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What is Love? (Part 2 of 2)

The Harbus team interviews experts to explore the various faces of ‘love.’ 

(...continued from February)

THE PHILOSOPHY: Perspectives from Professor Quinn White, Harvard College.

From your perspective as a philosopher, how would you describe what love is?

Professor White: I can tell you what I think some of what is constitutive of love, but whether or not that amounts to a full account of what love is – I’m not at all confident.

I think that among other things, love involves a practical dimension and an affective dimension. The affective dimension is often what people first think about – love as a feeling or a way of feeling. Very naturally, if you’re thinking about what feelings are associated with love – desire to be with the person, or have them in your life – I’m skeptical that that desire is a big part of what love involves. For example, there are sometimes people whose company we suffer because we love – such as a difficult family member. I don’t want to see them, but they’re important, so I make time.

If you take the very expansive sense of desire, in that anything you do is because it is something you desire to do,  then that may count as desire. But phenomenologically, the richer way of characterizing that is that you make a decision, but it does not come from a feeling of wanting to be with that person. This is a long way of first saying what some people think the feeling dimension is, and why I don’t like it.

The feeling piece that is plausible is that love involves a vulnerability or openness of the heart. To love someone – while not exhaustive – is to feel empathetically with them. Imagine you’re reading some list of people who have gotten some prize at HBS, and you see one of your friend’s name on the list. You might feel some general third-personal ‘oh it’s nice for these people that they won an award’ for others, but for your friend it feels different. Their good resonates and feels more like your good. Likewise, imagine reading a name list of tragedies and you see someone you love on the list. It immediately hits differently.

When I think about the affective dimension of love, what is central is that we lower our emotional defenses with those that we love and we empathetically feel with them. In the absence of that, it’s really hard to take seriously that someone does really love someone else.

The other piece I think is important is the practical dimension. When one loves someone, they stand out as being of particular importance in one’s decision-making or way of organizing life. If we’re friends, it’s not merely the case that I feel for or with you, but also that you stand out as a locus of practical interest when I look into the world and think – ‘what can I do, engage with, or attend to?’ Loving someone involves taking them as a special locus of concern. Reasons involving them are even weightier than those involving ordinary people. Maybe it turns out that for five dollars I can deworm 50 children and radically increase their chances of making it through secondary education, but I might instead decide to spend five dollars on someone who I love. When we think about those we love, they stand out as meriting that special weighting.

Neither of these components are unique to love. You can see special weighting in things that are not necessarily love – for example, loyalty or patriotism. There are ways of empathetically engaging with someone that look like they fall short of love, like when you feel with someone and empathize, but are never really motivated to do anything for them. However, when those two pieces come together, you at least are a lot of the way towards capturing what love involves. 

What is your take on the major differences between romantic and platonic love?

Professor White: I’ve never been, in my own work, interested in what distinguishes different subspecies of love from one another, but it does strike me that in many ways, that very distinction is one that is very culturally contingent and conditioned – especially when we think about love in a romantic sense. 

Romantic love looks like it takes place within a special kind of relationship, and those relationships look really different across time and space. When we think about Plato and the way he talked about love in the symposium, the paradigm of what we might think comes closest to romantic love is between a man and a younger man. Romantic love here is not the bedrock of a domestic union, it’s instead a kind of homoerotic way of relating that’s bound up in ideas about education, and what it is to be a man in Ancient Greece. 

That’s just super different from romantic love, now, where it’s often taken to be deeply associated with the home and the family. Romantic love is very often, at least in mainstream romantic cultures, bound up with the idea that these are people sharing a life together or looking to lead a shared life. The romantic relationship stands, if not uniquely, at least among a very few special relationships at the center of that life.

As for platonic love, it’s a funny thing. It’s not super clear what the connection is between Plato’s work on love, and the way we use the word platonic love, but the idea that there are kinds of intimacy and connection that don’t come with sexual intimacy, and that might not even come with other trappings of romantic engagement like cohabitation, that I think is part of what I think about when people say platonic love. The important thing here is that love doesn't have to come with intimacy, or sex, or the kind of relationship that centers on sharing a bedroom.

I don’t know if philosophy deals with this question, but I would also be curious as to why people love?

