Why Love and Human Agency?

The questions at the core of our project are simply: What is love? and What is it to care about someone or something? As we will indicate below, we think that inadequate, reductive answers to these questions impede progress in solving a host of important problems concerning the roles that love and caring play in human agency. But in fact, these are questions that many philosophers working in the areas of philosophy to which these questions are most relevant (such as moral psychology and the philosophy of action) simply do not address—for instance because, working within the confines of the standard belief-desire model of the mind, it has seemed to them obvious that caring about someone can be understood simply as having a very strong desire for that person’s welfare. The most prominent philosopher actually to address these questions, Harry Frankfurt, has sought to offer a more adequate account of love and caring, while still drawing only on the resources afforded by the standard, belief-desire model of the mind (Frankfurt 1999, 2004). Love, according to Frankfurt, is a “mode” of caring. And to care about something, in his view, is (roughly) to have a desire for it together with a “second-order” desire that one’s desire for it should not diminish in its motivational efficacy (and an accompanying disposition to make sure it does not).

The three Project Leaders have all argued that Frankfurt’s reductive account of caring is mistaken. In our own work, we have all tried to give more adequate accounts of love and caring—accounts according to which love and caring cannot be understood solely in terms of belief and desire. The accounts we have each offered differ in substantial ways, but they overlap on a key thought: Caring is, at least in part, a complex, emotional attitude, comprising various less complex emotions, emotional predispositions, and desires directed at the person or thing cared about (Helm 2001, Jaworska 2007b, Seidman 2009). For instance, caring about a person involves feeling joys at her successes, frustrations at her failures, fearful anticipations of possible dangers for her, relief when she escapes such dangers, grief at losing her, and so on. These constituent emotions are, moreover, tied together, and distinguished from emotions directed at her that are not elements of caring about her, by a thick network of apparent rational requirements that govern them. For instance, it seems that a person who fears harm to another ought not, other things being equal, feel joy when that harm befalls her. And most of the emotions that are constitutive components of caring themselves involve rationally interrelated components infused by the recognition of the importance of the person one cares about. These components cannot be understood simply as amalgams of beliefs and desires. For instance, grief at the loss of a person consists in part in feeling the importance of the person in one’s life as one tends to dwell in one’s thoughts on memories of that person and on the circumstances in which she was lost, has one’s attention directed at objects and details associated in some way with that person and with the events leading up to her loss, etc. Caring about someone or something thus involves a kind of rationally structured emotional vulnerability to that object, a vulnerability which cannot be adequately represented in the framework that the belief-desire model of the mind provides.

The claim that caring involves a complex of emotions directed at an object and tied together by apparent rational requirements governing them leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, this account does not, by itself, seem sufficient to distinguish caring from obsessions of the kind manifested in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A woman obsessed with cleanliness washes everything in sight several times a day; she fears things left unwashed, she is temporarily relieved after washing them, etc. Intuitively, this is a very different phenomenon from the attitude of a woman fully emotionally focused on promoting the well-being of her child, anxious that things may not go well for the child, relieved when the child overcomes obstacles, etc. But where, exactly, does the difference lie? Neuropsychology might provide a key to the answer—and hence, to a deeper account of caring. There are known correlations between behaviors like hoarding and some of the frontal lobe deficits that undermine the capacity to care (e.g., Graybiel and Rauch 2000). And so an in-depth understanding of similarities in the neurophysiological underpinnings of the symptoms of OCD (such as hoarding behaviors) and of the deficits in caring correlated with frontal lobe lesions, set in comparison with healthy functioning, might enable us to clarify the difference between obsession and caring.

The question about obsession is just one of the many unanswered questions about the nature of love and caring. How should we understand the apparent rational requirements governing the emotions that constitute caring? Are these, as they appear on the surface, genuine rational requirements linking different types of mental states? Or, are these apparent requirements best explained by a “myth account,” analogous to the one that Raz 2005 and Kolodny 2008 develop for the apparent rational requirements of consistency and coherence among beliefs and intentions? Whether or not they are genuine requirements, what explains them? Does caring constitutively involve cognition, as well as emotion? Does it, for instance, constitutively involve beliefs about normative reasons? (Seidman 2009) If so, what is the connection between the cognitive and the emotional aspects of caring (Helm 2001)? Does caring constitutively involve dispositions to direct one’s deliberative attention in certain ways? (Seidman 2008) If so, what explains this?

We believe that empirical work in psychology and neuropsychology can help us to answer some of these questions. For instance, empirical work might challenge, or might confirm and explain, the suggestion that caring constitutively involves dispositions to direct one’s deliberative and emotional attention in certain ways. We are convinced that the best way to proceed is to learn all we can, in interdisciplinary dialogue with scientists who work on the emotions and dispositions of affect involved in love and caring—with an openness to the possibility that empirical findings might shed light in places where we do not expect it, or might unsettle views that we had previously accepted as purely conceptual claims. By the same token, it is unlikely to be wholly clear, in advance of interdisciplinary conversations, which philosophical findings will help scientists as they design and interpret their experiments.

 

As indicated above, an adequate account of love and caring must make intelligible the central role they play in human thought and agency. How are love and caring central to human agency? And what questions about agency can our improved understanding of love and caring help to address? We will focus on three sets of issues:

  1. Rationality
  2. Morality
  3. Freedom

With respect to each of these aspects of human agency, we think that understandings of love and caring that step beyond the confines of the belief-desire model of the mind open up new and promising avenues for exploration. We think that the way to make real and sustained progress with these questions—and, more broadly, to develop further an alternative to the belief-desire model of the mind that has, in our view, impeded progress until now—is to complement the modes of arm-chair argumentation that have defined traditional philosophy by testing and developing our claims in dialogue with psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, medical practitioners, and legal theorists. At the same time, we believe that this re-thinking of love and caring, and of the roles they play in mind and action, will offer researchers in these fields fresh perspective as they design and interpret their work.