What Is Love?

Faithful Stationary Waves reader AK notes that Jiah Khan's suicide letter was "highly disturbing." Of course, when I wrote about it, it was making the separate point that giving love without having any evidence of receiving it is utterly foolish. In my mind, it goes without saying that a woman who would kill herself over this sort of love affair was a bit disturbed. So AK and I are in agreement on all fronts (as is typically the case).

Meanwhile, another faithful reader, SU, raises a problem with my recent post on the self-esteem cult. Sure, she says, people love each other based on actions attesting to their worthiness. But what about a parent's (unconditional) love for child?

I must admit that I did not really have the Jiah Khan issue in mind when I wrote about the self-esteem cult, but perhaps my subconscious was deep at work. After all, both posts are closely tied together: both discuss the topic of being loved without doing anything to deserve it. With SU's permission, I will be quoting her throughout the missive. Let's take a closer look at love.

The Parent-Child Bond
What follows here is admittedly a little silly on my part: I don't have children. How can I possibly discuss the love a parent has for a child? Let me cede the point in advance and acknowledge that this sort of discourse is necessarily a little speculative. On the other hand, I do happen to be somebody else's child, so I know something about the parent-child bond from the other side. So there's that.

Anyway, let's get to it. Here is SU, objecting to the self-esteem cult's Deception #1 in her own words:
First, to (most) parents, the children they raise do have inherent value completely separate from any positive character traits the kids may show. You don't love your baby because he/she does anything special; you don't even love them just because they're tiny and cute (I don't love other people's tiny and cute children). You love them because they...are. For the first 3 months of their lives, they do absolutely nothing that merits anything, yet you love them like crazy.
She's right: parents love their infants long before those children have a chance to demonstrate any worthiness of love. What gives? Well, here are some possibilities:

Biological Factors
It is intuitive enough to state without proof that parents are emotionally attached to their children for purely biological reasons. If some evidence for this is required, then let me submit the following.

First, this parental attachment, while not universal in the animal kingdom, is fairly commonplace among mammals. Nearly all mammals care for their young, nurse them, raise them, etc. Mother birds teach their children how to fly. Some suggest that many animals grieve for their dead offspring.

Yet love is generally regarded as a uniquely human emotion. Here we reach the first epistemological choice in today's article about love: Either love is not unique to humans, or the biological attachment between a parent and child is not love.

The reason we have to make this choice is because it is relevant to what I have already claimed about love. Either love is a rational choice that we make based on merit, or it is something other than rational (I'll get to exactly what a little later). To elaborate even further, animals cannot reason. Some highly intelligent animals can get close. Border collies, for example, are intelligent enough to know that you're holding a treat behind your back, whereas less intelligent dogs literally think the treat is gone if they can't see it. (Playing peekaboo with infants is one way human beings teach our children about abstract reasoning. Did you know that?) Elephants can paint pictures and apes can learn sign language. All of this implies that animals are capable of abstraction, but today there is little evidence that any animals other than human beings can engage in the kind of deductive logic that even very young children can perform.

Therefore, if animals that cannot reason nonetheless feel love, this would mean that love is not at all a rational choice. What might it be instead? Evolutionary happenstance. Certainly a species that evolves with a chemical inclination toward caring for other members of its own species - and especially its own offspring - possesses a distinct reproductive advantage over, say, turtles and spiders, who merely lay their eggs en masse and let nature run its course in absentia.

If this is your belief, then for you the missive ends here. No sense subjecting something with a purely neurological explanation to excessive philosophical discourse.

...Not so fast, though. SU isn't satisfied with that explanation:
But what about adoption? Haven't you heard adoptive parents say they love their kid the moment they hold them? Where's the biology in that? Adoptive parents love their kid just for being in existence, without the kid doing anything good, and without the help of primal chemicals triggering love.
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.

Insofar as this post is concerned, though, there are biological impulses that apply to adoptive parents. (Perhaps they apply to a lesser degree - Lee, et al note that oxytocin response increases during childbirth, for example - but they nonetheless do apply.)

When I initially responded to SU, I suggested that love is either fully rational, or fully irrational. In the latter case, the bio-neuro-evolutionary explanation provides almost a complete account for love. If you subscribe to this theory, which I might add has an incredible amount of scientific evidence supporting it, then the explanation is fully self-contained. I readily concede that this is a possibility.

But, personally, I'm not convinced.

Psychological Factors
Alternatively, we can accept the premise that love as humans understand it is an act of reason. If this is the case, then there are some additional factors to consider, which might help explain the seemingly "irrational" bond between a parent and a child.

