What Makes A Good Human?: Love

My second quality for what makes a good human comes as no surprise to anyone.  Who doesn’t like love?  Who doesn’t want love?  Is this a quality I really have to try at? Is this something that I have to be vigilant about?  The word love tends to conjure up images romance and being in love.  But anybody who has thought about love for any length of time knows that romantic love is really just one aspect of love.  In fact I would argue that your ability to romantically love someone has little to do (at least in a direct sense) with your ability to be a good human.  We all have the capacity for love and this wonderful human trait gives rise to many of other ideals and qualities that make the world a better place.

If you’ve tried to define love before, most likely you’ve had difficulty.  Music, poetry, art have all had their attempts, and one could argue that through the medium of the arts one might be more successful. Love, like art, is often open to some degree of interpretation and means different things to different people.  While neuroscience has made a lot of headway in look at love and attachment as a biological drive, I want to go back to older Socratic definition of love that separates love into four categories.

  1. Eros – Romantic love
  2. Storge – Familial love
  3. Philia – “Brotherly love”, or the love between friends
  4. Agape – Love of humanity

So in terms of having the quality of love, I assert that every one of these is important to both ourselves and others on a variety of scales.  Think how much happiness all these types of love can bring, both in loving others and feeling that love towards you.  Now from a biological level storge, and philia are shown to both to be important drives in our brain, with eros still up for debate, but at the very least eros is a secondary drive that helps give us the attachment and friendship to a possible mate.  And it is our capacity to love that I believe gives us agape as an emergent property that can extend to all humanity.  It should also be noted that most of us learn first about love from the familial love.  How our parents love each other and love us.  This, perhaps, makes storge the most important in giving us a healthy sense of what loving each other is really about.  And since loving is learned, it should also be noted that there are those who adopt and raise children that are not their own that do wonderful jobs, so the biological connection of family need not be there for familial love to be shown to children.  In fact one of the strongest cross-cultural morals we have is protecting children from harm, so it’s not surprising that love and bonding can occur between adults and children who are not their own.

Love, at least to me, is the best cure we have for suffering, whether it is suffering from sickness, poverty, fear, depression or any other situation that causes harm and pain.  When you love you have a desire to stop another’s suffering.  Thus love leads us to both compassion and empathy.  Ultimately I find that our capacity to love motivates us to do so in the best way we know how.  I would also argue that love without feelings of compassion and empathy is pointless.  It’s insincere and unhealthy and can sometimes be destructive, because then you are just loving for your own sake and not because you truly care about the other person.  Perhaps that really isn’t love at all.

Now love as a verb can be tricky.  Above I said “the best way we know how” and this can often lead to honest attempts at love that are ineffective.  Sometimes loving someone is staying close, sometimes loving someone means to let them go, sometimes loving someone is being tough and unyielding.  At this point I’d rather not get into a discussion about how best to love, because when we talk about all the other qualities that will be discussed in this series, I believe the answers about how best to love someone reveal themselves. So knowing how best to love someone is another part of what makes love so difficult to define. However, I believe that love is love, it’s just that the ways in which we can experience love, show love and give love are far too numerous to list.

Biologically we are a social species that operates on reciprocal altruism.  Love is therefore the primary way in which we build attachments to each other for our long term survival, both for reproduction and bonding.  Thus the idea that there is no unselfish act is somewhat true as a whole.  However, we are not always so shallow that we expect kindness to be repaid right away, In general if we love, and show kindness and caring to others they will hopefully love us and thus want to do the same for us when we are in need.  In a broader sense, our ability to love tells us that we survive better when we cooperate, and your motivation for cooperation is increased by the love you feel for those in your group.

The downside of reciprocal altruism is that it makes love mostly beneficial for those in your immediate circle.  Loving humanity as a whole becomes a somewhat abstract extension of our ability to love those closest to us.  Showing love to humanity may involve acts of charity, but how do we know that we are helping?  We are used to having love returned when we show it, so how does humanity give back to us?  Trying to better humanity as a whole is also an extremely slow process. The impact you may have may not be felt until beyond your lifetime. The problems of humanity are large and it takes great momentum to affect change that no individual person can do on their own.  Even great people like Gandhi And Martin Luther King, Jr. needed the support of the people.  In this way acts of kindness and charity for the greater good may be the most unselfish acts other than it give you a sense of well-being and happiness.  But just because loving humanity as a whole is more abstract, and can feel like we are just adding a drop to the ocean, it does not excuse us from the fact that it is more moral for us to love humanity.  To move from the abstract to the tangible one has to remember that empathy and compassion also have an intellectual side that must be fed.  I will address this more in another part of the series, but for now remember the following:

  • All humans are of the same species.
  • The biggest factor in why you are what you are has much more to do with where you were born and the circumstances you were born in than any inherent ability you have (or think you have).
  • Any race or gender put into the same set of circumstances will produce similar outcomes.

