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The obligations of love


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In this article, I elaborate the position that love is the emotion that makes a relation personal and that, despite being at the core a spontaneous matter, there is room for something called the obligations of love. The inspiration for this thesis is Marcel Mauss' ’Essay sur le don’, although at various points I deviate from his insights on the gift.

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The obligations of love

  1. 1. KULEUVEN: CENTRE FOR ECONOMICS AND ETHICSThe obligations of lovePersonal obligations in personal relations Aldo De Martelaere 1999
  2. 2. 2Introduction It has often been observed that the primary sphere in which gifts are being exchanged in amodern society is the sphere of personal relations, i.e. relations between members of a family,between friends, between lovers. These gifts have been studied by numerous sociologists,whose main concern is to analyze how gifts function1: what is the role they play in the creationand maintenance of personal relations? My concern in this paper is different. I will not examinehow gifts function in personal relations; rather I will ask the philosophers question what theyare. Besides being interesting in itself, this approach may widen the sociologists view on gifts,as it will become clear that one can understand virtually everything that happens in a personalrelation as a gift; obviously that includes much more than the exchange of material things onwhich sociologists tend to focus. Before embarking on a definition of gifts in personal relations, I will attempt to define theconcept of a personal relation. That is the main object of the first section of this paper. Here lwill elaborate on the intuition that what defines a personal relation is love, more specifically,reciprocal love. Towards the end of this section I will elaborate on the reasons forunderstanding virtually everything that happens in personal relations as a gift. The principalreason is that most things in a personal relation happen out of love: and love -as well as actionsout of love – can be conceptualized as a gift. This paper, however, has another aim besides defining gifts in personal relations. Mauss andhis followers often insist on the fact that gifts are not spontaneous but obligatory, or in someway, spontaneous and obligatory at the same time. Hence Mauss famous doctrine of the threeobligations of the gift: the obligation to give, to receive and to return. Although l do not fullyendorse this doctrine – at least not when talking about gifts in personal relations – theredefinitely exists a kind of obligation in personal relations that could be understood as anobligation to give. In the second section of this paper, I firstly set about to describe this kind ofobligation. Subsequently I point out some interesting problems that one may encounter inattempting to justify these obligations. Here I utterly reject all Maussian justifications in termsof ‘the spirit of the gift’ and instead scrutinize some classical ethical theories to see whetherthey help elucidate this obligation. My final thoughts are consecrated to a comparison of the gift in personal relations with onecentral aspect of Mauss theory of the gift, namely his thesis that gifts are reciprocal andgoverned by the obligations to give, to receive and to return. My thesis will be that reciprocitydoes not necessarily apply to gifts in personal relations and the doctrine of the three obligationsis simply not relevant. This leads me to slightly nuance his theory: reciprocity and the threeobligations are not essential to all kinds of gifts - though they might be crucial to some kinds.1 Two examples are D. Cheal, The Gift Economy (London and New York: Routledge, 1988) and J. Godbout, L’espritdu don (The Spirit of the Gift) (Paris: La Découverte, 1992).
  3. 3. 3Personal relations I assume – granted, without much reasoning - that one thing makes all kinds of personalrelations personal: love. Specifically, not just love, but reciprocal love. Love as well as therequirement of reciprocity must be studied more closely. Clearly love is an emotion. But what kind of emotion? A compact cognitive analysis of love2 isneeded here. Such an analysis understands an emotion as a complex intentional mental statethat grasps and evaluates its object in a specified way and entertains certain desires andattitudes towards it. This is not meant to denigrate the inner feelings of love. However, whatdistinguishes love from other emotions are not those feelings but rather loves way of grasping,evaluating, and desiring its object. Before embarking on the announced analysis, I introduce two abstract and somewhatimpersonal creatures, A and B, who will elegantly assist my conceptual proceedings. Most ofthe time A and B have a personal relation. Not always however. The reader will notice thatoccasionally they are attempting to get involved in a personal relation and at other times theyfall out of it. But basically, yes, they have a personal relation. A loves B. What does this mean? As to the way of grasping B, it means that A sees B as aunique person, different from all other persons. And as to the way of evaluating B, it means thatA finds B highly important. Combining both aspects, it means that A finds B highly important asa unique person. Now this is almost as abstract as A and B themselves. To get a grip on it let me contrast itwith some other ways of grasping B. For instance, A could see B as a doctor, as a person in need,or even more canonic, simply as a person. And these ways of grasping B can ground evaluationssuch as finding B a fine doctor, finding B badly in need, or finding B worthy of respect. In none ofthese cases one is directed towards what makes a person unique and irreplaceable. And thisdistinguishes them clearly from love. Finding B important as a unique person clearly involves caring about B’s well-being (with theconcept of well-being being understood here in its broadest possible sense, i.e. as a state thatdepends on the fulfillment of B’s desires, whatever those desires are, and not just on the2 The founding father of cognitive analyses of emotions is, of course, Aristotle. The locus classicus withincontemporary analytic philosophy is Anthony Kenny’s Action, Emotion and the Will (London: Routledge & KeganPaul, 1963). Numerous analyses have followed since. The main competitor of a cognitive analysis of emotions is thetheory that reduces emotions to inner feelings. A more comprehensive analysis of the emotion ‘love’ can be foundin, e.g., I. Singer, The Pursuit of Love (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994), R. Brown, Analyzing Love(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), R. C. Solomon, About Love (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989)and A. Soble, The Structure of Love (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1990).
