Wednesday, August 15, 2018

To Will the Good of the Other? Rethinking Love

"To love is to will the good of the other."

For years now, I have heard the above formula offered as the correct definition of love. In my experience, it has become more or less the standard definition in the Catholic world––I hear it from the pulpit, in the classroom, and in all kinds of Catholic Media. And this popularity is not without reason––one can find the definition in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas (CCC 1766). When I first encountered this definition of love I was not interested in the Christian faith at all, and in fact quite skeptical about the Church's teachings regarding human love, relationships, and sexuality. Having this mindset, I immediately perceived the glaring contrast between what the Church taught about love and what society embraced and promoted. This contrast struck me in a positive way, for the Catholic understanding of love seemed much richer, more beautiful, and more desirable. Having been left disappointed and empty by the world’s take on love, I was open to the Catholic vision. The curiosity ignited at that time has grown steadily ever since. I find it unfortunate and even strange that, despite the fact that love is clearly the most motivating and powerful force in human history, relatively few people today are actually willing to think critically about what love is. Perhaps this fact is itself a sign that we have embraced the idea that love is an emotion or feeling, and therefore something only to be felt or experienced rather than analyzed or philosophized about. As the existence of this post indicates, I disagree.

Love as an Emotion

The prevailing understanding of love today is indeed that it is an emotion or feeling. Many people are quick to qualify it as the most noble, powerful, or important of human emotions. And yet, however wonderful and important, love is still an emotion, that is, something that happens to a person rather than something one chooses. This is reflected in expressions such as “falling in love”. The consequences of a society adopting this definition of love-as-emotion are easily observable today:  The promotion of contraception and "casual" sex partners, the epidemic of pornography addiction, the breakdown of the institution and definition of marriage, the decay of family life, and the millennial generation's near total fear of commitment. All of these phenomena can be traced back, more or less directly, to an understanding of love as an emotion. Because of course, if love is primarily or even exclusively something that one feels, then it only makes sense to seek out whatever relationship or activity produces the feeling, and to pursue other options when the feeling stops. Likewise, when two people stop loving each other, no one can judge it to be either person's fault when infidelity occurs, because “people change” and the “love runs out”. Many other examples could be offered. The point is, given all this turmoil in the realm of human relationships, it makes perfect sense that those seeking to correct the prevailing definition of love-as-emotion would do so by focusing instead on the will. Unlike an emotion, which is mostly beyond one’s conscious control, a willed decision or action is completely conscious. Hence, we have the definition: “To love is to will the good of the other.” However, while this definition is very effective at correcting certain common errors, I believe it is a kind of over-correction that can lead to different errors. Let me explain.

The Theological Problem

I first sensed a problem with this definition in my own spiritual life a few years ago. At the time, I had fully embraced the idea that “To love is to will the good of the other,” because it made sense to me. The problem arose when I tried to apply this notion of love to my love for God. After all, I reasoned, surely a valid definition of love must apply to one's love for God, as this is our most important relationship of all. However, I realized that my love for God couldn't possibly be understood as me willing the good of the other, when the "Other" in this case was God Himself. How can one "will the good" of Goodness Himself? How can one do anything to improve the circumstances of the unchangeable One? It is impossible. The normal response to this difficulty is to say that one wills the good of God by glorifying Him. However, this doesn't actually resolve the problem, but dodges it by using a different term to describe what remains a contradictory concept. This is not to say that we cannot glorify God by our lives. However, if God's had a “good” that consisted in the glory he received from human beings, then to increase the glory of God would still be to increase His good., which is impossible. Therefore, to love God cannot mean to will His good––it must consist in something else.

