Forget Unconditional or Universal Love

I recently watched an interview with Karen Armstrong that offered an interesting angle on compassion. Having just read Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson” I couldn’t help but make the following connection between Karen Armstrong’s main point and an explanation that Johnson gave of why he drinks alone: “to get rid of myself, to send myself away.” I don’t think that he meant just that it is nice to be away from one’s troubles and anxieties, which no doubt many people use alcohol for. I think he meant something more akin to the sentiment implicit in his retort to a friend that “you, Sir, only have two topics: you and myself. I am sick of both.” I think that even a mind as fertile and packed with knowledge as Johnson’s nevertheless became tired of his own habitual perspective and way of thinking. Armstrong seems to be suggesting that this is precisely the function of compassion and meditation; to escape ourselves for a brief, transcendental moment while exercising our mirror neurons. Perhaps this is yet another reason that I can give for why I am interested in psychological counseling; that to truly enter another person’s world, regardless of how troubled it may be, is a welcome reprieve from my own habitual mind, and paradoxically the further I get from my ego/self in this process the more meaningful I find this ego/self upon my return to it.

Having just explained certain personal benefits of exercising compassion, it might seem a dramatic and hypocritical turn to inform the reader that I completely disagree with any principle of unconditional love, as it seems to rob love of its meaning. The “universal lover” doesn’t ask the question of whether every human being deserves love, but takes this for granted, and thus the love that they might have for me isn’t so dependent on my actions; on my deserving it! Real love requires judgement, valuation and should never be universally tolerant or unconditionally accepting. In fact, in many cases, such as a loved one’s drug addiction for example, an act of tolerance or acceptance would be patently unloving! We all have finite resources of time and energy, so why are we so guilty to admit the practical limitations that this places on our ideals? I cannot object to someone exercising compassion in thought and feeling, for we can perhaps have unlimited resources of feeling, but exercising compassion in the world of action is a different story. Of course, even someone who thinks that everybody deserves love and thus has some vague sense of love for everybody feels that love in very different degrees for different people and acts accordingly. This partially alleviates my worry. However, I think that love, if it is to mean anything deep, must be dependent on respect and admiration; it must be deserved! I might grant that sometimes we can love a parent or family member whom we are incapable of respecting anymore, but this really doesn’t seem like love so much as an earnest wish to love; which amounts to a longing to actually respect someone we really don’t because they are uniquely related to us and thus potentially valuable enough to indulge such hopes. Now, having said all this, I would of course help any living person out of a flaming car and all of that, so in this sense I have “love” for all of humanity. However,  I would also help a puppy or any small animal out of a flaming car, so again it feels like I am cheapening the word. The way I love a puppy is very different from the way I love my girlfriend, so different that I don’t like using the same word. They are just qualitatively different things that happen to be accompanied by “warm feelings” and thus easily fall under that same description. Do we really love putting on warm laundry fresh out of the drier? The feeling is just about the same. My love for my girlfriend is dependent on my respecting her mind, appreciating her personality, being constantly surprised by both, and also liking the self that proximity with her pulls out of me. This is the love of a deep friend, and it’s the only love worth calling by that name in my book.

The truth is that I don’t admire or respect a good portion of humanity, but find them rather uninteresting, unreflective, and childish. When my girlfriend gets annoyed with children it is because she is expecting them to act like “people,” but if judged this way children are the very definition of “assholes!” Being without reflective thought, they are self-interested little machines that can’t fully comprehend the thoughts and feelings of others as they recklessly seek self-gratification. I find most adults that I run into to be children in various stages of developing into actual “people.” (pause for moral outrage to settle down…..) This means that I don’t have much love for humanity. Now, please keep in mind that I just spent four years in LA, and another 9 years 60 miles east of it…so my moral compass is still spinning frenetically from living in that emotional/intellectual desert. However, even many people that I wouldn’t describe as being deceitful, selfish, manipulative, or “assholes” don’t seem to qualify as candidates for my definition of deep love. Their heartbeat and breathe just doesn’t qualify them for my deep respect, as I am really incapable of truly being their friend in any meaningful way. The “general love” that I have for humanity is only a temporary assumption that I grant everybody before I meet them; a general benefit of the doubt extended in the hope that they may be friend material. So I treat people with a friendly compassion, but only until they prove unworthy of it. Unfortunately this sounds quite cynical and selfish: I only let those people into my life whom I admire and respect, which is another way of saying they have something to offer me. We all adhere to this though. We never intentionally enter into a romantic relationship with someone who has nothing to offer us. We just don’t like putting something that is presumably so “altruistic” in terms of capitalistic exchange.

