Featured Research: A Duty to Love

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A Duty to Love

Lotte Spreeuwenberg, visiting PhD student from the University of Antwerp

Love and morality stand in an interesting relationship. Most of us will be confronted with moral questions in their private lives, more particularly regarding our conduct towards the people we love. On a daily basis we make moral choices in the way we react to our friends’ needs, our lover’s expectations, our parents’ wishes. Yet in contemporary moral philosophy there seems to be a tendency to suppose that love falls outside the moral domain, and is governed by its own rules. Many philosophers hold that moral evaluations of love (as a motive or as an attitude) are misplaced.

This project starts from the hypothesis that morality does have a bearing on love. While my supervisor Katrien Schaubroeck is particularly interested in familial love (“(How) Ought parents and children to love each other?”) the focus of my research has shifted more towards a duty to love all other people, a kind of brotherly love, or perhaps what the Greeks call agape.

A quest for what this kind of love could be (or could mean for our moral lives) has led me to the works of Iris Murdoch. Murdoch’s general metaphysical background to morals is situated in the Platonic tradition and so is focused on an attitude of looking and attending to what is outside one. She views our inability to see other people correctly as an obstruction to us to being good: “in the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego”, she argues. Love calls for our ego to put aside many of our own desires and to be responsible to an independent reality in a way that makes us both emotionally vulnerable and open to a kind of enlightenment. In loving others we redirect our attention outside ourselves and this, in itself, is a moral activity.

Challenging questions for the project now seem to be: how can Murdoch’s ideas be explained, refined and made tangible? Can her view of what love and morality is be translated to virtues or duties, and if so, how? Can we make sense of a broader conception of duties, and so, a duty to love? How would such a duty to love relate to care ethics or feminist ethics?

Linked to this project, I am also interested in the relation between love and identity and the ethics of technology or bio-ethics. My paper on the debate whether to use biomedical enhancements to induce love can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1111/japp.12305.

I find it very important to translate my academic research into philosophy for a broader audience. You can find some popularizing philosophy blogs about love, ethics, sex and admiration on the Philottesophy blog - whether a blog is in English or Dutch depends on where it was published. Should you happen to understand Dutch, I am incredibly enthusiastic about our popular philosophy podcast: Kluwen, produced with colleague and friend Martha Claeys.