Therefore when we feel empathy for those suffering that we can see, feel, hear, etc it takes little imagination to determine that even those beyond our senses suffer in the same way and that doing something to alleviate the suffering of others is the moral thing to do.  One of the chief ways to morally justify inflicting pain and suffering on others is to dehumanize them.  Getting people to believe that another group of people are not of the same species lessens our empathy, therefore, logically, dehumanizing is immoral.

If love has a darker side it is only perhaps to let it envelop you to the point of not paying attention to anything else.  The oft portrayed young couple in TV shows or movies who give no thought to other things claiming they can “live off love” are ridiculed for a reason.  We’d like to believe that John Lennon was right and that “love is all you need”, but anybody past about 30 years of age knows that’s a crock.  The world can be a shitty place, and love can be hard to muster at times, and so life has to be full of other things as well that are fulfilling and happy.  Love can also be unhealthy when we direct it towards inanimate objects.  We’ve all met people who love money too much, their car, sports teams, drugs, other material goods, etc.  While love shouldn’t be predicated on whether it can be returned, it should at least have the potential to be returned.  Pouring love into things that cannot feel your love, or return your love might be okay for a light hobby, but should never take a backseat to the suffering of the living. Perhaps the common theme to the darker side of love is obsession.  Obsessions usually don’t serve one well in the long run.

It could easily be argued that love is the most important of any virtue, and given how much of our lives are spent looking for it, maintaining it, and grieving over it, it’s probably true.  Nevertheless I hope to convince you with this series that there is more to life than love and there are many things we can do to be better at love.  I encourage you all to celebrate love and show love as often as you can, and keep striving to diversify the ways in which you add love to the world.

Do I have to vote?

Let me start by saying that I think voting in a democracy is important.  I never realized its importance when I was younger but as I’ve grown to learn and care more about the importance of governance (notice I didn’t say politics) the more driven I am to vote.  I am finally eligible for citizenship in the U.S. and will become a citizen before the next Presidential election.

Part of learning more about politics and governance has also left me pretty dissatisfied with the choices I have in our political system.  At the national and for most major positions at the state level you have two

A study by two political scientists at Northwestern University. (From http://media.chicagomag.com)

parties to choose from.  As if two philosophies had a chance of representing over 300 million people.  Washington right now is broken as there is no working together to pass laws that will help people.  A frightening statistic I just recently read said that public opinion has no correlation to the passing of laws right now in this country.  This would seem to be an odd thing to find in a democracy where our vote is supposed to represent the will of the people.  It would seem that the people do not control the government.

The media has also highlighted races between candidates where one seems completely incompetent and idiotic, while the other is a happy combination of bigot and religious that you can’t imagine either candidate being someone you’d want in office.  Is it then okay to not vote in that situation?  Is it always more ethical to vote for the lesser of two evils than to not vote at all?

So let’s say you believe government is broken and/or the two party system is broken, and you have terrible candidates to choose from and you wish to let the powers at be know that this is unacceptable, does not voting said that message?  Now a scholar may look at the level of apathy and say, wow nobody really has faith in our government or political system and so that’s why nobody is voting.  But of course that may be right, but it also may be wrong. There are other possible reasons for apathy.  One is that you are person who thinks everything is just rosy and so you really don’t care who is in power.  Or like many, you can’t afford to miss a day’s work to go an vote with everybody else.  Ultimately those in power though won’t really care as long as they are re-elected they just need at least somebody to vote in order for a candidate to be chosen.  Perhaps if everyone refused to vote that might make a difference, but that’s unlikely to happen.

So “not voting” isn’t really effective.  So what might be effective?  One possibility is that you could run for office yourself.  Of course you are likely to get “out-moneyed” by any of the two established parties, but you could still run.  The Tea Party movement, as misguided as they all are, was grass roots, and grass roots movements can grow into something big.  When they got big enough to try and make an impact in government, they got absorbed by one of the established parties and as a result it’s actually weakened the identity of the Tea Party and the Republican Party.  It should have remained its own party.  Anyway, that’s besides the point. The point is that a difference can be made even if you start from the ground up.  But maybe you’d like some encouragement that your movement might be successful.  This brings us to the second possibility of how you can protest and that’s simply to vote.  You don’t have to vote for Democrat or Republican.  You can vote for another party, you can even write in a candidate.  If the amount of people who seem dissatisfied with congress actually didn’t vote for the established two parties many would realize that there is actual need for some other party to establish themselves and that there are a bunch of people who are not apathetic about the process but actually really care, but think that the current two party system or current set of people we have to choose from are unacceptable.  So the answer is still to vote, but don’t feel like you have to vote D or R.  The right to vote means you have the right to vote for who you want and who represents your views.  You don’t have to always vote for one party, you don’t have to feel like you have to just vote for the other guy, because the current guy wasn’t great.  So your research, get informed, and vote for somebody you think will do the job well and represents your views.

The only true way to waste your vote is by not voting. Because if the current system of government is truly broken, then doing nothing changes nothing.  And remember that voting is only one way in which your voice can be heard, so don’t forget that caring doesn’t need to only happen at election time.