“Willing the Good” in Human Relationships

Along with the theological problem of our love for God, there is also an issue with this definition of love as it applies to human relationships. The issue is that, by making the will the exclusive defining element of love, one fails to account for the reality experienced in human relationships. For if the measure of one’s love is the engagement of one’s will, then it logically follows that the more difficult it is to love someone––in terms of the will-power required––the greater one’s love is for that person. Of course, we all rightly recognize that authentic love must be capable of enduring intense trials and obstacles, and that these circumstances do in some sense serve as a kind of "litmus test" or evaluation of the quality and strength of one's love. St. Paul speaks beautifully of this in the famous passage from his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:4-13, “Love is patient, love is kind…”). This “endurance” quality of love is also acknowledged in traditional wedding vows, when each person promises to love the other "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part." Without a doubt, we must also admit that times of challenge and suffering, if embraced by both persons in love and hope, serve as a kind of forge that strengthens the love in the relationship. However, while every married person can attest to these truths from experience, we do not therefore want to say that the measure of love consists in the difficulty of loving. If this were the case, then the most tumultuous relationships would be the gold standard for love rather than the happiest and healthiest ones. For example, the love in a marriage that barely survived after affairs and every other kind of transgression and tragedy would by that very fact have to be considered stronger than the love found in a marriage with relatively few problems. Likewise, we would have to say that couples of incompatible people, who surely have to exert more willpower than their more compatible counterparts, must therefore love each other more.

The “Ease” of Love

While endurance through trials is an essential mark of true love, we surely don't want to say that love must be extremely difficult in order to be authentic or strong. The reality is exactly the opposite. As one loves another person more and more, it becomes easier to love him or her, not harder. Two people who have been close friends for many years do not find it more difficult to love each other (unless some extreme tragedy befalls their relationship). Love tends to become more second-nature or instinctive as it grows, and the more one loves, the less one counts the cost and sacrifice of loving. If to love someone meant simply “to will his or her good,” then to do anything whatsoever for a person whom one despised would be much more praiseworthy and meritorious than a greater act of love made for a friend or loved one. Put differently, if one “loves to love” someone or finds it relatively easy to make sacrifices for that person, then by that very fact the love would have to be considered a lesser love. But who actually thinks about love this way in practice? It's absurd! This is the same problem that plagues the ethical theory of Immanuel Kant, which is focused completely on the will. For Kant, one’s moral merit decreases as one becomes more habituated to act morally (i.e. more virtuous). Surely this completely misses the meaning and beauty of morality­­––to become and to act as a moral person–––not simply to properly exercise one’s willpower to the maximum extent possible.

The Contribution of Dietrich von Hildebrand

Recognizing these problems, the great 20th century Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand developed a more refined understanding of love. He went beyond defining love as “willing the good of the other” and taught that love is “a free response to the value of the other.” For Hildebrand, love is not simply an act of the will, that is, a completely disinterested, rational, and free choice to love someone just because to do so would serve his or her good. Love is instead the recognition of the objective value of a person, and the free response of the will to act in a way that conforms to this value. When one perceives the intrinsic and unique beauty, preciousness, and lovability of another person, one is moved or motivated to freely respond to this reality in love and reverence. This definition of love conforms more closely to human experience and avoids the problems that arise from defining love as simply “to will the good of the other.” Indeed, the latter definition begs the question: Why? Why should I will the good of the other? Hildebrand's definition of love, by contrast, contains within it the motivation or reason for loving. Love is a value response––this response is desirable and even obligatory because the beloved is recognized as objectively valuable and therefore objectively worthy of one's love.

Loving God as the Correct Response to Reality

This definition is particularly effective at resolving the theological question concerning love of God. If God is the Highest Good or Value, as well as the source of all other goodness and value, then He is most worthy of our response. His infinite beauty, goodness, truth, justice, etc. deserve a total response of love. It is a fundamental question of justice. There is a kind of cosmic law, an absolute rationale underlying every other explanation or reason for doing anything. This law is to live in conformity to reality, to live in the truth, to respond or act towards things in a way that corresponds to their objective value and importance. If we choose to live in conformity with reality, we will acknowledge God as the source of everything, including ourselves, and therefore as worthy of our absolute response, the dedication of our entire lives. This should be reflected, among other things, in the way we worship Him.

