Philosophy of Love

Up to this point we have been avoiding talking about love on the blog from the standpoint of philosophy. Today I am going to correct that and walk though the academic side of love.

The first thing that I want to clear up is that this is all going to be centered around interpersonal love, so don’t expect this to explain your love for Harley Davidson motorcycles or mid-century modern architecture. This is all about how one person loves another person, primarily.

When boiling love down, we tend to end at one of four elemental concerns:

  1. Love as Union
  2. Love as Robust Concern
  3. Love as Valuing
  4. Love as Emotion

I am not going to mention specific philosophers in the following descriptions because I want you to address the ideas based on their individual merit, not the people that presented the ideas. If you do want to see a version of this with quotations and citations to individual philosophers visit

Love as Union

love exchange

Love as union is a primarily community based model of love. It is the model that is most at play in a marriage (legal or otherwise) or adoption. Love is the culmination of desire, reciprocation, and social conjunction. Love is the resultant state of subsuming individualism into partnership. The union of two people into joined concern can be both metaphorical and literal. Some adherents to this philosophy believe that only literal, apparent-from-the-outside union constitutes love. Once two people become (or desire to become) We, instead of individuals, they exist in a state of love. Some adherents to love-as-union have described the We as a separate entity from the people that form it, others believe that individuality is in conflict with the state of love.

One of the problems in this philosophy is it has trouble accounting for non-transactional love. If I have to be joined to you in a literal sense it requires reciprocation, which clearly is not always the case. Love as union has gaps in explaining love without goal, or love for the sake of the person, not for their outcome.

Love as Robust Concern

concerned cat

Love as robust concern is a logic based model for love. Person X feels love for Person Y because Y exhibits Virtue π sufficient that X sees the benefit and presence of Y as an end, not a means to reward. This model sees love not as a creation of We, instead it is my concern and volition that put me in a state of love.

Because love in this model sees a person’s love as driven by the individual’s internal motivation and preferences, it better accounts for unrequited love and loving your beloved for their own sake. Robust concern is potentially a very individualistic love because it is based on internal motivations, both known and unknown, so it allows for synergy of personal values. However, autonomy presents a logical hazard.

If your goal in love is to support your beloved’s best interests, how do you enact love when your beloved is acting against what you perceive to be their best interest? If you act in a way that counters their goals you would steal their autonomy. In taking autonomy from them you would be undermining them in the big picture, and so, be disrespecting the model for loving action. This would be a no-win situation in which both action and inaction are against the overall well-being of the beloved. Similarly, how could you love someone whose best interest you don’t want to support because of conflicting desire?

Some theorists on love as a robust concern give it a higher degree of interdependency, that the lover is transformed and beholden to concurrences with the beloved. In taking on empathy and emotional parity with the disappointments and windfalls of the beloved, the lover declines in autonomous identity. Love would then be a vulnerability to the beloved and a submission of personal identity.

Continued love after death, or prolonged separation, also present challenges for a logical valuation, because once a person is beyond your sphere of control, for harm or benefit, how can love be enacted? My personal view on this particular problem is that love for those that are no longer in our life can be handled through applying the formula in the past tense, but that creates an unfortunate line of argument that love is a form of fantasy–which is unpleasant for most people to think about.

Love as Value

Mimi Eunice

Credit: Mimi&Eunice

Within the philosophy of love there are two buckets that love as value falls into: appraisal of value and bestowal of value. Appraisal of value means: you have value, so I love you. Bestowal of value means: I love you, so you have value.

In a recent post on the price of love I discovered that people have a strong aversion to economic metaphors of love. I am going to make a distinction that many other philosophers make between price and dignity. Price is applicable to material goods, like 3 chickens are equal to 1 goat. Exchange of combinations of goods with equal price should be considered as value exchange without loss, because price is interchangeable. People are not interchangeable. Exchange of one person for another results in both incomparable gain and incomparable loss of value, so we will use a different word for value that is not interchangeable; we will call it dignity.

Love as Appraisal of Value

Person X appraises the dignity of Person Y and comes to one of three conclusions: respect, love, or neither. If Person X assess Person Y’s dignity such that Person X values acting in support of Y’s well-being, then X exists in a state of respect. If Person X also lowers emotional protection and reduces drive for self-protection in regard to Y, Person X exists in a state of love. Otherwise, Person X feels neither love nor respect for Y.

Love is the disarming of personal defense to offer vulnerability and accessibility to our beloved based on their display of dignity. This view allows for a clear understanding of depth of love and change in depth because it can be seen as proportional to dignity. Love as appraisal of value also allows for individualism because it is relative to the lover’s personal values and can hold feelings like attraction, protectiveness, etc. as expression rather than cause of love.

