2013-06-18

Unanswered Love Questions

My last post on love inspired some additional follow-up questions and issues, which I would like to now take the time to briefly discuss and clarify.

I.
First of all, I may have caused some confusion when talking about the "factors" involved in forming the parent-child bond. Here's what I said about oxytocin:
Here I note that the love-as-evolution theory can handle this objection. It has been widely reported, for example, that hugging someone for merely 20 seconds is sufficient to release a rush of oxytocin (aka "the bonding chemical") in the brain. A full scientific treatment of oxytocin's relationship to parental and spousal bonding (and social affiliation more broadly) is far out-of-scope for this post, but you can read an excellent summary of the role oxytocin plays in mammals here.
Nurturing behaviors can result in a neuro-chemical response, namely one that is associated with the formation of human social bonds. This is exactly analogous to how I described situationism:
Being a parent is a highly significant psychological situation, one that includes stress, sleep deprivation, increased responsibility, increased scrutiny from family members, and so on. If situationism carries any scientific validity at all, it seems that the parental experience is the ultimate showpiece for it. Parents love their children unconditionally, perhaps in large part due to the mere fact that being a parent is a situation that demands that each parent take on that situational role. This isn't altogether different than accepting the role of a brutal prison guard or an obedient and hopeless prisoner, except that in this case the situation demands behaviors associated with unconditional love, rather than unconditional order.
Again, the key point here is mere participation. Simply "acting as if" there is a parent-child bond is sufficient to create a behavioral response consistent with a parent's love for a child.

Here's the clarification: I'm suggesting that one of two things must be the case: (1) both of these phenomenon prove that love is nothing more than a chemical response produced by our biology, hence entirely illusory; (2) the word "love" only applies to those feelings that cannot be attributed to chemical- or situation-based illusion.

In other words, my proposition is that "love," properly understood, only consists of those feelings that involve some choice we've made voluntarily. Love through habituation is, according to me, not love in the "philosophical" sense.

II.
Talking about "unconditional" love, I wrote, "What is the value of a love that carries with it no reference to the recipient's identity or personal character?"

This met with some objection based on the idea that a parent's unconditional love for a child kept that child alive, and was thus valuable. Here I must reiterate the point I made above. Only if we call involuntary chemical reactions "love" can we say that the (initial) parent-child bond really is love, unconditional or otherwise.

The point here is that such a bond does have an obvious value. Not only does it keep the child alive, but it fosters enough "togetherness" for a real, love-based relationship to emerge. So there is value in that sort of thing, but until there is some sort of choice beyond chemical or situational reactions, we cannot properly call it love. (I.e. love is not the only valuable thing in the universe.)

Of course, this point is contingent on the idea that the relationship itself is worth nurturing. Between a parent and a child, that question is a no-brainer. But between two romantic partners, one of whom is being abused by the other, the whole dynamic changes.

This is really what I was getting at from the beginning, and hence my repeated references to Jiah Khan as an example of what happens to a lot of young women who give themselves over to abusive relationships. The mere habit of behaving as though you love someone reinforces a non-love bond. That bond may be forged through chemistry, psychology, or both. But if it's not voluntary, then it's not love; instead, it's habit. This sort of relationship is not at all worth nurturing.

Thus, "unconditional love" is not inherently valuable. 

III.
Another objection I received was that unconditional love has been decreed by god. Anyone who reads my blog regularly already has an idea about how I might respond to that. (If you're new to the blog, you might want to start here and here.) It is difficult for me to respond to this objection fairly, given my pre-existing bias against theism.

Difficult, but not impossible.

Applying the ideas I have outlined across these blog posts about love means that we can only really call it love if there is some choice involved. The only other valid possibility is that love is thoroughly chemical, and that there is no choice involved beyond mere acquiescence to habit.

This means that, if we accept that premise, then we must necessarily reject the idea that we can be commanded by god to love each other. In short, it doesn't make a difference what god commands us to do: what matters is whether we are able to find merit in the actions and behaviors of others. If we can, then we love them; if we cannot, we do not. Similarly, your parents may have wanted to you to become a doctor, but their wishes do not count for college credit. In order to become a doctor, you have to actually study to be one, finish your exams, finish a residency, etc. 

One can argue that only those who succeed in loving all other human beings unconditionally are living lives that are consistent with a god's wishes, but one cannot argue that one can love another person just because a god told them to do it. It doesn't work that way.

However, there is consistency in this objection if it is made along with all the others. That is, if you feel that your biology can force you to love someone, then why not also god? More to the point, if you believe that love can exist without your having made any personal choices in the matter, then it doesn't matter if the entity that is commanding you to love is an entity called "Oxytocin" or an entity called "God." In either case, it's deus ex machina

Conclusion
I wrote this post because it enabled me to cite some specific examples of how my ideas can be applied in your life. 

First and foremost, it can help you "get out of the habit" of being in a bad or abusive relationship. It can help you understand that, since love is a choice, you should choose only the best kind of love. Nothing else is worth it. That's an important point.

Second, it helps highlight the point that, whatever biological or psychological factors might be involved in the initial formation of the parent-child bond, what really matters is the relationship that develops between a parent and a child after the magic of oxytocin wears off. It simply doesn't suffice to love your child just because your child exists. That's not good enough. What should happen, ethically speaking, is that the parent work to develop a bond with that child out of a recognition of that child's own unique worth. Everyone has their own sense of humor, their own skill set, their own set of strengths. Forming a real, ever-lasting, and love-based bond with a child should, ideally, come down to more than their mere fact of existence. I would go so far as to say that such "unconditional love" puts you at risk of severely disappointing that child once he or she matures enough to recognize the difference.