What is love?

Defining “love” is tricky, but it’s ultimately just a jumble of letters, and if we don’t define it privately or within the scope of a conversation, I’m not sure that in using it we’re saying much at all (although maybe it can be thought of as a performative utterance/speech act or an interjection or purely phatic or something? seems rather impoverished). There have been many attempts to categorize its range of meanings (e.g. comparisons to the Greek eros, storge, agape, philia, etc.), as well as the ways in which it can be expressed (e.g. Gary Chapman’s books), but it’s nice to have a single, unifying definition, at least when it’s used to refer to another person and especially when context isn’t enough to clarify its meaning. Everyone’s thinking of something different when they say it, so it’s important to reflect on “what love means to you” and “what you mean when you say you love someone” and discuss this with your loved ones to avoid miscommunication, confusion, and hurt feelings.

Personally, I’ve always broadly defined it as something like the adoption of another’s values and goals so that they become (a small to moderate) part of my own. It’s fundamentally a description of the present, though, and isn’t immune to your values changing — you can fall out of love with someone, and the probability of this happening on its own is proportional to the stability of your values and the person(s) you love.  There could well be a self-perpetuating component to love, though — you love someone, and you want to love someone, and you want to want to love someone, and so on. You might do well to think of it as a sort of “preference utilitarianism”, though applicable to only one person at a time, and not having to average or integrate or sum over many “utility functions” but instead just import one wholesale  (indeed, something like preference utilitarianism is my preferred sort of utilitarianism, and alone comprises perhaps a full sixth, maybe even a third of my values — see the link above). Emotionally, it can feel similar to “compersion” or the Buddhist “Muditā”, but it doesn’t have to.


Saying that I love someone can then be considered an affirmation of my commitment to satisfying their preferences as if they were intrinsically my own and not merely satisfying them to fulfill some other instrumental purpose, like encouraging reciprocation or signaling status or whatever. Under this definition, there isn’t really a sensible “love at first sight” because at first sight you have no idea really what the target of your affections values and so can at best weakly “love” some generic, superficial, in-all-plausibility-quite-wrong model of that target. You might “love” someone, but someone isn’t a proper definite description, it’s a cardboard cutout. In principle, this sorta love is also pretty orthogonal to sexual passion (though see the paragraph below). It further doesn’t really make sense to me to say things like “love is mysterious and unknowable and undefinable” ‘cos words only have meaning insofar as we give them meaning and use them when we communicate. Love isn’t some blob of ectoplasm floating out in the cosmos for us to find and grasp — it’s a word that does what we (collectively or individually) decide for it to do. If we don’t know what a word means, that just suggests we haven’t done a very good job of defining it, or that we haven’t done enough introspection.

I think this sort of love can be both “conditional” and “unconditional”, though I reckon it’s always implicitly conditioned who the person you love is and what they value, since you use those things to pick them out from all the other possible people you could love. But how strongly you condition on this might depend on where you wind up after falling down that rabbit hole and what you consider integral to personal identity and its continuity. For example, say you love someone a time t and want to help them fulfill their desires. One of their desires is to consume chocolate ice cream, so you try to provide them with it according to some implicit weighing of expected costs and benefits. Then, at time t+1, they no longer like chocolate! Instead, vanilla’s all the rage. Do you still love them? All else being equal, sure, because ice cream preferences are not super integral to their identity, they’re still “who” they “were” before. Then, through some fluke of chance, time t+2 sees them literally turn into the Mongol Warlord Genghis Khan, mount the nearest horse, and begin slaughtering innocents. Presumably you stop loving them and don’t support them in their inadvisable conquest of the Steppe, because they’re not Who They Were Before. Somewhere in between these two extremes might lie other sets of values (e.g. do they love you back? Are they kind to you? Do they respect you? Are they the same person they were when you first loved them for some acceptable value of same? etc.) upon which you may or may not condition your love. I reckon when people speak of “unconditional love” they’re usually conditioning it on something like I do above, since rarely do they advocate continuing to love someone if they happen to turn into Cthulhu.


