Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On the Interest in Love

We can take an interest in things for a number of reasons.  We might be interested out of a general desire to learn about the unknown (curiosity); for example, I might pick up a book about the Maori because I know little about New Zealand aboriginal people and have a general desire to learn.  We might attend to something due to an obligation we've accepted (duty); for example, I might read about presidential candidates, even if I hate political wrangling, because I feel a civic responsibility to elect sound leaders.  We might take interest for some anticipated ancillary benefit (mercenary); for example, I may go to a social event at a conference, not because I like to socialize, but in order to make contacts useful to my career.  Or, our interest may be fueled by the pleasure we receive from following or interacting with the object; for example, I may watch every baseball game of my favorite team, due to the strong positive affect I feel from a constructed (if not imagined) sense of group identity (talk about interesting phenomena).

In my current relational theory, love involves taking on the interests of the beloved as one's own (to avoid equivocation, let this be understood to mean being interested in the beloved's well-being).  But which kind of interest?

The interest in love doesn't seem to be curiosity, since love usually implies a kind of familiarity. (In the case of "love at first sight"---the experience of strong affinity at first meeting---I would say that a certain kind of passion overwhelms what one would call mere curiosity.) Nor would many say that an interest from duty alone qualifies, since love implies a certain voluntariness that surpasses obligation. (Arranged marriage and patriotism are interesting cases: If I participate in some civic duty, the act counts as patriotism only if the duty is accompanied by a "love" of country.  In arranged marriage, if I may take on my spouse's interests merely out of marital obligation, one might say I have a kind of love, but this limited kind of love is not nearly as strong as if I am impassioned for my spouse.)  Mercenary interest certainly doesn't count, since I can't take an interest in the well-being of another if I care only for my own personal benefit.  Thus, love must involve interest that is motivated by the pleasure received from following or interacting with that interest (namely, the well-being of the beloved).

Selfless love, then, does not imply that there is absolutely no personal benefit.  Rather, the personal benefit is nothing other than enjoying the fulfillment of one's desire to see the well-being of the beloved.  In this way, the personal benefit received is predicated on the other, and not centered on oneself, which would turn the interest into something mercenary. There might also be another, stronger kind of selfless love---one in which the lover places the well-being of the beloved above all other personal interests.

This leads to the question: Is love diluted by ancillary interests?  If I take an interest in your well-being, is my love worth less if I also enjoy the fact that you give me a lift whenever I need it?  My inclination is to say no: The fact that I enjoy your generosity and hospitality does not necessarily diminish the fact that I enjoy seeing your well-being.  Indeed, it seems that these positive characteristics or ancillary personal benefits may enhance the enjoyment of the beloved and the associated desire to see the beloved's well-being.  In fact, I wonder if the mechanism of the growth of love in a relationship sometimes (many times?) makes use of these ancillary personal benefits, which then develop into an interest in the beloved's well-being.  The trouble comes when such a development never occurs, or when the ancillary benefits displace the more-important interest in the beloved's well-being.

No comments: