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The Benefits of Love: Is Love a Many Splendored Thing or an Existential Threat?

Eric Silverman

Shakespeare called love a "many splendored thing." Ayn Rand called it a "threat to existence." Can love produce a normative ethical system?

Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Christopher Newport University
June 6, 2016

“…Any love, respect, or admiration a man may feel for others is not and cannot be a source of his own enjoyment, but is a threat to his existence, a sacrificial blank check signed over to his loved ones.”1 Ayn Rand’s skeptical perspective warns against an others-centered love. To such cynics love is dangerous, threatening, and ill-advised. To them, love is hardly the “many splendored thing” that Shakespeare wrote about. For some of us it is difficult to take such skepticism seriously: Our relationships have been positive enough and our life has been comfortable enough that love has reliably produced good results. Yet, others have had more painful experiences. They have lost loved ones to tragedy and live with ongoing grief. Or they have experienced painful rejection from those they loved and for whom they sacrificed. They experience the ongoing tragedy of unrequited love. So, it is worth asking: Is there a reliable connection between the act of loving and the lover’s own happiness, or is loving others merely a risky wager?

Is there a connection between love and happiness?

Love as the Central Ethical Command

Whether love brings about the lover’s happiness or whether it is a threat to her happiness is an important question for Christians. After all, a central feature of Christian ethics is the command to be a loving person. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus affirms that the greatest commandments are to love God with the whole self and to love one’s neighbor as the self.2 In John 13:34 the command to love one another is the distinctive new command of the new covenant. In 1 Corinthians 13 love is portrayed as superior to all the spiritual gifts and even superior to the great spiritual virtues of faith and hope. Developing the virtue of love is a central Christian moral concern.

“Benevolence alone is not love.”

Before proceeding, we must establish a shared understanding of love. In our culture, love is such a multi-faceted term. We love our spouse and we love the Denver Broncos, we love our siblings and we love cheeseburgers, we speak of love in terms of a lifelong commitment and we speak of love as how we feel today in the moment, and as Christians we talk about loving our neighbors and even our enemies. So, when we ask whether there is a connection between love and happiness, what do we mean by love?

Thomas Aquinas: Three Features of Christian Love

Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Dominican monk, was also an influential philosopher and theologian. He systematized an account of Christian love that answered approximately 150 questions related to love, providing an effective summary of the Bible’s teachings on love. At the heart of his account were three features.

1. Love is a long-term disposition.

Christian love is a broad, long-term personal disposition or trait. Love goes far beyond a single relationship, a particular action, and is surely something deeper than a short-term emotion. Love isn’t just about what we do, but also about who we are.

2. Loving people desire the good for all.

The loving person desires the good for all: God, self, others with whom we have close relationships, distant strangers, even enemies.

As the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches, love has a universal scope and everyone is our neighbor, especially when they are in need. This aspect of love is best thought of as benevolence.

3. Loving people desire bonds appropriate to a given relationship.

Finally, the loving person desires bonds with others that are appropriate to their relationship.

Benevolence alone is not love. Part of love is to desire a connection with others that fits what our actual relationship with them should be. Just as God desires a connection with each of us, we ought to desire proper connectedness with others. Of course, we can’t know everyone personally, but we can be open to everyone whom God brings into our lives.

As Christians, we believe at least by faith—and hopefully by experience—that loving God is good for us spiritually. It allows us to experience a closeness and connectedness with our heavenly Father that is not otherwise possible. That much is obvious enough. But, instead of focusing on otherworldly aspects of love, let us consider the everyday, earthly benefits of love as it is commonly experienced.

Four Benefits of Christian Love: Psychological and Relational

I have argued elsewhere that love provides at least four earthly benefits, that it is likely to increase the lover’s overall happiness long-term, and that it is a wise trait to develop in light of its earthly benefits.3

1. Love motivates complex, interesting, and varied behaviors.

First, love benefits the lover by providing her with goals that motivate complex, interesting, and varied behaviors. 4 In contrast, for a person without goals, no activity possesses inherent value. Furthermore, without goals, no activity is valuable in terms of usefulness, since usefulness requires an inherently valuable final goal. If a person holds nothing to be valuable as either end or means, then no activity has meaning for that person. A person whose life has no meaningful activities will inevitably be empty, shallow, and boring. Furthermore, the goals provided by love are particularly enjoyable as they involve investing into meaningful relationships with those around us.