  4. 4. 4fulfillment of B’s needs, as it might be understood in other contexts.3 But doubtlessly it involvesmore than this emblematic moral kind of attitude. So love is characterized by a cognitive and evaluative aspect. But it also has specific kinds ofdesires and attitudes. I mention five desires and one attitude. What does A, who loves B, want? First of all A wants to be with B or spend time in B’scompany. Second, A wants to know B. He wants to know B’s character, desires, attitude towardsthings, opinion about things, and so on. Third, he wants to reveal himself to B. In fact this desireis complementary to A’s desire to know B. Fourth, as A finds B’s well-being important, he wantsto further it and – typical of love – do so himself. And last but not least, A wants his love for B tobe returned by B’s love. Consequently, he wants B to find him uniquely important, to want to bewith him, to know him, etc. As to characteristic attitudes, I only mention here that A, who lovesB, is disposed to give B a non-negligible part of his attention. The ordinary examples of personal relations suggest that love is reciprocal within suchrelations. This does not imply however that love is necessarily reciprocal. It is not. Think of therejected lover, or the fan who loves his idol. Both are examples of one-sided love, where thelove of one person is not accepted and returned by the other. Why then make reciprocal love anecessary condition for the existence of a personal relation? To begin with, most of the time reciprocal love is much better than one-sided love. This isbecause one-sided love is inherently frustrating and risky. Frustrating because one’s desiresremain unfulfilled. This obviously holds for the desire that one’s love be returned. But it alsoholds for the other desires. Normally, someone who does not love you will not allow you to bewith him, to learn about him, to reveal yourself to him, and even to further his well-being. Hewill simply not accept this. And when he does accept it, he will probably do so for the wrongreasons. Precisely this can make one-sided love risky. Loving someone inclines one to do a lot of thingsthat might be misused by the other. For instance, the other could easily use what you say in aself-revelation to make a fool of you, or accept your help simply because he needs it. This kindof risk is not present in a relation of mutual love. Persons who love each other indeed accepteach others love but they accept it for the right reasons: because they love each other and indoing so desire each others love. This forbids them from misusing what the other wants to doout of love. The fact that reciprocal love is better than one-sided love does not imply however that one-sided love is impossible. On the contrary: it offers an additional reason for affirming thepossibility of one-sided love. The painfulness of unanswered love precisely shows that this love3 In Impersonal contexts, like the context of justice, a much more restricted conception of well-being tends to beimplied.