I have said goodbye to quite a few people that were my dear friends because they proved that they were not worthy of my friendship. But this leads me to a tricky point. I still have “warm, fuzzy feelings” for these people who I no longer choose to love; who have lost my respect. I can reflect on the good times and the parts of them that I admire and feel what some may call love. However, love doesn’t seem to me to be a matter of “warm feelings” so much as a matter of action. Love is a verb, in my book, meaning something like to value and is based on witnessing actions. People’s feelings towards me are their own business; their actions towards me are my business. If someone treats me with loving actions, in a certain sense I don’t care if they have a deep wellspring of warm feelings for me. Conversely, if someone has a deep reservoir of warm feelings for me but chooses to deride me, manipulate me, lie to me, or cheat me, then despite their feelings they simply don’t love me. If my love for my girlfriend is actually twice the quantity of “feelings” than the amount she has for me, I don’t really care unless this affects how she treats me. Her feelings are her business. I only care that she enriches my life and brings so much joy, love, and meaning to it in return for my investment of the same. She has my respect and admiration and thus deserves my love, and I will treat her with acts of love to keep her close to me. Nietzsche says that, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” I think he means that it’s not a lack of warm, fuzzy feelings that breaks a marriage; it’s a lack of warm, fuzzy actions!

This whole point about the irrelevance of warm feelings counter-intuitively supports the near-universal religious tenet of universal compassion or unconditional love, however. The anthropologist or biologist might attack these principles by suggesting that Peter Singer’s “expanding [moral] circle” is an artificial manipulation of our natural moral drives that bond us with those who are related to our own genes–both directly (kin) and diffusely (tribe). But the fact that we can actually choose to act with compassion and love in the absence of the same strong feelings we might have for our immediate family or tribe is interesting enough in its own right! Robert Pollack spoke in an interview about agape, or altruistic love, as being scientifically “non-demonstrable” or unexplainable; that it is “anti-selective” such that the appearance of an “anti-natural selective behavior is an argument for an emergent use of free will against biology.” However, even if this qualifies as “love” by my definition, is this something we can or should apply universally or unconditionally? The dilemma that I face is that I only find it worth actively loving those that I may respect, admire, and who may enrich my life. Disregarding the multitude of jack-asses out there, there are a host of “nice people” in the world who are nonetheless ill-equipped to enrich my life sufficiently enough to warrant my seeking their company, let alone “love” them in any meaningful sense. So much of the world only seems to warrant my “puppy love,” and couldn’t inspire my admiration and deep love if they tried. Humanity simply doesn’t impress me that much, and the special dignity that we attribute our species seems a trifle unwarranted most of the time. This is where a Jainism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, which have respect for all creatures, make slightly more sense to me than a Christian paradigm that asserts man’s special place in nature as conveying his dominion over it; his right to do with the flora and fauna as he wills (coincidentally the foundation stone of all western notions of property and ownership–thank John Locke). Even if the Scholastic tradition of philosophy is correct, and man’s “Reason” confers a dignity that grants us the status of king-on-earth, I see so few people actually using this “Reason” that much of humanity fails to even qualify.

Now, that I don’t have deep love for all of humanity but rather find myself quite unimpressed doesn’t mean that I hate humanity. It just annoys me all the time like a small child constantly jockeying for attention, throwing a temper tantrum, or otherwise displaying a lack of reflection. However, this lack of universal love does mean that I can truly hate people sometimes, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” love-buffer to cushion their stupidity or cruelty with. It is healthy to be angry with assholes! One might counter with the fact that it’s unhealthy to focus on that negativity, which is probably true. But I think it’s only unhealthy if you find yourself unable to move past it, and being damn angry is one faze of getting past it! In fact, if you haven’t moved past it, I suggest getting freakin hopping mad for a while! Though we often understand a person’s misbehavior, an explanation is not a justification! We can forgive children because they are bereft of experience, have little reasoning ability or reflective thoughts, and simply haven’t matured.  But at some point we should hold them responsible for themselves and their actions because they have that experience, that reasoning ability, and if they haven’t matured, then it’s time to give them a reason to have to mature! But this whole mentality that we are all “beautiful, unique snowflakes” who must have been victimized by circumstance if we turn out wrong is missing the point. A tiger is the product of its genes and its environment and so I can forgive it in some vague, metaphysical way if it tries to eat me, but I’ll still shoot the damn thing when it tries! I can’t forgive human beings on that same vague, metaphysical level though they are the product of nature and nurture because that nature includes the most evolved brain on the planet and that nurture includes 15,000 plus years of cultural evolution with a compendium of this human wisdom resting only a mouse click away. Moreover, this same argument of “different circumstances” justifying bad people is held up next to the doctrine of equality! “People are all equal, they just differ in the lottery of nature and nurture.” This just seems to be egalitarianism running around with its head cut off. This works as a political ideal, for various game-theoretical reasons, but should never be applied in interpersonal relations.

