One of the strangest things about contemporary views of love is the way they seem to obscure, or even erase, one of the most pressing modern questions about love: what is fairness in the context of loving, long-term, intimate relationships?
On the one hand, we often talk about love in ways that associate it with high ideals: of merging with another person, of giving yourself over to them, of coming to take their well-being as your primary goal. But on the other hand, we all know of the dangers of utterly subsuming your interests under those of another. Our mental picture of the person who is always self-sacrificing is not that of the lover, it is that of the doormat: someone who allows others to walk all over them.
It is striking that even some common philosophical theories, trying to be more precise about the nature of love, replicate and reinforce this difficulty. In everyday life and in philosophy, talk of love is often associated with two ideas: unity and other-regardingness. But in each of these, the concept of fairness seems to virtually disappear.
In addition to having a powerful grip on our culture, the possibility that love creates a unity among previously distinct persons is part of some philosophical theories. In popular culture, it represents an idea of loving togetherness: instead of talking about my interests and yours, instead of talking about how those interests might conflict or compete, we would talk simply of "our interests." There would no longer be "good for me" and "good for you," there would just be "good for us."
In philosophy, the unity view is associated with the work of several philosophers, including Robert Nozick, whose 1989 essay "Love's Bond" proposes that lovers form a "we": a new entity with its own needs and interests. Among other things, Nozick argues that seeing love as a unity allows us to explain why a readiness to "trade up" -- exchanging the current love interest for one who is a bit more appealing -- does not fit with an attitude of love. This is because to "trade up" would be self-destructive: you are destroying the "we" that you are a part of.
But once we move beyond metaphors, difficulties with the unity view become apparent. How literally, and to what extreme, are we to take the merging of identities and interests? Surely it is possible for two people to love one another, and yet want incompatible things. One might want a large family, while the other dreams of a child-free, uninterrupted life of creativity or scholarship. One might be adventurous while the other craves peace and calm.
If we interpret the "unity" view so that the "we" replaces the two individuals, then we can no longer say that the interests in these cases diverge. There would no longer be two people each with their own interests. Instead we'd have to say there is a "we" that is ambivalent: it wants children but also wants not to have them; it wants adventure but also calm.
But this is this an intuitively inaccurate description. Even for the most committed and bonded couples it seems wrong to say that it's just impossible for interests to be had by particular persons. Furthermore, as Noël Merino has pointed out, this interpretation makes generosity in love impossible. If one person gives up a desirable career opportunity so the other can pursue their own projects, out of loving kindness, the unity view erases the sense of acting "for" another: instead, the "we" had various interests, and jointly chose one over the others.
But we can take this point even further. Because the interests are not tied to individuals, there is no way to even say what it would mean for the decisions and compromises people make in love to be fair or unfair. What if it turns out that the person who gives up the desirable career opportunity is always the one who loses out? What if it's always that person who cooks dinner, or settles for the worse job, so the other can pursue their dreams? Because the interests are shared, that person wouldn't even have grounds for complaint. Since there is no "good for me" or "good for you," it's impossible to even frame what has gone wrong in such cases.
A possible response to this is to say that the unity view need not be interpreted so that the individuals disappear altogether. A unity theorist might try to say instead that the individuals persist alongside the new entity, the "we." As Alan Soble has argued, though, to say this is just to push the problem one step back. Which interests remain tied to individuals? Which interests are shared by the "we"?
The difficulty is particularly salient with respect to the fairness problem. Without some principled way of distinguishing shared and unshared interests, the person whose interests always win out can simply insist that the relevant interests are part of the "we," so that no unfairness has arisen.
A different view of love, rejecting the idea of "unity," focuses on other-regarding attitudes. In these views, love has to do with wanting to increase the well-being of the love object. Again, this is an idea rooted in everyday cultural conceptions of love -- that love essentially involves a caring attitude toward a person.
For a philosophical example, in Harry Frankfurt's "volitional" theory of love, love shapes a person's preferences and conduct; the person who truly loves will be motivated to act in ways that foster the well-being of the loved person.
Here we face the question of whether, and how, these reasons can come to an end. If love has to do with acting for the other's benefit, how is it ever acceptable to act selfishly? How is it possible to put a limit on self-sacrifice? Perhaps the loved one desires a great deal of care and attention. Must the lover ignore their own wants altogether? Must each person sacrifice their individual projects altogether, for the sake of the other person? Must one person agree to have as many children as the other person wants, out of concern for their well-being?
It would seem that other-regardingness in love should not be not something without end, but rather something that must have appropriate bounds, so that retaining a robust sense of individuality and individual deservingness is essential -- essential, even, to love itself.
But the other-regardingness views of love make this point obscure. Even the idea of two people equally but unlimitedly committed to the well-being of the other is puzzling. If each person cares most about the others' well-being, it is difficult to know what one might do "for" another person, since satisfying each person's strongest preferences means doing what will please oneself. This leads, at best, to an theoretical infinite regress, and at worst to a kind of practical paralysis.
And as we saw with the union view, if each person is to act with a mix of selfish motives and selfless ones, a fair relationship requires that the selfish domain take up an appropriately similar part of each person's life. The other-regardingness view of love, because it makes unintelligible how any selfish motives are acceptable, makes this appropriateness impossible to see.
Though I've only considered two theories here, these examples illustrate some of the ways our associations with love are hard to square with the idea of a fair balance between shared interests and individuality, and between acting for the other and acting for oneself.
These problems may arise partly from the Western history of marriage. In much of that history marriage has been embedded in patriarchical social structures. The historical common-law conception of love codified the idea that marriage was meant to merge man and woman together into one legal person -- where the woman's rights were subsumed under those of the man and the man took on the obligation of protection.
The problem of fairness thus barely arose: marriage was heterosexual only, and unity in marriage was achieved by simply sacrificing the woman's interest to the man's.
What we need is a theory of love that will not only accommodate, but also help us understand, the delicate interplay between individualistic self-oriented interests and shared collective interests.
In fact, such a theory of love would be useful far beyond the intimate domain. Associating love with unity and unlimited care virtually ensures that one can only love a small number of people. But allowing that love always represents an interplay among selfless and individualist forces might allow us finally to embrace the idea that love should extend beyond one's intimates and children.
We would then be able to love and care about all manner of people, whether we're bound up closely with them or not.