The first one is what I have called The Bunny Effect. This is our natural tendency to be drawn toward things that are cute. Babies are certainly cute. If you'd like to see The Bunny Effect in action, take an infant into a roomful of adults who are otherwise minding their own business. If you don't succeed in drawing a crowd, some wide smiles, and some healthy pro-baby interaction, then I'll eat my proverbial hat.

Now, a "natural tendency" may very well also be the incarnation of a biological factor, but it also might not be. People differ in what they consider to be cute. Some of us love cats, for example, while others hate them. There is no real evolutionary reason to feel an affinity toward cats, unless it is the product of a random genetic variation that neither facilitates species success nor inhibits it. At any rate, it seems to be a matter of personal opinion, and opinion is as psychological as anything can be.

Regarding The Bunny Effect, SU counters that a newborn is "a squished, red-faced swollen mess for a few weeks. This... serves to ruin the cuteness idea[.]" She further adds: "[M]ore compelling is the fact that we don't love other people's tiny and/or cute children."

Well, my own experience being around crowds of adults when an infant happens to be present runs contrary to SU's second claim here. Furthermore, history is replete with examples of noble people who put their own lives on the line to save the babies of pure strangers. There seems to be evidence that at least some people appear to love other people's tiny and/or cute children.

She's right, however, that not everyone does, and I can own up to this myself. (But remember, in my case, I'm suggesting that love is a rational choice based on worthiness, rather than an innate, non-rational, biological phenomenon.) Thus, The Bunny Effect should be regarded as a psychological factor that facilitates the parent-child bond, not the factor.

Next up is a series of factors we might call "egotistical" factors. I put that term in scare-quotes because I think these factors pertain to the human ego, but do not really have the negative connotation that the word "egotism" usually carries.

These egotistical factors are things such as: The desire to leave a legacy; The desire to be responsible for the well-being of another human being; The desire to watch innocence run its course; The desire to "see oneself" in one's child; The desire to live certain life experiences a second time, vicariously through one's offspring, and so on.

Such factors are very real, and different people experience them to different degrees. SU correctly remarks that adoptive parents certainly wouldn't "see themselves" in their adopted children, but that would not preclude them from feeling some of these other "egotistical" factors. Once again, none of these factors individually constitute the source of a parent-child bond, but certainly many of them experienced to various degrees and in summation help facilitate this bond.

There is one last, perhaps most-important, psychological factor that I think applies here, but I want to give it its own sub-heading because it seems particularly important.

My personal beliefs about human nature have been greatly shaped by researchers like Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram. One of Zimbardo's landmark articles is called A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators. Of course, that article is about evil, not love, but here is a note from the abstract to give you a clue about where I'm going with this:
This body of research [situationist research in social psychology - ed.] demonstrates the under-recognized power of social situations to alter the mental representations and behavior of individuals, groups and nations.
Naturally, Zimbardo has focused much of his professional life on evil, where it comes from, and how it can be prevented. However, any situationist theory of evil, if true, must certainly also hold true for love.

I neither have the credentials, nor the research, to be able to argue this point scientifically. Instead, I'll rest it on the contingency that if you agree with Zimbardo, as I do, then a logical conclusion to draw is that love can also be a situational response to a set of environmental conditions.

Does that sound far-fetched? Listen to what this contestant from the reality-TV show The Bachelor has to say about what it's like finding love in the context of a game show.

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.

True, this is not a particularly romantic way of viewing the parent-child bond (and happy Father's Day to you, too, by the way, ha ha ha), but if we lend any credence to situationist theory, then it's a hard set of evidence to ignore.

Unconditional Love
I had a college roommate, Mike (Mike! Where are you now?), who liked to joke: "They say that money can't buy you love, but money can buy you unconditional love at the local pet store!" If you accept the bio-neuro-evolutionary explanation of love outlined above, then Mike was absolutely - and hilariously - correct. (Even funnier is the fact that Mike was studying to be a veterinarian.)

Of course, if you're a dog, you have a very good reason to love unconditionally: Your master will give you food and throw the occasional tennis ball at you. So long as that's all you want out of life, you're good to go. Humans, though, require more.

I've done my best to counter some of SU's arguments, but the truth of the matter is that she makes some excellent points. All things considered, most of what we're debating is a matter of personal opinion. You decide what you believe, and go with it. At the end of the day, that's all that really matters. If you feel loved, then what does it matter whether it is a chemical phenomenon, or a situational one, a rational choice, or a haplessly irrational dictum of the human experience?

However, SU did say one thing with which I strongly disagree:
So when you're feeling like trash and then perk up a bit because you feel you have value just for being an entity in the universe, know that at least one person agrees with you: MOM!
I don't doubt SU's maternal sincerity here, nor the meaningfulness of her being loved by her own mother. But I do have a question: What is the value of a love that carries with it no reference to the recipient's identity or personal character?

