Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unconditional Love

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about the concept of unconditional love lately. Thinking, that is, about whether such love is desirable, about whether I would want to be loved unconditionally. The answer I’ve come to is this: “hell no!”

For those of us who were raised Christian, the concept was presented as comforting, praiseworthy and awe-inspiring. While human love is conditional, God’s love, we were taught, is unconditional. No matter what you do, no matter how embarrassing or evil, God, so the story goes, will still love you. Great idea, right? Wrong.

Let’s think about what it would be like to be loved unconditionally. Remember, we’re talking about unconditional love. It’s great to be in a relationship (romantic or not) with someone who is willing to forgive your screw-ups from time to time and continue to love you. But this is not unconditional love. To be loved unconditionally is to be loved no matter what one does, what one becomes. Imagine it:

“Honey, I killed five people. And I liked it. I think I’ll keep it up until I get caught.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Baby, I have a whole other family in California.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Dear, I never loved you. I just married you for the money.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Babe, I’ve been lying to you all these years. I never went to college and I don’t work at Google. I’m a con artist. You were my greatest con job.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

Of course these are exaggerated examples, but my point is this: it seems that one who loves another person unconditionally doesn’t love that person at all. Presumably, we come to love particular people because of something about the object of our affection. Think When Harry Met Sally: “I love that you take five minutes to order a sandwich.” One who loves another unconditionally seems to not love any particular thing about that person, but only, perhaps that they exist (or that they exist in a certain way--as one’s daughter, say).

For someone who loves another unconditionally, the answer to the question “Why do you love me?” must be, it seems, something like “Because you’re my spouse,” or “Because you’re my child” or “Because you’re my teammate.” But anyone could have been one’s child or spouse or teammate. The object of one’s unconditional love seems to be interchangeable with many other persons. It is not you that is loved, but that you exist in a certain way. Personally, if I asked someone who I thought loved me, “Why do you love me?” I would expect (hope for) an answer with more content than “Because you’re my son.”

I want to be loved and, thus, I would not want to be loved unconditionally (by anyone or anything).


  1. I think you do a great job of showing why we should be suspicious of being told we are loved unconditionally... although I would say you've shown as much most completely for humans, leaving aside the thornier issue of how to interpret talk about God.

    You first discuss the idea of loving "no matter what"... while it sounds weird for someone to keep saying it's OK after you have lied to them, cheated on them, or revealed yourself as a sadistic murderer, it doesn't sound weird to a Christian to say: "God is willing to forgive you, no matter what you did." Note that you could never lie or cheat Him, so all that matters here is how evil you are in non-deceptive ways. Unless you're aiming to defend the idea of unpardonable sin, you've gained no traction here.

    You then go on to talk about unconditional love as love that treats one as interchangeable. Again, makes sense for humans. But how could the love of the Being that created you in all your specificity at the same time be a love that negates your specificity? I wonder whether equating unconditional love with interchangeable love trades on the sense of "condition" in which an object loved regardless of conditions would be an object loved with no regard for what has conditioned it - i.e., what made it what it is. But to apply this to God is to speak of God loving an object in spite of Himself!

    I would assume that the proper sense of "condition" here would return us to the idea of forgiveness no-matter-what, which you haven't yet truly assailed. You could perhaps try to do so by raising questions about the justice of the idea of eternal punishment (which forgiveness no-matter-what saves one from), but it's not clear that such an indirect attack would touch the idea of unconditional love itself.

  2. Yes, it's much more difficult to make sense of and/or critique the notion of God's unconditional love.

    But, I take it that folks would want God's unconditional love to amount to more than the fact that God is willing to forgive one no matter what. God could forgive me (in the sense that I won't be condemned to hell)yet not care to much for me as a person.

    What folks want from God, I take it, is that warm, intimate love that one recieves from one's parents. But, as I argue, if this love is unconditional, it is less desirable.

  3. Hey Brandon,

    Congrats on the new blog and thanks for the provoking post. Unfortunately, I just spent half an hour writing on why unconditional love for other people does not depend on these so-called unique characteristics, i.e., taking 5 minutes to order a sandwich, and that it is the way you seem to detest and disqualify, i.e., "just because" or "because you're you."

    And then I clicked "Post" and was told that my request could not be completed. Gone. Maybe I'll try again later. But thanks and congrats again.

  4. It would, in fact, have been interesting to see you try to run your argument discussing parents. You seem to be saying that you don't want to run the "It's OK" part of your argument anymore, but I'm not sure what you're saying about the interchangeable part at this point. Why does unconditional = interchangeable?