  5. 5. 5exists already, before and independently of its being answered. If it would not exist already, itsrejection simply would not be so painful.4 Alongside the avoidance of frustration and risk, there is a positive reason for makingreciprocal love necessary for the existence of a personal relation. The reason is that some valuescan only be realized when love is reciprocal. And these values are so all-important in a personalrelation that they cannot be left out. Things like intimacy and intimate self-revelation, self-confidence, self-knowledge and self-fulfillment are only thinkable within reciprocal love. 5 Let me summarize. People who are involved in a personal relation love each other and accepteach others love. And they accept what the other person wants to do out of love - withincertain limits, of course. For example, A may desire to be incessantly with B. But As constantpresence might simply suffocate B who may need some time on his own, although he loves Adearly. Hence even in a personal relation there are limits to what can possibly be done out oflove, the line being drawn at what the other accepts you to do. However, as the other loves you,he will at least consider accepting what you want to do out of love6. Now that I have clarified what makes a relation personal, I must briefly consider what makesa personal relation valuable. Here we must disentangle two frequently confounded questions.7First: what is the value of As personal relation with B? And second: what is the value of thispersonal relation for someone who takes part in it? The respective answers to these questions reveal their difference. The kernel of the answerto the second question takes one letter: B. What is most valuable to A in his personal relationwith B is doubtlessly B itself. Of course we can elaborate on this answer. As A loves B, he finds itimportant that B loves him and that B acts out of love for him. This is a universal truth about4 There is no Universal agreement on love being necessarily reciprocal. I am convinced, however, that reciprocity isnot necessary (although desirable), for the reasons offered in this text. An important philosopher who shares thisconviction is H.G.Frankfurt (See for instance his ‘Duty and Love’, in Philosophical Explorations, 1 (1998)). AmongFrankfurt’s reasons may be the fact that he considers both love for a concrete individual and love for an abstracttype as essentially of the same type (what is essential to both of them is caring). And love for an abstract typecannot be reciprocal. Arguments for the opposite view can be found in A. Soble, The Structure of Love (New Haven& London: Yale University Press, 1990).5 The basic idea – which I cannot prove, but which seems intuitively right – is that in order to attain certain goods, apersonal relation is a necessary condition, an indispensable means.6 Kant believed there is a tendency in love to disregard the autonomy of the beloved person that has to becouterbalanced by respect for that person. Respect requires and motivates us to keep an appropriate distance froma beloved person (See I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (trans. Mary J. Gregor) (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1797, 1991) p. 449). However, there might be a tendency within love to keep an appropriate distance fromthe beloved, a tendency that stems from paying attention to what he wants. If he wants to be on his own, than loverequires and motivates you to let him be. A tendency from within love would explain better, I think, why thedistance between loving persons is more flexible than the much more rigid distance between persons who merelyrespect each other.7 For this distinction see J. Hardwig, ‘In Search of an Ethics of Personal Relationships’, in G. Graham and H.Lafollette, Person to Person (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
  6. 6. 6personal relations. Persons within such a relation value each others motivation for actionhighly: they desire - or hope - that the motivation may be love.8 The first question, however, fathoms for the value of As and B’s personal relation, inabstraction from their point of view. What could that value – or rather, those values - be?Firstly, the fact that A and B love each other is a good in itself: it has intrinsic value. Secondly, apersonal relation has instrumental value, which means that it causes A and B to have goods thatbelong to either of them separately and that one might call advantages of the personal relation. A personal relation can have many types of advantages. Some of them are only looselyrelated to its personal character, meaning that entirely different things can bestow those verysame advantages. Examples of this category are ‘fulfilling one’s needs’ and ‘providing a feelingof security’. Other advantages are tightly linked to the character of a personal relation. Here Ithink of things like self-confidence, self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. Mutual love seems to bea precondition for their existence. Consolation, for example, may restore self-confidence. ButBs consoling words to A are consoling to him only because they originate from B who loves Aand who is, in turn, loved by A. That the values of a personal relation seen from the outside differ from the value it has forthe persons involved can yet be understood in another way. Someone may desire to enter into a personal relation, acknowledging the value of such arelation - be it its intrinsic or instrumental value (of course the latter is more likely). Such adesire can even turn into a desperate need. But somehow the fulfillment of this desire isinconceivable, because the person fulfilling it is likely to be seen as ‘someone who fulfils thedesire’, hence not as a unique person. This means that one does not really love this person norhave a personal relation with him. The moral to be drawn here is that love is the only possible motivation for a personalrelation. Naturally it is possible that someone involved in a personal relation is aware of itsintrinsic and instrumental values. And this awareness could ground someone s gratitudetowards the other person. But it can never be the motivation for entering into a personalrelation. That motivation must be love.98 In a by now famous article (M. Stocker, ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, in Journal of Philosophy,73 (1976), reprinted in R. Crisp & M. Slote (eds.), Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)) Stocker usesthis general truth in order to criticize modern ethical theories that require people to act out of duty in allcircumstances. He gives the example of someone visiting a friend in hospital ‘out of duty’. Other importantcontributions to the subject at hand are e.g. B. Williams, ‘Persons, Character and Morality’, in B. Williams, MoralLuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), B. Herman, ‘On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty’,in The Philosophical Review, 3 (1981) and M. W. Baron, ‘The Alleged Moral Repugnance of Acting From Duty’, inJournal of Philosophy, 81 (1984).9 This point has important consequences for the egoism-altruism debate as applied to personal relations. It is clearthat most personal relations are very advantageous for the parties involved in it. But when love is considered to bethe only possible motivation for a personal relation, than these advantages cannot be what motivates people to get