Put another way, why should I be happy about the fact that someone else has decided to love me without any regard to any of my own redeeming qualities? What is such unconditional love worth to me?

I am certainly happy that I have loving parents; but I'm not happy because they agree that I have value just for being an entity in the universe. No, I'm happy specifically because my parents seem to understand me, to know what I need when I need it, to appreciate the very things about myself that I value most. In short, I am happy with the love my parents give me because it seems to reflect a genuine appreciation for who I am and what my best qualities are.

Receiving this kind of love is extremely important during those moments of life when we feel we have failed or come up short, i.e. when we're "feeling like trash." In those moments, we temporarily forget or set aside our best qualities and focus on our shortcomings. Having loved ones nearby who can remind you of your best qualities and help you understand that those good qualities far outweigh the bad ones with respect to their love for you is extremely therapeutic.

But what is the consolation in knowing that someone just loves you, just because, when you're feeling down? How does it help a person feel better, knowing that someone doesn't much care how much you fail, because after all, you are a pile of flesh who happens to be included in the family unit? Wouldn't it be better to know that they love you for specific reasons with which you happen to agree?

More importantly, what would this imply about Jiah Khan's situation? Despite all her boyfriend's bad behavior, she loved him unconditionally. He didn't respond. The relationship was one-sided. What Ms. Khan gained from the unconditional love she gave was the ability to live in a mental fantasy in which she was a Great Giver Of Love. Her final act of life on Earth was, at least in her mind and according to her concept of love, an act of tremendous love: She claimed to have loved him so much that she could no longer bear living in a world in which he did not return the same kind of devotion. Her final words were a terrible, dire warning that "No other woman will... love you as much as I do." And her suicide was submitted as evidence of that fact. By denying her boyfriend a lifetime of happiness with her, she enacted her final revenge on the man who was unmoved by her unconditional love for him.

Love without evidence, love without reason, love without cause... This is where it leads. Did Ms. Khan's ex-boyfriend benefit in the slightest from knowing that she loved him unconditionally? Should he have?

My answer is no.

Love And Not-Love
All of the above factors being considered, I think I can now make a few comments about what love is, at least in the philosophical sense.

First, as I said before, if you subscribe to the belief that love is merely a biological fact of evolution, then you have a full, self-contained and valid story. No other issue need be considered, other than a semantic one. To wit, if by "love" you mean the biological processes that result in human emotional bonds, then love is neither rational nor irrational, but simply non-rational. Call it exogenous, if you like.

But note: the statement "the biological processes that result in... bonds" implies that the process is different than the bond. Therefore, if by "love" you mean the bond itself, then what we are discussing is indeed a rational thing.

Even if certain natural processes create a bond, those processes will be rationalized in the human mind and justified with logic. If the natural processes make you feel that your child is your legacy, and therefore lovable, then the bond is fully rational even if the source of the rationale is chemical. If the natural processes make you aware of your partner's high degree of genetic variation from your own, your mind will reason that your partner possesses a compelling beauty, and is therefore lovable; the resulting bond is rational, even if its source is chemical. And so on...

Thus, it could be argued that these natural processes are not really love as the human mind understands it, even if they are the chemical source of it.

The case is even better if you don't buy the evolutionary explanation. The many psychological motivating factors that would convince a person to love another might include those "egotistical" factors, and many situational ones. If so, such factors merely facilitate the formation of a bond that is otherwise justified by the human mind. At any rate, those factors are not love. The bond, however, is.

What I'm suggesting is that any time one finds that one loves "irrationally," or "innately," or otherwise "just because," then one of two possibilities exists: (1) You are unable to explain the logical reasons for that love, despite the fact that they do exist; (2) What you are experiencing is not really love.

Back to Jiah Khan. Hers was not love, but obsession. She had no specific logical reason to love her boyfriend. Contributing factors may have been situational (South Asian culture tends to place a higher significance on sexual relationships than Western culture, for example), or perhaps Ms. Khan was, as AK notes, deeply disturbed. Whatever it was, it wasn't love.

Such "love" certainly did not benefit the recipient; unconditional love never really does. Who cares if someone loves you for no reason at all? Such love is wholly unattractive, and his behavior attests well to this fact.

But love based on specific reasons is validated beyond the mere firing of brain synapses or familial happenstance. Love that acknowledges a person's character, values, and actions is a bond unbreakable. When you choose to love a person because that person reflects the things you value, then and only then are we talking about love in the philosophical sense of the word.

Anything short of that could well be a biochemical, psychological, or situational illusion.