Is Love a Virtue?

Is Love a Virtue

Virtue theories are the only strand of modern ethical thinking that makes much sense in light of cognitive science. Utilitarian calculus becomes a funhouse of infinite regress in a world where experience changes both who we are and what we value. It didn’t take cognitive science to cast doubt on Kant’s strange metaphysics of freedom and decision-making, but even the more modern Kantian assumption of a shared rational faculty that can provide a universal perspective seems fanciful. How could we, whose brains are shaped by evolution, divergent genetics, and fundamentally different experiences have such a shared capability? Where would it come from? How could it resist the remorseless learning that shapes almost aspect of our intelligence?

Virtue theories, on the other hand, have always assumed that ethics is a matter of dispositional training. Children are not born just, humble or courageous. They must learn to be these things, and they learn them, as we would expect from cognitive science, by doing them. Cognitive structures are built in our minds by experience and feedback. Our brains do not come laden with very much pre-built capability, but they do have a remarkable capacity for learning. When we learn, we change the structures in our brain and the vast majority of our learning in any field is by doing. In fact, it would be surprising if it were not possible to build dispositive structures in the brain tending to drive reactions that capture what we mean by various virtues. Virtue theories aren’t just plausible within modern cognitive science, they are almost inevitable.

Which brings me to A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues by Andre Comte-Sponville. As you’d expect from the title, it’s very much in the virtue tradition, and it’s an interesting blend of modern analytic philosophy and broader post-Christian spiritual aims. I’m not that interested or attracted to any form of spiritualism, but there are aspects of A Small Treatise that I found quite appealing.

First, Comte-Sponville doesn’t make the mistake of collapsing the virtues into a unitary whole (see my review of Annas’ Intelligent Virtue for why this is a bad idea). In the Small Treatise, he covers eighteen different virtues! In order: Politeness, Fidelity, Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Generosity, Compassion, Mercy, Gratitude, Humility, Simplicity, Tolerance, Purity, Gentleness, Good Faith, Humor and Love. Nor does he ever suggest the list is exhaustive.

The second thing I liked (and that surprised me) about Small Treatise is its clear, careful, sometimes analytic exposition and its muscular language. I’ll confess to a bit of continental stereotyping here by saying that I expect European philosophers to strive for obscurity not clarity and to write as if they are navigating a Channel fog of words. There’s none of that here. There are a sprinkling of times when he gets carried away with the language, but it is in the pursuit of poetry not obscurity.

Let me give you a sample of Small Treatise from the section on Fidelity that I think captures some of the unique strengths of the book:

If we want to grasp the essence of marital or conjugal fidelity, we need to understand what makes a couple a couple. Mere sexual commerce, even if repeated, is obviously not sufficient…A couple, as I understand the term, presupposes both love and duration, and therefore fidelity, since love can last only if passion — usually too short-lived to make a couple but just long-lasting enough to unmake one — is made to last, too, by dint of memory and will. That’s what marriage means, and what divorce interrupts. Though not necessarily. A friend of mine, a remarried divorcee, told me that in a certain sense she was still faithful to her first husband. “I mean to our life together, to our history, our love. I don’t want to disown all that.” No couple, clearly, could ever last without this kind of faithfulness of each of the partners to their shared history, without that mixture of trust and gratitude that renders happy couples — there are a few — so moving as they grow older, more moving than new lovers, whose love is still something of a dream. To me, this kind of fidelity seems more precious than the other kind, and more essential to the couple. That love will subside or decline is always the likelier course of events, and it is useless to grieve over it. But whether a couple separates or continues to live together, they will remain a couple only through this fidelity to love received and given, to love shared, to the deliberate and grateful memory of that love.

That’s a very fine passage and it’s fully representative of the book. It reflects a consistently mature, humanist vision that is both aspirational and forgiving. Comte-Sponville may be something of a Neoplatonist, but he is an astute and sympathetic observer of people as they are. Note the careful delineation of what it means to be a couple, the recognition of how likely it is for love to subside or decline, and the way fidelity is first positioned and then exalted within that definition and reality.

