Unconditional Love

Horned Heart
Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

For Valentine’s Day, Barbara Andrew and I were going to hold a debate at William Paterson University on the existence of unconditional love. I was going to argue against its existence, but weather forced a campus closure.

So here is my argument. If you have plans for Valentine’s Day, you better read my argument before you execute them.

My argument will be scientific. I will not consider so-called divine love. Nor will I make the claim that it is logically impossible for there to be unconditional love. I will argue that on a straightforward analysis of love and and a scientific understanding of conditions, human beings are incapable of it.

What is love? We need to make remarks general enough to cover romantic love, familial love, etc.

In the most general sense of love as it applies to contexts in which x loves y, where x and y are both persons, x loves y insofar as x desires benefits for y and does not desire harms for y. For simplicity I will define benefits to include harm-avoidance.

What does it mean for love to be conditional?

X loves y unconditionally iff x desires benefits for y regardless of x perceiving any benefits for x.

x loves y conditionally iff x’s desire of benefits for y depends on x perceiving benefits for x.

An example of conditional love would be if Sally let Jim live in her home, but kicked him out when she discovered that Jim had been stealing from her. An example of unconditional love would be if Sally let Jim live with her even after Jim was caught stealing from her, was later discovered to have killed Sally’s puppy, and even later was discovered to have raped and tortured Sally’s mother.

Now that the crucial terms have been clarified, here is the crux of my argument:

There is no human being that desires benefits for another human regardless of benefits to themselves. Keep in mind that the avoidance of harm is a benefit. For each person who loves another person, there is a finite threshold of harm beyond which they cannot tolerate to continue their love. The threshold may be higher for some than for others. For some it may be cheating while for others it will be torture. But being finite creatures, humans have only a finite capacity to put up with crap.

In summary: Send flowers.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

5 Responses to “Unconditional Love”

  1. Tad Zawidzki says:

    I think I’d probably tolerate a lot of that from my kids. (Of course my motivations are products of selfish genes concerned about inclusive fitness).

    What about this? Your spouse is paralyzed, gets leprosy, etc. They want to keep living. They’re nothing but a burden. Do you turn them out? If you really love them, you won’t, even though there’s nothing but misery in it for you.

    Here’s how I understand love. It’s the price you pay for all the nice things we get out of the practice of committing ourselves. If you get going when the going gets tough, then you’re not committed, and you don’t get all the nice taking for granted of reliability, trust, guilelessness, etc., that comes from commitment. So it’s (usually) worth committing oneself. But, in order for it to work, you incur the risk of occasions when you lose. And you have to accept that. But commitment, it seems to me, implies unconditionality.

    On the other hand, maybe our love-practices recognize extreme circumstances where you are released from commitment without losing your status as a competent committer, just as law recognizes extreme cases where you’re not bound by contracts.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tad,

    I would tolerate leprosy and paralysis, but this would only show that some lack of self-benefit would be tolerated. It remains to be shown that all would be tolerated.

    Perhaps you meant to suggest that what matters is not so much what would be tolerated but what should be tolerated.

    As you suggest toward the end, if you look to our practices of socially endorsed commitments and socially endorsed releases from commitments, there isn’t an expectation of infinite tolerance. So not only is it true that I wouldn’t tolerate crimes against me, it is also true that I shouldn’t.

  3. roger says:

    Hmm. I’m not sure why this is an example of conditional love: “An example of conditional love would be if Sally let Jim live in her home, but kicked him out when she discovered that Jim had been stealing from her.” If you have a very narrow sense of harms and benefits, than it might be. But I would imagine that love has to do with an idea that there is a better nature to a person and a worse one. In fact, I’d bet if you talk to most cases of people who have been on the receiving end of abuse in a relationship and who have still stayed in the relationship, they would talk of the abuser as having performed the abuse while being in a worse state. They might even say that the worse state isn’t the real X.

    Now if this is true, it complicates your simple notion of what love is. Since it would seem to be a precondition that one knows what a benefit and what a harm is. But a benefit in one instance - say, Sally letting her stealing lover stay at her house - could be viewed, by Sally, as an act of enabling. By kicking the lover out, Sally might think that she was giving him the benefit of Pavlovian tough love - do something bad, you get punished.

    This leads, of course, to a further complication - if love involves a judgment of character, then it probably has to be more than wishing to benefit a person. Why? Because wishing to benefit a person to gain a benefit - a straightforward exchange - is simply a judgment about gain and loss. If I hire x who makes me y profit, and then stops making me y profit, I can fire him or not, simply based on addition or subtraction. If I make a further judgment about his character, that judgment is separate from my judgment about benefits. But if I am in love with x, judgment about character and about benefit is much more entangled, so that it is hard to see where they are separable. In other words, if the measures of benefit are so subjective that they can’t really be predicted, then I am not sure if there is really an overlap between the exchange model of benefit and the love model of benefit, except vacuously, in so far as any action could be considered of benefit to the performer.

  4. Adam Kolber says:


    You said, “An example of conditional love would be if Sally let Jim live in her home, but kicked him out when she discovered that Jim had been stealing from her.” Of course, the issue isn’t whether one cohabitates unconditionally but whether one loves unconditionally. Lots of people will continue loving others even after they can no longer tolerate living with them. (Of course, you may be right that love is conditional just as voluntary cohabitation is conditional but I think the distinction is a significant one.)

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Adam,
    Thank you for your remark.
    I think your point about the distinction between cohabitation and love is correct. I didn’t want to give the impression that I thought it was logically necessary that one lives with the loved and kicks out the unloved. I do think, however, that if one stops desiring benefits for another person, it is logically necessary that one has stopped loving them.