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A Lover's Dilemma

by Lawrence J.C. Baron

Irrespective of what happens in real life, we expect romantic love to have the important quality of permanency. In other words, we expect romantic love to last (for ever).

Another feature of romantic love (love) is that it is not directed at an object, but at the person we are in love with. The person we are in love with is the cause of our love; hence the cause is external to us and that cause is another person like us. This is important, even if somewhat obvious, in that love is seen in terms of reality and not something that we make up in our imagination. It is also important to distinguish at the very outset between romantic love and lust or physical attraction. Very few people would equate romantic love with lust or physical attraction, although this does not always prevent confusion.

I propose that romantic love, as experienced by the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus — ordinary men and women you might meet anywhere — leads to a moral type dilemma if that love is not reciprocated. Furthermore, I would argue that the implications of this dilemma could lead to some interesting philosophical consequences that go beyond the parties (or rather party) involved.

My position is that romantic love implies at least three moral type feelings for the person on the Clapham omnibus: duty, loyalty and promising.

Duty: since the person of our love is the cause of our love then we have a duty to that person in all manners of contexts. It is as if we owe them something for making us feel in love with them. One such duty is to maintain the integrity of the person we love. By maintaining, or at the very least helping maintain, the integrity of that person I mean, for example, be a cause or a source for that person to be happy, have a fulfilling life, give them a good sense of belonging or to be there when needed. Love, in a way, is analogous to an investment; not only does it have a return dividend but it also implies responsibility and duty.

It may be objected that duty in love is mono-directional; that is, I perform my duty, but have no right to expect a dividend in return. Fair enough, maybe I don't have a right to expect a dividend, but that is what actually happens; a win-win strategy if ever there was one. What is important at this stage of the argument is that I have a duty to someone; I cannot have a duty to a non existing person. If I have a duty to my country this implies that I actually do have a country. The same holds for romantic love, to love someone and to have a duty to that person implies that there is an other person on the scene. I submit that love invokes this sense of duty.

A sense of duty also implies a sense of loyalty. Whilst a sense of duty implies a commitment to act, a sense of loyalty implies a commitment by a person towards another person. I cannot be loyal to an object. For example, I can be loyal to a brand, but the use of loyal here is not the same we would expect in the context of romantic love. When we use loyalty towards another person, or an entity, we attribute personhood, e.g. the company, the state, we assume that certain moral implications apply which do not make sense when used with brands. In a way, therefore, loyalty guarantees duty. Furthermore, loyalty is not demanded from us or imposed upon us, but felt in the context of a free agent. Loyalty at the point of a gun or a threat of redundancy is not loyalty in any context.

Since romantic love is aimed at a person and not a thing, the person on the Clapham omnibus recognises that the person we are in love with is also unique. What I feel for Ms. A or Mr. B I feel because they are who they are and there is no one else like them. My love is for a person and not for a body (thing) hence the unique element. It might still be argued that even our bodies are unique, but we can dismiss this as irrelevant for our purposes. Hence uniqueness implies non transferability. I cannot just take my love and offer it to someone else; in the same way, that I cannot use the key to open the door to my flat as to open my office door. I submit that the uniqueness argument is a powerful one; it implies, for example, certainty in the sense that I cannot be mistaken or confused about who I love. One can lust for two beautiful bodies but love is not usually seen like this.

Romantic love also implies two forms of promises. I make an explicit promise to myself that I will do, what I have argued to be, my duty towards the person I love and that I will be loyal to that person. And I also make an implicit promise to the person I love that I will do my duty and to be loyal to them. One important aspect of a promise is that it projects me and my actions into the future. By promising I see myself doing something in the future. Furthermore, a promise between people has no time limit or expiry date or shelf life; in other words, a promise is timeless. I submit that this is where we get the idea of love lasting for ever; the idea of promising my love to someone transcends time limits. Duty and loyalty also have the same feeling of timelessness.

It is accepted and it should be remembered that at no time is the other person obliged to do anything for me or is duty bound to do anything at all. The person of our love is a free agent in the same way that we are free agents.