Because I think the book is so fruitful, I hope to write a second essay on it, dealing specifically with some of my favorite virtue descriptions and reflections on them. That being said, there are two things I wish Comte-Sponville had addressed in the Small Treatise and one core idea in it that I think is wrong.

A Formal Understanding of a Virtue

Though he enumerates 18 virtues, Comte-Sponville never provides a careful, formal definition of what constitutes a virtue. It seems clear given his list (Politeness!) that he’s open to a wide range of cognitive dispositions as virtues though he does make clear that he believes a virtue must have a moral dimension. On the other hand, that lack of definition makes it hard to evaluate the exact set of eighteen provided. Are they the “Great Virtues?” Why? And are there other great virtues?

In general, I’m not keen on tying virtues to our folk intuitions of morality or to any specific moral system. In fact, I prefer to think of virtue ethics as a complete ethical system and a replacement for morality not as an educational subset of it. The problem with requiring a moral dimension for virtues is two-fold. First, you have to pick a moral system that will underwrite the virtues. Then you must explain why people should be interested in virtues instead of just following the moral system. It is certainly possible to explain Politeness, for example, in utilitarian or Kantian terms. But if you do that, why not just be a utilitarian or a Kantian? That way you’ll be polite whenever it’s appropriate to be polite and more when it’s appropriate to be more. Nor does an external moral system add anything essential to a virtue theory.

Think about it this way: suppose I were to say of some person that they strove for and exhibited all 18 of Comte-Sponville’s virtues. They are polite, loving, faithful, courageous, prudent, pure, gentle, humorous, merciful, etc. etc. But, I add, I don’t think much of them because they aren’t moral. What would you make of this statement? Is it plausible? What is this utterly amazing person missing? And if they aren’t missing anything, what do we get from a moral theory that we don’t get from a virtue ethics?[1]

Instead of assuming that moral theories underwrite some form of virtue ethics, I prefer to think of virtue theory as a subset of transformational experience and rational decision-making. We have two kinds of decisions to make in life, and neither is a moral decision. The first kind of decision is a straightforward economic one. We all do a lot of preference satisfaction decision-making. And that’s okay. We have things we like, and we do them. The second kind of decision comes from the nature of transformative experience. When we do things, the experience changes us. When the experience is big and important, it can fundamentally change who we are, how we think, and what we value. Since those decisions change what we value, we can’t make them based on preference satisfaction. We literally do not know how our values will change so there is nothing to optimize against. That means we make big life decisions differently than economic decisions. And we make those decisions, in my view, by deciding what kind of person we’d like to be.

I take that “what kind of person we’d like to be” question in its broadest sense. It encompasses what sort of career we’d like to have, what sort of things we’d like to do, what kind of skills we’d want, and what sort of person we’d wish to be. The first two questions deal with externals. The last two with things internal to ourselves. And for those last two, I take it that the only plausible way to understand them is as cognitive structures. A skill is a cognitive structure in the brain acquired through study, experience and feedback. It’s an ability to do something thing we value in repeatable fashion. Similarly, when we ask ourselves what kind of person we’d like to be, presumably what we mean is what kind of fixed dispositions we would like to have. But a fixed disposition of this sort is not cognitively different than a skill. It’s some form of cognitive structure in the brain acquired through study, experience and feedback.

In fact, the only difference between a skill and virtue is that a skill is function specific and a virtue is a free-floating disposition applicable to many situations. In both cases, though, they are cognitive dispositions that we value (sometimes because of the life we want to live and the things we want to do, always because we directly value the disposition itself).