Professor White: The way you asked that question is the psychological question of ‘why do people in fact love?’ The kinds of methods that philosophers use are not equipped to answer that question. That might be a question that therapy, introspection, or literature can answer better. The kind of question that I’m interested in is more: ‘what reason, if any, do we have to love?’ It’s not the question ‘why, as a descriptive matter, do lovers love?’, but normatively ‘what about a person makes them loveable?’ or ‘what, when we’re loving, are we responding to?’

There are four main answers to this being defended in contemporary philosophy. One is that there are no reasons – love is just not reasons-responsive. I think that’s super implausible because most emotions are reasons-responsive. Imagine that I was really angry. It would make perfect sense to ask ‘why are you angry?’ If I answered something like ‘the squirrel looked at me funny’, then it would seem that my answer doesn’t make sense – that’s not a reason to be angry. Love seems more like anger than it does a headache. I don't have any reason to have a headache. If you ask ‘why do you have a headache,’ I might explain the cause, but that's quite different from a reason for anger. A headache can't be unreasonable or unintelligible – it is not reasons-responsive. Love, I think, is like anger in this respect.

A second approach: love is a response to the value of loving relationships. So if you ask ‘why do you love them?’, an answer might be ‘because he’s my friend, or she’s my fiance.’ Love is about valuing special relationships and the person who is in that special relationship. I think that’s also a super implausible view, because there’s all kinds of love that seems to happen in the absence of a relationship. Things like ‘love at first sight’, or ‘love at a distance.’

A third possible account of reasons for love are the good qualities of a person. For example, if you say ‘why do you love her?’, I might say ‘her kindness and her sense of humor.’ But are good qualities reasons to love? If humor is a reason to love, then shouldn’t you love everyone who is funny? Maybe even worse, if I love my fiance because she’s kind and she’s funny, then if I found someone – a totally different person – who was kinder and funnier, is it irrational for me not to trade up? You might think that that way of thinking lends itself to a pathological relation to love.

The view that I really like is that love is a response to nothing other than the infinite value of a person. The same value that also grounds our moral status. If you think about people, people are unlike buildings. If nobody wants a building, you can knock it down, but if nobody wants a person, you can’t just kill them. There’s this idea that there’s something so valuable about people that they have to be respected. And I think that kind of respect – to quote a philosopher that I like, David Velleman – is the minimum required response to the value of a person. Love is something like the optional maximum response to that value.

In that way of thinking, love is a way of valuing someone. What is it to value food? It is to taste it, eat it, and enjoy it. What is it to value a person? At the very least it is to respect them; to recognise their rights, and help them – at least consistent with your ability to do so. But then there’s this other thing we can do which is love them with our whole heart. Open our emotional defenses, put them at the center of our practical lives, and that just is a very special way of valuing, the kind that is appropriate to a person.

So to answer the question ‘why love?’, it’s because people are valuable. It’s a response to the inestimable value of humanity, as it is manifest in a particular person. Another question is, in light of the fact that maybe, the reason to love is already true of everyone – since everyone has value, do we in fact have reason to love everyone? I think the answer is ‘yes’, and that is deeply connected to our moral obligations. We shouldn’t actually love everyone, but we should do something which is approximating love. And that winds up being respecting them – but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Short answer to the question is that the reason to love is that people are valuable.

To conclude…

So there you have it – love is chemistry, love is attention, and love is value manifest. Love takes different shapes for different people, and presents in different forms across time and space. Having said that, no matter what shape or form love takes for you, we hope you find yours.

With love, the Harbus team.

Professor Patrick Quinn White is an assistant Professor of philosophy at Harvard University. His research focuses on the ethics of love and relationships. He is interested in interpersonal relationships, and has projects in honesty and discretion, partiality, consent, paying it forward, and forgiveness, as well as more applied projects on deception in the social science research and the politics of technology and privacy. He also has interests in love and the special permissions and obligations it can bring. He did his undergraduate work at Yale and received his Ph.D. from MIT in 2019. He has recently taught a course called ‘Love’ (PHIL 271) at Harvard College.

Edouard Lyndt (MBA ’25) is from Australia. An example of someone who took the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ thing too far, he has explored a range of career paths spanning M&A, strategy, product management, and even (very briefly) professional fighting. Outside of work, he enjoys reading, cooking, and exercise.

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