  5. I think I'll hold on to the "It's okay" part. But I take it that unconditional love is bad even in the case of parents because the love is given without any consideration for one's current features.
    Why do the parents who love you unconditionally love *you*? Not because you're funny or smart or respectful, but because you're you, the child. And *anyone* could have been the child.

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  8. Right, and what makes the parents example interesting is that this seems, from an uncontroversial perspective, completely in order. Most people, I would imagine, take it for granted that they are loved by their parents not simply because of who they have become as they have grown to become funny, smart, respectful, etc. ... but also simply because of the fact that they are their parents' child. It did not take until adulthood for them to be loved - they were loved at birth. And this seems good.

    If you say anyone could have been their child, that's either untrue or irrelevant. How could I have been your parents' child? If all you mean is that as a child, they lacked the characteristics they later developed, that seems true and seems also not to diminish in the slightest the value of the parental love offered at birth.

  9. Well, I think the *idea* of being loved a birth sounds nice, but I'm not sure that type of love is meaningful.
    Say I present a new mother with a baby that happens to not be her own. ("Oh, I love you so much. I'll do anything for you!").
    --Mam, this is *your* baby. (She discards the first baby, picks up the second and says the same thing).
    It seems that she doesn't love the baby. She loves the idea of having a kid...or something like that.
    I want to say that one has to develop into a person before one can be loved. But I won't press that point now.

  10. That she loves the idea of having a kid does not show that she does not love the baby. It is what explains the fact that she loves the baby. If she were the type of person for whom having a child meant nothing, then she would have no reason to love the child. But she does not have that pathological trait, and thus she loves her baby.

  11. testing... my last post seems to have disappeared

  12. Ok, that seemed to work. Guess I'll try to replace the lost post.

    The gist was that I think the notion of whether "unconditional love" is desirable can be broken down into two questions:

    (1) Is it best, for an individual, that they are loved unconditionally.

    (2) Is it best, for society, that people love unconditionally.

    Regardless of which question one is attempting to answer, I think a more nuanced definition of "love" is called for. The way I think of love is relativistic: one loves another when one cares more for that other's welfare than one does for most others. Loving, in my view, is a form of favoring (which makes the divine notion of loving everyone incoherent, although that is not an interest of mine anyway).

    I think that the answer to (1) has to be yes, in that being loved has benefits. People who love you will do things to help you (the notion of "favoring" you carries with it the tendency to do favors), and will generally privilege you over others. Imagine a world in which everybody loves you! You would be able to do, and get, pretty much anything you wanted, and that certainly seems desirable (from the individual's perspective).

    This seems to come apart from (2), which treats the social utility of favoritism, unconditional or not. From a utilitarian perspective, unconditional love clearly seems problematic (as B points out), in that it destroys all connection between behavior/desert and the love or privilege one receives. And this fails to create an incentive structure where actions make a difference in how we are treated (just think of spoiled children).

    In sum, one critique of utilitarianism is that it does not take account of special concern. The issue B raises, however, shows that not all special concern seems to make sense, and thus that this critique of utilitarianism has its limits.

  13. To be loved unconditionally, is to say that I love you in spite of your foulness and evil deeds. I do love you because you exist. And as you exist you are. And because you are, you can. And if you can, you can be changed, forgiven, loved, saved, rescued.

    However, I dont believe we (as humans) can or tap into love without condition on our own. Even when we strive to accept this type of love, we are faced with the constraints of day to day life. If the person tortures us, pricks every hair from our body and burns us to the core. Eliminates everything/everyone else that we love, can we truly love that person with our own will and choice. Most likely not. I would love to be loved by someone that is capable of doing that. Who can accept me in my ugliest form and be there for me, so that I might change. To be loved in spite of is much more beautiful than to be loved because.

    In addition, to be loved without condition does not lesson the acts of love. It provides a starting ground that is not wavered by a series of events or happenstance. You love me because I am beautiful, funny, rich, because I love you.... what happens if I become scared, gloomy, poor or just dont feel like I can love you anymore because of whatever reason I loved you disappears.... then where am I?

  14. Love this post. You should cover "I'm proud to be ...." What does that mean? What did they do to generate that pride? e.g. Proud to be left handed.

  15. This is interesting philosophically, but consider the fact that research shows that unconditional positive regard is EXTREMELY important in the development and maintenance of a healthy mind. The idea is not to accept every behavior and correct nothing -- it's that the positive behavior toward that person continues even when he behavior is undesirable. You can even condition someone not to behave badly without any punishment by reinforcing them for the good things e.g. "I really liked how you considered my feelings before you acted, thank you very much."