Why do we value these dispositions? That’s a complex question, which I’ll answer (unsatisfactorily) in a Smithean/Humean fashion. We don’t value them because of some external moral quality. There’s no reason to believe such qualities exist. We don’t value them on rational grounds. Rationality provides no grounds for value judgements. We value them because we think they are necessary to the life we want to lead, or we admire them in people we know or learn about.

Given this cognitively-based definition of a virtue, most, but not all, of Comte-Sponville’s Great Virtues still qualify as virtues. Given that his definition would be quite different, it’s no surprise that not everything would make the cut. But it would be nice to be able to compare the definitions instead of just the virtues they enumerate.

Pairing Virtues to Lives

I touched briefly above on the second missing piece in a Small Treatise when I noted that we choose virtues because we admire them in others AND because some are particularly appropriate to certain lives. I take it that while my 18-virtued person thought-experiment is meaningful in its context, no one person ever really exhibits all of Comte-Sponville’s Great Virtues. Indeed, on my definition of a virtue, no one person COULD exhibit every virtue because virtues are an open set not a fixed list. Either way, there is only so much room in our cognitive architecture and only so much time to learn in our unfortunately short lives. With our limitations, we cannot master every virtue, just as we cannot master every skill.

Nor is every virtue equally acquirable by every person. Some virtues collide with some inherited dispositional structures. Some virtues tend to collide with each other. I do not mean by this that they are actually incompatible. That might conceivably be the case, but I think it’s unlikely. Still, while it is perfectly possible to be courageous and gentle, for a certain sort of naturally gentle person, courage is harder than gentleness. And for a certain sort of naturally martial person, gentleness is harder than most other virtues.

Almost any person can probably acquire almost any virtue to at least some extent. But just as anyone can learn to play the piano, few of us can play like Chopin. Some people will be very good at developing and displaying some virtues. Others, not so much.

Finally, not every virtue is equally appropriate to every culture or every kind of life. And this, in some ways, is the most important point of all. A soldier has much need of courage and less of purity. Every culture rewards, values, and tests some virtues more than others. Nor is there a necessary relationship between these three things. Our culture does not necessarily reward temperance or simplicity, but they are extremely valuable in resisting the worst aspects of our society.

These factors are deeply entwined in ways that are hard to separate. We may choose a life because it rewards or favors virtues that we admire or perhaps that fit our natural dispositions especially well. We may choose to develop virtues that support either the kind of life we want to lead or that our culture values or requires most. We may choose or leave a micro-culture because we admire the virtues it rewards or because we lack the virtues it demands.

What virtues we desire or try to cultivate are, then, very much a part of our broader decision-making about transformative experience. The sort of life you want to lead will influence what kind of skills and virtues you desire. What skills and virtues you admire or tend toward will influence what kind of life you wish to lead. It cannot and should not be otherwise. Part of making good transformational choices is having an awareness of your natural dispositions as well as an understanding of the virtues most applicable to different lives and micro-cultures.

Except for a few places where a Small Treatise orders specific virtues in terms of their importance (Politeness < Justice < Love), any notion of which virtues to strive for or why you might have to make such a decision is missing. Since so much of the Small Treatise is just a careful description of virtues, that’s not necessarily a mistake. It may simply be a choice. But virtue selection and the relationship of virtues to lives is so important and misunderstood that I see it as a missing piece in the book.

Love as a Virtue

One of the most intriguing and I think controversial aspects of the Small Treatise is the inclusion, role and position of love as a virtue. Most of the virtues, according to Comte-Sponville, are substitutes for love. If we could love appropriately, we wouldn’t need virtues. Since we cannot, we do.

This seems, at least sometimes, almost undeniable. We do not need politeness with those we love. Or generosity. Or compassion. Or mercy. Love removes the need for those virtues by giving us a motivational structure that resolves any conflicts with our own preferences. A parent buying a special gift for a child is not being generous. Their child’s pleasure is their own, and surely the same is true for a lover. Indeed, to be polite with those you love is almost a rebuke. But not every virtue has this same relationship to love. Does prudence? Courage? Humor? Nor could this relationship hold up using my much broader, cognitive definition of a virtue. Perhaps this relationship to love could be used to create two classes of virtues or even a kind of moral system — I’m not convinced of that, but I see how it might be persuasive.