This perspective on love also strongly inclines me towards monogamy, I think. Those into polyamory always talk of how love is not a finite resource, we have limitless capacity for love, you wouldn’t consider your capacity for friendship to be limited, would you? and so on. Except for me, I totally would, and feel that I absolutely have a finite capacity for love in that I have a finite capacity for what I value (i.e. all my values have to add up to 100%), and, as values are coherent only insofar as the resources I devote to them, a regrettably finite amount of resources and time that I can give to each person I love. And resources here do not refer only to money, political allies, or heads of sheep, but also things like time and attention (which I reckon are finite too for the polyamorists, along with whatever they call love, because rarely do I see any with partners beyond the low hundreds). If I start loving someone else to a considerable degree, that begins to eat up how extensively I can love others, at least to the extent that their preferences and values are incompatible (which in large part they usually are). Since the “love” subsets of my values are self-perpetuating (they resist drift, unlike, say, my fondness of chocolate ice cream. I want what my love wants, I want to want that, I want to want to want that, and so on), I’d necessarily want to not love too many people. I imagine it can lead to quite a lot of stress, too, loving multitudes. If more than one person needs you at the same time, and they need you in a way that can’t be split (e.g. your physical presence and assistance when they’re in grief), what do you do? Not being able to help the ones I love feels awful now (and I hope to avoid such situations with family and friends, if crises cannot be avoided altogether), and I imagine it would feel worse the more often it happened. For similar reasons I prefer to limit the number of good friends I have, that my allegiances are not spread too thin. If nothing else, I reckon this is at least consistent — I view romantic relationships as really good friendships, essentially, with an additional layer of (explicit) commitment and sexual relations tacked on (and while I arrived at these views myself, they’re hardly original).


As to how you know you love someone, well… looking deep within yourself is a good, if somewhat unreliable way to figure out what you value. You could also just take note of your actions — are you furthering or have you furthered your putative love’s ends in order to further those ends and not for some other sinister purpose? If so, then you probably love them. Are you distraught or concerned that all your positive actions have secretly been selfish and self-serving? Then it sounds like you value valuing your partner’s values, and therefore probably value their values terminally or intrinsically too.

My jimmies get rustled when people make strong claims like “love is a fairy tale! love doesn’t exist! there is no love!!” without first or next clarifying what exactly they mean. Love’s a really vague term! It can be defined in many ways! You’re not being rigorous! You’re not saying anything meaningful! All you’re doing is showing how obnoxiously cynical you are!


(header photocredit: Bon Miller)

ADDENDUM: I also recalled recently a list of criteria I’d developed in my mid-to-late teens on what characteristics I’d prioritize when searching for a partner. I organized it hierarchically into primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. desiderata. I don’t quite remember exactly how I specified the lower tiers, but my three primary criteria (considered such because they were largely non-negotiable), in order of importance (but again, largely non-negotiable), were:

  1. Must be kind, in thought and in deed, and desire and act towards the flourishing of others, towards the reduction of their suffering, towards the satisfaction of their preferences, etc.
  2. Must be interesting, especially in matters of conversation, opinion, and creative process
  3. Must be adventurous, especially in regards to novelty, exploring new places/hobbies/activities

Secondary ones (which could be more painlessly compromised on, especially if everything else is met, but perhaps not in too great a quantity) included scientific curiosity, intelligence, light-heartedness, humor, competence, ambition, physical attractiveness and broad sexual compatibility, agreement in the realm of traditionally-considered Major Life Decisions (purchasing of houses, number of children, retirement savings, and so on), etc.

Tertiary ones (sought as a bonus in a partner, but pale in importance to the primary tiers) had stuff like courage, financial security (distinct from a lack of financial antisecurity, e.g. having a ton of debt, a lack of which, depending on the exact magnitude, could constitute a secondary criterion), same or similar hobbies, taste in books/music/movies/games/etc., not-complete-disagreement in (less important) matters of politics or philosophy (by less important, I mean things that don’t too strongly affect day-to-day living — too strong a disagreement in the realm of ethics could color someone unkind in my eyes, epistemological disagreement could hamper their scientific curiosity, things like that), etc.

Quaternary had fairly negligible stuff — interior design esthetic sense, pet-preference, etc.

These all remained largely unchanged as I aged, and unfortunately made me rather picky! But luckily I found someone who more than adequately satisfied them and married her, so holding out (but not too long) worked well for me in the end!


3 thoughts on “What is love?”

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