reason. Specifically, the reason is that Alice is extraordinarily charming. Alice's charming nature, then, is a condition of Stephen’s love. Were Alice to lose her charming nature, Stephen would no longer love her. Since Stephen’s love is based on a reason, it follows clearly that Stephen's love for Alice is conditional.

If indeed there can be no reason for a love that is unconditional, it is only a short logical step to the conclusion that unconditional love is arbitrary. For what does it mean for something to be arbitrary, if not that there is no reason for it? The arbitrariness emerges yet more clearly with an example. If Marsha loves Pierre unconditionally, Marsha can give no truthful, nontrivial answer should Pierre ask, "Why do you love me?" Among the trivial answers to such a question is "Because you’re Pierre." Such an answer tells Pierre nothing. For one thing, Pierre is left with no idea why Marsha loves him rather than, say, Kip. If she happened to love Kip, after all, she could just as easily say to Kip, "I love you because you’re Kip." That aside, the answer is a non sequitur. For Marsha to say "You’re Pierre" is to affirm that the person to whom she's speaking is Pierre. But why should this call for love?

To be sure, unconditional love might be good in its effects. In particular, unconditional love seems to motivate people to help those whom they love unconditionally. Considerations of consequences, however, are not relevant here. My present concern is love itself, love considered intrinsically. The question is whether it is desirable in itself that love be given and received so arbitrarily. I, at least, desire for the love I give and receive not to be arbitrary, and in this I suspect I am not alone. There is something deeply discomforting about the prospect that the love I give and receive is saturated with arbitrariness. The reason that this prospect generates discomfort seems to be the following: If someone’s love for me really is arbitrary, there is no way that her love for me can be a genuine response to who I am. What is it for love to be a genuine response to who I am? That is a difficult question—but, at a minimum, I can say that the answer does not involve any sort of love that simply latches onto me without reason, such that it could just as well have latched onto anyone or anything else. Such a love fails to take into account anything substantive about who I am. I would rather that others love me based on reasons about me, reasons that appeal in some way to the qualities that define me. Likewise, rather than loving others arbitrarily, I wish to love others in a way that is a genuine response to who they are. In short, I would rather love conditionally and be loved conditionally.

While the arbitrariness of unconditional love is unfortunate, I do not claim that unconditional love is not desirable at all. It may be that, even in its arbitrariness, unconditional love is desirable in some way. For example, it may be that it is good to value other persons, and that unconditional love, for all of its arbitrariness, remains a way of valuing other persons. Still, the unfortunate arbitrariness of unconditional love raises the question of whether conditional love is a truer and more desirable form of love. If nothing else, it is clear that conditional love avoids the problem of arbitrariness. For in loving someone conditionally, one is allowed to have reasons for one’s love. One can give truthful, nontrivial answers to the question of why one loves the other person.

Of course, one might have bad reasons for one's love. ("I love you because you’re rich, beautiful, and always ready to knock others over to get what you want.") At the very least, then, it seems that not all varieties of conditional love are superior to unconditional love. Conditional love, however, need not take the stereotypical form of love that is based on things like beauty, money, and prestige. There are better reasons for love, and it is these reasons that underlie (what I suggest to be) the superior varieties of conditional love. For instance, one might love another person for his kindness, genuineness, and empathy. With this sort of case in mind, I propose the following principle: In its truest and most desirable form, conditional love is based on morally valuable qualities of the beloved person. This sort of conditional love not only escapes the pitfall of the more stereotypical sorts of conditional love—namely, being based on bad reasons—but also avoids the problem of arbitrariness that plagues unconditional love.

Love that is based on the beloved person's morally valuable qualities may, for all I have shown, have problems of its own. Nevertheless, the considerations advanced here should at least cast some doubt on the common view that conditional love must somehow be less true and desirable a form of love than unconditional love. If unconditional love wants to regain the spotlight, it has some explaining to do.