Regardless, it’s worth taking a look at how love is developed in the Small Treatise because it’s some of the finest thinking and writing in the book.

The Small Treatise carves out a very broad field for love:

“Love may have its roots in sexuality, as Freud thought and I fully believe, but it cannot be reduced to sexuality; in any case, it goes far beyond our erotic pleasures, great and small. Our lives — private and public, domestic and professional — have value only in proportion to the love we invest in them and find in them. How could we be selfish or self-centered, if we did not love ourselves? Why would we work, unless we loved money, comfort or our work? Why would we study philosophy, unless we loved wisdom? And if I did not love philosophy, why all these books? Why this one, unless I loved the virtues? And why, dear reader, would you be reading it unless you shared one of these loves?”


“The same applies, of course, to our moral and ethical lives. Let me repeat, we need morality only for want of love, which is why we need it so! Love commands, but we do not love; and so, love commands in the absence of love, commands by its very absence. Duty expresses and reveals this truth: it obliges us to do that which we would do simply out of love, if in fact we loved.”

This way of describing love puts it rather beyond our folk concepts and perhaps should engender a bit of skepticism. No doubt Comte-Sponville loves philosophy, but does every reader of his books? We all work, but do most of us love money, comfort or our work? I rather suspect not. For better or worse, we do a great many things in our life without love. And, it seems to me, there is something of a contradiction here. If virtues are our substitute for our inability to love, then what does it say about the virtues if our lives only have value in proportion to the love we invest in them? If that is so, what is the point of virtue?

Comte-Sponville makes clear that he isn’t working within the narrow folk concept of romantic or parental love; the Small Treatise provides three complementary definitions of love (all very traditional): eros, philia and agape. Comte-Sponville uses The Symposium’s two great concluding speeches to set the table for the discussion of eros: Aristophanes’ allegory of love as a desperate search for our missing wholeness, and Socrates’ description of love as a lack that may trigger a journey for transcendence. Aristophanes’ tale is a “one true love” theory that brilliantly captures so much of the experience of and desire for romantic love. Most of all, it captures the sense all normal people have of being radically incomplete and alone. We understand so little of each other, we desire so much to understand and be understood. Yet this kind of love, as Socrates then proceeds to point out, is distinguished more by its wanting than its having. Socrates suggests that eros, as such, is more pain than pleasure, more bad than good. Yet eros can be the driver of a deepening search for wisdom and truth.

Comte-Sponville isn’t satisfied with the Platonic answer in two respects. First, he doubts whether a faith in Platonic or Christian transcendence is much of a possibility for us. Even more salient, he doubts whether this account captures our real experience of love. ‘

This brings us to philia, his second development of love. We are not always, suggests the Small Treatise, a prisoner of want.

“When someone is out for a stroll, what is it he desires if not to stroll, if not the very steps he takes at the very instant he takes them?”


“What on earth do a man and woman who love and desire each other lack when they are making love? Each other? No, they are already there for each other, entirely available…”

Philia, then, is a love of having not of wanting, of joy not of pain. This gives Comte-Sponville a very broad definition of love.

“Just as there are different desires for different objects, so too, if love is desire, there should be different loves for different objects of our love. Such is indeed the case: one can love wine or music, a woman or a country, one’s children or one’s work, God or power. What all these different loves have in common, and what justifies the use of the same word for all of them, is the pleasure, as Stendhal would say, or the joy, as Spinoza would say, that the various objects of our love give us or give rise to within us…to love is to be able to derive pleasure or joy from something.”

