The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Love Someone No Matter What?

(Editor’s Note: Joan is no longer taking questions. Please submit your humanist dilemmas to What Would a Humanist Do?,

Unconditional Love: Some time ago, you ran a question from a woman who felt if her husband really loved her, he should be willing to reconsider their agreement not to have children. This got me thinking about unconditional love, how far it can stretch, and whether it really exists at all. I’m also wondering if it really is as wonderful as everyone seems to think it is. Ethically, wouldn’t it be wrong to love someone unconditionally if they did horrible things? Like, should a parent love a kid who goes on a killing spree?

—My Love Has Conditions

Dear Conditions,

There is an enormous amount written on the subject of unconditional love by people more qualified than I, but here are my thoughts: unconditional love is a concept that, like altruism, may be approached but not really reached beyond a kind of Platonic ideal. In the case of altruism, if a person derives some kind of pleasure or satisfaction from selflessness, it’s not purely selflessness/altruism. Unconditional love is the idea of loving someone or something regardless of what that person or thing is or does or says. Probably the closest approximation is loving one’s offspring even before they’re conceived, and despite whatever qualities they may exhibit once they’re born, as many parents do. Similarly, most babies love their parents despite their faults and foibles, at least for a little while. But these relationships are more or less an extension of self-love—our children and our parents are part of us, so we love them no matter what (until we don’t). I would not blame parents for still loving a mass-murderer child—nor would I fault them for being unable to love them. I don’t think we can entirely control emotions to match what we think we are supposed to feel.

When it comes to most other relationships, we fall in love with certain qualities in the other person (which means we love them conditionally), and are apt to fall out of love if those qualities change, or if we change what qualities we value. So, a man who loves a woman in part because she shares his decision not to have children is likely to struggle if she changes that, unless he does too. People who fall in love because of a person’s looks or athletic prowess or dance moves may find their love fading when the beauty or skills start to fade. And if we love people because they seem good, kind, fair, and honest, and then we realize that they are cruel and deceitful, we’re not being inconstant if we withdraw our affections.

The desire to earn love—from parents, partners, associates—is a powerful motivator. It makes us want to do well in school and work, to be respected, to be pleasant, entertaining, helpful, and competent. Without the promise of gaining love or the threat of losing it, we might be more inclined to slack off or to act badly. And many terrible things are allowed to persist because it takes a while for people to realize things they used to love have become terrible, no matter how long we thought they were fine. We humans have the ability to be critical and judgmental. That’s a good thing, if used appropriately.

So, while it’s nice to feel you love someone unconditionally, or that someone loves you unconditionally, I think it’s really a fantasy. Those who believe they love unconditionally have simply resolved to profess love no matter what, and convince themselves that’s what they feel. It’s less romantic, but far more realistic and productive, to recognize love as a response to certain conditions, which can be rewarded or withdrawn as things evolve.