2. Love requires the lover to integrate her psyche.

A second benefit of love is that possessing the virtue of love requires the lover to integrate her psyche. A person’s psyche consists in the desires, motivations, priorities, preferences, and goals that she values. An individual does not have the virtue of love if her desires towards others are deeply conflicted or if they are only theoretical preferences. It is not possible to love others if our desires towards them are mixed or not prioritized. Contemporary analytic philosophy includes a model for discussing the psyche that allows for competing and even contradictory desires, as well as a hierarchy of desires. The psyche is complex and some agents’ psyches are not well integrated. The person with a disunified psyche has unorganized or even mutually exclusive desires co-existing within the psyche. The unified psyche required by love aids an agent in accomplishing her preferences and leads to a more pleasant life than a disunified psyche.

“[W]e should see love as part of the fulfilling life that God has called us to.”

People with integrated psyches have tremendous advantages over those with disunified psyches. If a person’s psyche has mutually incompatible goals then an activity which would fulfill a desire simultaneously undermines his happiness by frustrating a competing desire. Only when the self integrates around some desires rather than others do we have the opportunity for accomplishing goals without simultaneous goal frustration.

3. Love motivates self-improvement.

Third, the virtue of love benefits the lover by providing motivation for self-improvement. When one wills the good for and proper bonds with others, these desires provide a strong motive for self-improvement. When a person desires the good for others, he desires that the beloved’s life be filled by that which is good. If the lover also desires bonds with others marked by closeness, shared experience, and shared identity, the combination of these desires imply that the lover needs to become a “good” that improves the beloved’s life.

The paradigmatic example of love providing a motive for self-improvement is a parent’s love for a newborn child. It is not unusual for a new parent to change her life for the sake of her child. A parent who wills the good for her child understands that one of the most beneficial goods for her child is an ideal parent. The parent’s will for a properly bonded relationship with the child transforms a desire that some adult be a good parent for her child into a desire that she herself become an ideal parent. Such a parent is motivated to make significant lifestyle changes, such as: changing her eating habits to ensure long-term health, rejecting addictive substances, reprioritizing spending habits, and making a wide range of changes to benefit her child. Similarly, the devoted Christian makes improvements to his life for the love of God and others that would not otherwise be made.

4. Love improves the lover’s relationships.

Finally, there are numerous ways that love improves the lover’s relationships. Love is a needed to attain and maintain certain desirable qualitatively superior relationships. While both loving and unloving people have the same categories of relationships, such as friends, spouses, children, parents, and co-workers, love fundamentally improves these relationships. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle refers to these relationships as friendships based on virtue rather than friendships based upon mere usefulness or pleasantness.5 More importantly, the New Testament refers to these as “one another” relationships based upon love.6

Love also makes mutually beneficial relationships more likely. While some beneficial relationships do not absolutely require love to exist, even these types of relationships are still more likely to be attained by the loving person. Since the lover wills union with others he is more likely to have closer and longer lasting relationships than someone who lacks such desires. The lover’s desire for proper relational bonds with others makes him more likely to initiate, pursue, deepen, maintain, and restore relationships.

Love also makes the lover’s relationships more harmonious and peaceful. Since the loving person considers the good of others as part of his own good, destructive interpersonal habits such as competitiveness and envy are less likely to arise. Possessing the virtue of love makes a higher number of higher quality relationships more likely. It makes relationships more pleasant and enjoyable. Since the lover desires these relationships, they contribute to her well-being by fulfilling her desire for them. These relationships are also instrumentally useful for attaining other important desires.

Christian Love as the Good Life

Of course, these thoughts are just a quick outline of the benefits of living a life marked by Christian love. However, I am absolutely not suggesting that we should love others for what we get out of it, which would be a selfish attitude that undermines love. Instead, I suggest that we should see love as part of the fulfilling life that God has called us to. Some days may require a sacrifice, but nothing is truly a sacrifice in the eternal picture. And in most cases, love isn’t really a sacrifice in the here and now when we look at the bigger picture. The life of love is a life marked by the pursuit of fulfilling relationships and psychological wholeness, which is the best kind of life to live both on earth and beyond.

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