I do find (as Comte-Sponville hints many people may) this definition to be too broad. But it does get at how we might come to think of love as a virtue. For there is no denying that people vary greatly in their capacity to derive joy or pleasure from things — and we usually admire those most able to do it broadly or deeply.

Even here, however, it is too much to ask of this definition of love that it underwrite all the virtues. Even in its broadest terms, the ability to find joy is only one kind of human excellence. We admire those who can endure, and while that ability may sometimes be aided by an ability to find joy, it is often simply an ability to carry on even without that joy. We admire courage on the battlefield or off, yet it is hard to see how it might be related to joy.

How many great artists have committed suicide? That’s hardly evidence of their ability to find joy even as they evinced an otherworldly ability to create it. I refuse to acquiesce to the relentless philosophical tendency toward reduction. Few things are as powerful or beautiful as love and there are few excellences better than an ability to find joy. But that does not make love the driver of everything nor an ability to find joy our only excellence.

But there is yet a third version of love in the Small Treatise: agape. This is the nearly impossible love, the Christian demand to love one’s enemies, the love that is equal for all and not directed to the lover or the friend. Comte-Sponville is at least somewhat skeptical that this love is possible or extant:

“This selfless love can seem mysterious, even of dubious existence. Can one actually love one’s neighbor as oneself? Probably not. But the injunction to do so points us in a certain direction, toward love. And if in friendship love lies in the direction of life, joy and the realization of our capacities, charity enjoins us to proceed in precisely the opposite direction, as though one had to renounce oneself in order to allow the other to exist.”

It is with agape that Comte-Sponville closes the loop on virtues and morality and it is in this type of love, that one can see why he suggests that virtues must have a moral dimension and that love is ultimately, not just the driver of virtue, but the thing for which virtues are only a shadow — a make piece sort of replacement.

“Love is first, which is not to say it precedes being…rather, it precedes all value: what is valuable is what we love. No doubt it is in this respect that love is the supreme value, the alpha and omega of living, as I said, the starting point and destination of all our judgements.”

It’s a beautiful and elegant formulation, yet it extends beyond a view I would accept. I have never experienced this abstract love in anyone, and I can’t say I’ve ever felt it. Nor is it obvious to me that it’s something I’d want. Do I admire it? I suppose I might, but not uniquely and certainly not above many other virtues. If agape is what we see in Mother Teresa, is Mother Teresa what we wish people to be? Is it shocking to suggest that a world of Mother Teresa’s is not what we’d most value?

Let me put it a different way. Perhaps to love people is not necessarily to love your neighbor or your enemy. To love that dense, arrogant moron on X. Or that vain, shallow reflection of a self, taking a picture. Most of us, in fact, are not that lovable. It is a gift when someone condescends to love us, and it is a gift that is most valuable when rarely given.

To love people (not a person) may, instead, be to love the many excellences that people do sometimes develop. To love what people may be and occasionally are. To love the possibilities and the variety. To love the differences and the exceptions. Perhaps to love people — to be what I call a humanist — may indeed create the kind of charity that a great novelist often exhibits to their characters: the ability to find the interesting and the sympathetic. Yet that humanist love is not, I think, Christian in form or nature. It is not selfless. It is not extended to others simply by being human. The great novelist may find in people excellences that we have missed, but they do not invent excellences that do not exist. Their “love” must still be earned even if their eye is keen and their mind sympathetic.

To manifest a virtue is to provide others with a reason to love. Selfless love, love unconstrained by preference or reason, is, in that way, a rejection of virtues. It suggests that we could or should love people without reason. But if that is so, what would be the point of virtues?

[1] I’m aware that this is cheating a little bit since several of Comte-Sponville’s 18 virtues seem closer to morals than virtues even on careful explication. Yet even with a less moralistic set of virtues, I think the point holds. If a person truly captures every virtue we can enumerate, they will always be moral in whatever sense we take that to mean unless we think that a moral person isn’t virtuous when acting morally — and that seems hard to accept.

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