Where love as appraisal starts to become strained as a model is when we try to account for selectivity. Discernment of why you love one person and not another with the same qualities, and if you can love a person at one time and not another starts to erode the fundamental idea that human qualities are incomparable. In this model, is it ethical to deny love to someone who displays sufficient dignity? Also, can you have continuity of love even when a change in situation causes a temporary failing of dignity?

There are emotional caveats that can be added to the appraisal of value model to deal with selectivity, but they will take you into realms that are better described by robust concern or emotional models of love. The other option in bridging the gap is to attribute some degree of fantastical thinking to mitigate these issues, either crystallization of appraisal that is held as truth, or a forward projection of potential appraisal.

Love as Bestowal of Value

Bestowal is an a priori view of love. Love exists both before and independent of justification. The bestowal model addresses love in a mystical and ethereal way. It is constituted of unnamable stuff and results in recognition of details to condone itself. With bestowal it goes without saying that the beloved is worthy.

Unlike the appraisal model love is independent of the qualities of the beloved. Constancy is less of an issue because appraisal is descriptive of love, rather than prescriptive. Likewise, selectivity is easily solved by the fact love exists without justification.

Bestowal gives the best accounting for love of community, family, and affiliates. If love is simply projected upon its recipient, many questions posed in the other models are moot, but it creates different difficulties. If there is no reason in love, then there is also no responsibility and no action inherent in love. Bestowal is the model that is most susceptible to construction as delusion and manipulation as it puts the lover in a subsumed state with no agency against love. The lack of practical connection makes being the beloved an arbitrary state that can be evoked and revoked without apparent cause. Potentially this puts both the lover and the beloved in a position of question at all times.

Love As Emotion


The most concise description of an emotion is an intellectual and physiological state precipitated by internal valuation of an entity or object that produces a motivation. Emotions have an input and a response, they have a body feel and a mind image. Emotions are greatly affected by chemical presences (hormones, drugs, etc). Your mind can deduce an emotion from the chemicals the body produces, and your body can produce chemicals as a response to the mind’s images. Emotions are considered to have a target (sometimes called formal object). Both rational responses, like desire to flee, and arational responses, like slamming a door, are considered resultant expressions.

Love as emotion is confounded by the question of whether love should be seen as an emotion proper, like fear and anger, or as a compound emotion that describes the combined effects of proper emotions and their subsequent reactions and interdependencies.

Is Love a Proper Emotion?

If love is a proper emotion, it would require some form of specific target. It is often difficult to distill what this target would be in the many cases; particularly in cases of both positive and negative parts like feeling love for a family member that you don’t like being around. Additionally, love as a proper emotion would require enriching the definition of an emotion to account for some kind of differentiation of resultant expression that doesn’t require the introduction of another emotion to explain sexual and non-sexual love. Clearly if love is an emotion, it isn’t proper.

Is Love a Compound Emotion?

If love is an emotion, it is much more likely a system of proper emotions, or an arational resultant expression of that kind of system. This would allow for a very comprehensive understanding of selectivity and receptivity that includes intellectual and biological interactions with less stress to the model. Discernment becomes a knowable quantity for a person because it is a simple comparison of feeling a greater quality of yes than you feel quality of no.

A compound emotion model can allow for a wide variety of contextual values for continuity of love because it can address depth of love as the summation or synergy of several concurrent emotional responses. Likewise, a compound emotional model can allow for physical and community desire to be separated–this means that romantic and sexual can be seen as separate, but potentially compounding. If love is seen as a system of emotions you can also account for love being projected onto future or past. Compound emotion model allows for contributions of interconnectedness to influence the love as a resultant state.

If love is a system of emotions resulting in a state of empathetic response and supportive desire, then love can be seen as a historical narrative instead of an attitude. Each emotional response can be seen as additive, leading up to the eventual summation of love. Specific events, both positive and negative, can collect as a whole within the system. A wide variety of manifestations can then be covered under the umbrella of love: pleasure, frustration, hurt, etc.

If love is an emotion, then you need to account for external forces, fungibility, and irreparable loss of self. Because emotions are intimately linked to biological substances, that would mean that love could be fabricated, manipulated, and eradicated through external means. Further, regardless of the constituent parts, love can then be measured as biological processes, which makes people interchangeable and chemically reproducible. If love is an emotion and results in empathetic response, then you as lover are both bodily and mentally beholden to your beloved.

The gap that I see in love as an emotion is that the model allows for a passivity that acts against the general account of love as requiring expression.

What Does it Mean?

I can’t encapsulate all of love in a single model. Each of the distillations of love clearly has pieces that supplement and compliment the other models. The reality is that to adequately describe all of the qualities and actions that we associate with love would require, in some degree, to see love as being all four (Union, Robust Concern, Value, and Emotion) simultaneously.

To this end I have been working on two different approaches to a more unified conception of love that openly ignore the boundaries described above, and instead seek to connect their common themes.

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