I know that the ultimate “reason” why certain of my male friends treated me like crap was the fact that male animals vie for dominance and compete by nature, but this doesn’t justify them like it does a male ram. I feel that same drive to compete and subjugate, but choose to act with love instead towards those that I respect partly because I have found that they stick around longer and enrich my life if I treat them like this. The whole “universal love” thing, turn the other cheek and so forth, is not only an ethos of weakness and injustice, it removes the behavioral conditioning that enforces the natural order of who gets love and how they should get it. The fact that grants us our dignity as a species, our incredibly intelligent and reflective minds, also makes us the most dangerous and potentially evil beings on the planet, while qualifying us as beings worthy of hatred. Hitler deserves our hatred, regardless of whether his mother failed to breastfeed him or whatever circumstances managed to produce this monster. While Robert Pollack calls evil “the toxic waste of free will,” I am here suggesting that our reaction to the evildoer should be the same if his will be free or not. We should deal with evil as we deal with all toxic waste: quarantine. The degree to which we hate that evildoer depends on the degree to which we think that the he acted freely, but this sentimental reaction need not change our physical actions towards him.

The only “universal love” that I can even understand is Krishnamurti’s. He states that when we love ourselves, our love ceases to have an object; we are just “in love” with existence. This love just radiates outwards because we are contented with our internal universe, and thus find the external universe pleasing also (as this is after all reproduced by our own minds). When I am satisfied with myself I have so much love to give people, animals, trees, and rocks, but I choose not to cheapen the meaning of this love by proffering it on the undeserving. Nietzsche says, “There is not enough love and goodness in the world to permit giving any of it away to imaginary beings.” I would just add that we shouldn’t permit giving it away to rocks either; nor to any objects that are similarly dense, abrasive, and inflexible! Though this doesn’t mean that I have to hate those that I don’t love, it does make it a whole lot easier. I don’t think we should eliminate hatred from our repertoire of feelings and motives! William James claims that, “To be a real philosopher all that is necessary is to hate some one else’s type of thinking.” Hatred, anger and strong disapproval are all powerful motivators that do not always motivate bad actions. If we remove serious disapproval and ostracism from our toolbox, then are we not also removing one of the biggest incentives for people to be friendly, and thus actually lessening the amount of love in the world with our promiscuous ethos!?! Are we not insulting those who actually deserve our love by spreading it so thin?

Once again, exercising one’s compassionate understanding in the privacy of one’s own subjective world is beyond reproach, but let’s also be wary of those people who, as Johnson rightly words it, “pay us with their feeling.” Loving with a promise of warm feelings and loving in action are worlds apart in terms of their value and significance to the person being “loved,” and unfortunately we only have an unlimited supply of the former kind of love to give. It is simply not fair for people to get credit for their universally loving feelings if those feelings are only enjoyed by that person and fail to influence action in the objective world. Keep in mind that I am not talking about “deserving” love in any kind of universal, categorical sense. There are many people who have proven themselves undeserving of my love, but who are perfectly capable and deserving of starting new loving relationships. I am simply suggesting that love is not something that we should look at in any universal way, but should evaluate each person on their particular merits with respect to a potential relationship with us alone. Perhaps cases like Hitler’s are examples of people we should all universally hate, as any love or respect given him would be a slap in the face to the millions that he hurt, but I’ll leave such universal judgments to the theologians to decide, as they seem to be the only ones promoting an ideal of universal love that must include someone like Hitler. If you ask me, we can all understand that various tragedies befell and thus created Hitler, but this should at best qualify him for some vague metaphysical forgiveness and never qualify him for any real, physical love.

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7 Responses to Forget Unconditional or Universal Love

  1. Paul says:

    This is a very interesting post. I think the difficultly lies in the different ways and degrees that we “love”. You are correct in that it is not the same love you would have for a friend, family member or spouse. But I don’t think love has to be earned. It’s not even fair because most of the people in the world will never even meet you let alone be able to earn your love.

    Universal love is more of a respect for humanity and all the stages of growth we endure. Remember, we were annoying little kids once too. I do believe that everyone is deserving of love. People who make themselves “unlovable” by how they act toward others are usually doing so because they were hurt. This is where Universal Compassion is perhaps even more powerful that love. It is the understanding that we have all be hurt and some of us did not survive it as well as others.

    To love is to give of yourself. I have never reaped anything but good by giving of myself.

    Thank you for the post!

