Love, Sympathy, and Value

The September 13 episode of the Philosopher’s Zone podcast really struck a chord with me. I spent most of the episode mumbling non-verbal cues of non-committal acquiescence, but by the end I was slapping the steering wheel, saying, “that’s fucking beautiful” with tears welling up in my eyes. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The key, to violate the plot line and jump to the climax, is to recognize the sympathetic and value-conscious aspects of love. Adam Smith came close when he recognized the sympathetic nature of human intelligence, and some Stoics seem to have believed in our natural capacity to appropriate others into our sense of self-consciousness (oikeiosis), but neither party, so far as I know, combined the notions of sympathy and value-consciousness as does Australian philosopher Jeanette Kennett:

What I saw so vividly in the most general sense was my son as a valuer.

Her trembling voice, no doubt, may have influenced my reaction, but this thinking has a deep appeal to me. It is not enough to sympathize with the joy and pain of others (please read Smith before you correct me with the word “empathize”). That is fine, but I believe the word “love” means something more, and the idea that we directly experience—or “see vividly”—the subjective value-consciousness of others is about as close as I’ve heard an idea get.

Thank you for listening, that was very brave of you. People have to learn that underlying business, the message of everything is love. Which is why society sticks together. You and I have love. —Jonathan, in Tell me I’m Here by Anne Deveson

If I’m selling Adam Smith or the Stoics short here, please let me have it. I would be happy to give them their due.

Because I believe love to be an innate inclination, I cannot use this line of reasoning to endorse Christian love, because Christian love is founded on a narrative of divine love. The dominant idea taught by the Christ-myth is that God loves us, therefore we ought to love one another. This sounds nice, but I believe that it undermines one aspect of love that I value most: its innate character. I would rather associate with the Stoics, who likely wielded a great influence upon Christianity, and came very close to speaking what I feel to be the truth.

Still, it seems to me that all classical western models miss an critical ingredient: value. Perhaps they left it out because they took value for granted. Perhaps it went without saying, but I believe that, in this age, it needs to be said. Plato came close in his near-deification of Beauty, but he didn’t develop that theme enough to convince me that he acknowledged the fundamental importance of value. I know that sounds rather circular: of course value is important! But I don’t mean to say that our sense of value is tied to what we find important; rather, I believe that our very existence is value-laden.

In looking for a classical symbol of this point of view, if not a philosopher or a kindred spirit, I cannot think of a better example than Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) for his essential intuition of a value-laden world, though the insights of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis and Smith’s theory of moral sentiments are crucial. … And let’s not forget Kennett!

PS: At the risk of sounding elitist, I’m not sure that I would have ever appreciated such discussions on love had I not become a parent.