The Motivation for Love

Hildebrand’s definition of love also resolves the question of motivation in love. What motivates someone to love another person? The most popular answer is perhaps that loving others makes one happier, at least in the long run. While this is certainly true, it cannot be the primary motivation for love. If one loves another person in order to obtain happiness for oneself, then that person has become a means to an end. While this may be a more “noble” form of use, it is use all the same. To love someone necessarily means that one sees that person not as a means but as an end in him or herself. This is why one of my favorite quotes from Hildebrand’s work is: “Happiness is love’s outcome, never its motive.” If you love someone for who he or she is, then yes, you will undoubtedly be happier as a result. It’s a basic fact of human nature––we are built to love, we thrive on loving, and we deeply desire to give pour ourselves out in love, despite the fact that, from a biological or evolutionary standpoint, to do so often makes no sense. As soon as I treat another person as the means to my happiness, I immediately stop loving and begin using him or her. The happiness that is the fruit of love is only achieved when one does not treat love as a means to happiness. In real love we must forget ourselves in self-gift, and this is what makes us happy, almost paradoxically. As soon as one’s own happiness becomes the primary motivation for loving, authentic love becomes impossible and its resulting happiness unattainable. This must have been (at least in part) what Jesus meant when he said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35), and “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). This mystery is what Saint John Paul II referred to as “the law of the gift”. He loved to quote a passage from the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes, which states that “man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS 24). A “sincere gift of self” implies that one is not seeking one’s own happiness, even though, because of the way God created us, to sincerely give of oneself will lead inevitably to one’s happiness.

Love and the Desire for Reciprocity

There is one final difficulty that must be resolved. The definition of love as “willing the good of the other” often leads to the erroneous idea that true or pure love excludes the desire that one be loved in return. In other words, the desire for reciprocity in love is a form of selfishness, an imperfection. That this idea is false may seem obvious to some people, since it is so clearly out of touch with human experience. This bizarre ideal of love demands that the person who loves be indifferent to whether or not the beloved person responds in love. The reason for this error is the failure to distinguish between love of neighbor and love of enemies on the one hand, and the love of family, friendship, and romance on the other. Our awareness of the tremendous value of every human being, including the poorest, most destitute, and most difficult to love, as well as our Lord’s command to love his “least brothers” (Mt 25:40,45), does indeed obligate us to love such people regardless of whether or not they love us in return. Further, our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount and modeled perfectly in his own death, we are called as his disciples to love even our enemies. This being said, the love that our Lord commands us to extend to the poor and our enemies is categorically different from the love that should exist between family members, friends, and lovers. In these latter forms of love, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that one should simply love without desiring to be loved in return. On the contrary, such a "one-way" love should not be considered purer or stronger, but defective or disordered in some way. Imagine what a woman would think if her boyfriend of several years, upon asking her to marry him, told her “I love you so much that I don’t even care if you love me back.” This would indicate not a pure or heroic love, but immaturity at best and a personality disorder at worst! The desire that love be reciprocated does not taint love but rather indicates that the lover longs for intimacy with the beloved. Intimacy can only be obtained by mutual love. This is why failing to distinguish between different types of love can lead one to pursue unhealthy and even inhuman ideals in relationships.


In summary, the definition of love as “to will the good of the other” can effectively correct many misunderstandings about love commonly found in popular culture, which regards love as an emotion or feeling. However, this definition of love is incomplete because it fails to capture the essence of what love is. First and most important, it cannot account for a person’s love of God, because to love God logically cannot consist in willing His good, since He is Goodness itself and the source of all goodness. Second, this definition also does not adequately describe love between human beings, because we know from experience that our love is not simply a willed decision to improve other people’s circumstances, or even an altruistic attempt to make them happier, but rather our free response to their objective value, which we first perceive and then act upon. Third, love defined as “willing the good of the other” fails to account for why human beings are motivated (or should be motivated) to love either God or each other, whereas love defined as “value-response” accounts for both of these relationships very well. Finally, love defined as “willing the good of the other”, especially without the distinction between various forms of love (i.e. love of enemy, neighbor, family, friend, spouse), leads to confused ideals of love, such as indifference towards reciprocity. These problems are more easily avoided when love is understood instead as a value-response. 

Careful reflection on the most important realities, such as love, can greatly enrich our lives here and now, especially our relationships with God and others, and thus help us on our journey towards our ultimate fulfillment and happiness in eternity. I hope this reflection has been helpful in some way to that purpose. Thank you for reading!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer

“Happiness is love’s outcome, never its motive. Where someone is loved he is an end in himself and certainly not a means toward something else. It is therefore of love’s essence, wherever it is found, that the loved one seem precious, beautiful, and worthy of love.”

–– Dietrich von Hildebrand, Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love: God's Plan for Love, Marriage, Intimacy, and the Family