    • Hey Paul,

      Thanks for the feedback. Of course, you are most certainly right. Understanding someone’s misbehavior often takes the sting out of it. That kind of compassionate understanding is beneficial in so many ways, not least of all to allow you to let go and get past the anger stage. I would, however, just add that nobody is an unlimited resource, making universal love a practical impossibility from the outset. I too have always reaped good things by giving of myself, but some times I have reaped more good than others, forcing me to take stock of which investments are the most worthwhile and the most noble.

      Thanks for reading Paul. Take care!

      • I just thought I would add this nice quote from Rollo May’s “Love and Will” to better illustrate my thesis: “Generalized love, to be sure, is adequate for generalized, group situations; but I am not honored by being loved simply because I belong to the genus ‘man.’ The love which is separated from will, or the love which obviates will, is characterized by a passivity which does not incorporate and grow with its own passion; such love tends, therefore, toward dissociation. It ends in something which is not fully personal because it does not fully discriminate.”

  2. Ari Lovejoy says:

    …I don’t see why it’s not possible to have BOTH universal love for all living beings, Agape, AND a romantic possesive love with your current body and anothers current body….what am I missing here?…I always thought that was the way it’s supposed to be… Even if you feel that when the current bodies end, that particular love ends…this may not necessarily be so…no one knows anything for sure, but we may also have an eternal spiritual body that we can continue that type of love with, while also having a universal platonic love for all living entities….Sounds true to me…

    • Hi Ari, thanks for your question. I think you are right that it is possible to experience both universal love and romantic/possessive love (as feelings), but the critical question becomes, how much time and energy do you apportion for each? I can have an unlimited amount of compassionate feelings towards mankind, but I certainly cannot perform an unlimited amount of loving and compassion actions. Given the practical limitations we face, we are forced to make trade-offs that ultimately determine how much we love a given person “in practice,” which I believe to be a much more important thing to discuss than how much love we have for that person “in theory” or “in feeling.” If I truly loved mankind universally, I would have no reason (or feeling for that matter) which would impel me to confer love “in action” to one person over another. They would all be equally deserving of my kindness, making it impossible to have the sort of individuated love of a romantic relationship. Though it is possible to hold the following two beliefs in ones mind at the same time, they are in fact in-congruent and will show themselves as such in action: 1) “every human being is of equal value,” 2) “this wonderful creature here is my soul mate whose happiness is more important to me than anybody elses.” Now, if I decide to save myself and my girlfriend from a nuclear holocaust at the expense of the rest of humanity (whom I could have saved instead), I can still “feel” compassion and regret for those hopeless masses, but can I really say that I love them universally? Would it not be more honest to say that I love myself and my girlfriend FAR more than the rest of humanity, which I nonetheless still have a vague or “lesser” love for? (I’m not sure this answers your question, because as you say, who knows what happens after we die…we may have no practical limitations on how we confer love “in action” and just the mere “feeling” of universal compassion suffices to imbue all of mankind with the warm glow of my lofty sentiment)

  3. Ari Lovejoy says:

    …You know JL, I really want to thank you…after reading what you have to say, and posting my comment, I had a great realization…

    We’re all living beings, made of spirit and covered by matter by one degree or another. When our bodies end, we get another body untill we finally realize the truth, that we are all from the same source…

    What you describe as actually feeling hate for some people that are evil, is the act of one just observing only the temporary covering that hasn’t yet seen that we are all divine under the surface…and yes, I agree when it’s so bad that they perform evil acts, these people should be quaranteened. Now comes the exciting part:

    When we find the soul that we can actually connect with to the degree that we can reach their pure spirit part, we form a circuit and connect to the larger spirit whole with them….this would certainly be ecstacic….so much so, that we would never want to unplug and find another soul to connect to…since we already are connected in bliss to the larger energy source with and through them…we would not even be tempeted….perhaps this is a way to obtain self realization, …through… pure love joy union! When we find that we’ll be.. in love..with our joy delerious!!!

    • Hello again Ari,
      You are most welcome…I’m so glad that my writing inspired an epiphany for you! You are interpreting my thoughts correctly here, and I too long to break through that “covered matter” of a monster like Hitler and unleash the true spiritual potential there, but again, we are dealing with the practical limitations of life, which will probably demand quarantine, execution, or some such unfortunate but necessary evil on our part. I don’t blame him or hate him metaphysically, just physically (my hatred is directed at the meat cover that we have to deal with in this life).
      I really like the last part about connecting to a “larger spirit whole,” when we truly have a deep connection with another (an “I”/”Thou” experience that Martin Buber and others talk about). I think that each time we make such a connection, our own soul is greatly enlarged, as we “introject” that person’s perspective into our mental universe, and thus we may get a glimpse of what a truly great-souled man like Albert Schweitzer might experiences as his “soul,” or perhaps even get a glimpse of the soul of God as you intimate. You are very correct to look at this kind of connection as the very best path towards self-realization.

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