The dilemma arises, therefore, when the person of our love does not reciprocate our love. If the person I am in love with rejects my advances of love and does not reciprocate my love then there is no one, as it were, to project my love to. However, if there is no person to receive my love, to whom do I owe a duty, to whom am I being loyal to and to whom have I made an implicit promise? How can I owe a duty to someone when there is no one who is prepared to receive the benefits of my duty? How can I be loyal to someone when no one wants my loyalty?

The second element of the dilemma is the unique aspect of love. How can I possibly love someone else when it is this person that makes me feel the way I do to the extent that I owe a duty to them; that makes me feel loyal to them. In other words, what is it about this particular and specific person that makes me fall in love with them? Let's face it, this state of affairs would not sound incongruous if love was reciprocated; in fact we would expect to find precisely this state of affairs when two people love each other. Moreover, if at a future date our love is reciprocated we would expect this very same state of affairs to hold.

To restate the dilemma: how can a person love someone else if love implies duty, loyalty, and a promise to love a person who is also unique?

Where do we start addressing this dilemma?

One possible solution is to say that what I am calling a dilemma is nothing of the sort and furthermore romantic love can be dismissed as the product of cheap paperback fiction. We can go a step further and argue that romantic love is just a subjective projection of our feeling onto someone else. The idea that my love is caused by the other person is just an impression. I'm sure some will subscribe to this view. However, I suspect even more would object to it.

If lust or physical attraction are all there is to romantic love then surely there are some real life consequences. To begin with the element of uniqueness will have to disappear because the person will be identified with the body and not the self. And since this is not a criminal investigation it does not really matter whether the finger prints are unique, what matters is whether I like the fingers or not, so to speak! Hence, we would all become lovers and not husbands and wives or partners to use modern parlance. And no one would be concerned if I wanted to change my lover, except maybe my lover, of course. However, if I was married and wanted to change my wife a few people would be concerned; for example my friends.

If romantic love was equated with physical attraction then parents would be justified to demand designer babies. We can immediately see that this argument leads us head one with some relevant issues in bio and medical ethics. For example, a very topical issue these days is stem cell research. If physical attraction was all there is to love then why not research for blue eyes, height and hip-to-waste ratio? Why not offer sterilization to ugly people or even offer abortion on the grounds that the child will grow up to be ugly and unattractive?

If we accept that romantic love is an important aspect in our lives and it transcends the physical, then it matters that this love finds its justification on some rational foundations such as a moral system. The neurologist or the psychologist can rightly ask us to look at the brain (and the environment) for an explanation to what is going on here. But surely the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus are only concerned with fulfilling his or her feelings of love and not a lecture in brain mechanics. Blaming serotonin why a rejection makes us feel so miserable just does not cut it as an explanation. It seems, therefore, that romantic love calls out for a moral or ethical system to give meaning to such a basic human activity.

Another way out of this dilemma is to say that it is true that romantic love invokes duty, loyalty, uniqueness and promise, but only when reciprocated. The lover who feels a sense of loyalty or duty towards someone who does not reciprocate love is simply jumping the gun.

This is strong argument, but the implications are equally concerning. This would require that any moral foundation for the basis of love not only be relative to the situation but contingent on the situation at hand. Relative because a morality of love would depend on whether there was reciprocity and contingent because it depends on the other person loving me. In other words, I start loving you when you start loving me and I love you if you love me. Good sophistry but not necessarily something most people would accept. Furthermore, people do not consider love to be like this; they are careful who they love, but they also do not play 'who blinks first' type of games. People usually just fall in love.

One can always avoid the dilemma, like most dilemmas, by accepting that it exists and move on. Practical but hardly a philosophical endeavour. I suspect that the man or the woman on the Clapham omnibus will try a bit harder hoping that things will turn out all right at the end. Indeed, hope can motivate us and give us that extra push, but it is hardly a source of happiness and fulfilment. Maybe the dilemma will test our personal and moral character to the limit, but few would be happy to have to face this problem. There are always better things to do in life than grapple with moral dilemmas.

The implications of this dilemma is that there must surely be a payback for getting romantic love right. Surely happy people with a sense of fulfilment make better parents, better members of society and hence better citizens of the state.

© Lawrence J.C. Baron 2004