  7. 7. 7 Let us now turn to the relation between the concept of a personal relation and that of a gift.It is my stance that most of what happens in a personal relation can be conceptualized as a gift.This is definitely so for l) what the parties inside a personal relation do for each other to furthereach others wellbeing and for 2) what they reveal to each other, but it also holds for 3) theattention they give to one another. My reasons for conceptualizing these things as gifts arethreefold. Firstly, what happens inside a personal relation falls outside the scope of economics,morality, and law. Let me explain. Compared to economics, what people do out of love is unconditional. They do not act underthe banner of receiving something in return. Surely, they might hope for and even expectsomething in return, but this is never their main motivation for acting. That motivation is love.This distinguishes what people do here - even when reciprocal - from an ordinary markettransaction, in which something is done in order to get something else. Compared to morality, what people do in a personal relation can never be obligatory fromthe start (though obligations might creep in later; see somewhat further on). And lastly, compared to law, what they do is unenforceable. The points concerning morality and law should not be misunderstood. Of course, in principle,every action can be obligatory or enforced. But what cannot be obliged or enforced is acting outof love. And without this motivation the action simply loses its significance. The fact that actions out of love are unconditional, not obligatory and unenforceableenlightens why uncertainty is at the core of a personal relation. Someone else’s love for you isnever guaranteed. To be sure, actions in a personal relation may to some degree becomehabitual, but basically love is incompatible with habit. Deep down every personal relation aspark of uncertainty prevails. Without it there would be no love and hence no personal relation. A second reason for regarding what happens in a personal relation as a gift has to do with theway actions are conceived in a personal relation. Personally related people understand eachothers actions as things that are essentially linked to the person who performs the action. I willclarify this by taking a closer look at the two types of action distinguished above.involved in a personal relation. To put it differently, personal relations cannot have egoistic motivations. If onecombines this point with the intuition that there are certain kinds of goods for which a personal relation is anecessary means (see fn. 6), one ends up with Elster’s essential byproducts (John Elster introduced this term in thesecond essay of Sour Grapes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). If a good can only be realized in thecontext of a personal relation, and if desiring that good makes a personal relation impossible, than the desire forthat good is necessarily frustrated. That good will only be realized as the byproduct of another motivation, namelylove.
  8. 8. 8 Consider first what people do to further each others wellbeing. These types of actionsdoubtlessly have an instrumental ring. Let’s say that A furthers Bs wellbeing. Surely B will behappy because A has done something useful to him. But more is at stake. B will also be joyousbecause A acted and because he did so out of love. Hence B will essentially see the action asdone by A. Next, consider self-revelations. Self-revelations are personal because in them one revealspart of oneself. However, what is revealed might or might not be seen and treated as personal.Imagine that A reveals to B that he has strong feelings for someone called C. At a party two dayslater A hears B making a joke about this. People are laughing and A is upset. But why? Is itbecause his feelings for C must remain a secret? That might be a part of it. But first andforemost, it is because A heard B using what he revealed to him for his own purposes, in thiscase, for the quite trivial purpose of making a joke.10 In this example B does not see As self-revelation to him as something highly personal. If heregarded it that way, he would have treated it more carefully. Note the parallel here with the distinction between gifts and commodities.11 This distinctiontoo has to do with the way things are viewed and subsequently treated. To see an action as personal essentially equals seeing it as expressive of a certain kind ofmotivation. Is it precisely because the parties involved in a personal relation value each othersmotivations highly that they grasp each others actions as expressive of motivations. Themotivation most valued is love – precisely the motivation that makes an action personal. To actout of love and hence in a personal way is often equaled with acting spontaneously. The third reason for connecting gifts with personal relations has to do with the vague andimplicit character of expectations in personal relations.12 Personally related people certainlyhave expectations concerning each others behavior. But what exactly they expect or when theyexpect so is commonly not brought to the fore. Even the simple fact of having expectation israrely made explicit. For example; when you are in trouble, you decidedly expect help from yourbest friend. But what kind of help as an answer to what kind of trouble is never specified.Contrast this with making a promise. Usually promises have a clear content. The promisseeknows exactly what he may expect the promissor to do and when he will do it.10 The example is borrowed from A. Baier, ‘Trusting Ex-Intimates’, in G. Graham & H. Lafollette (eds.), Person toPerson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).11 The idea that gifts are seen as personal strikes me as similar to the concept of an inalienable possession that onefinds in at least part of the anthropological literature on the gift (see, for instance, A.B.Weiner, InalienablePossessions, The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) and M. Godelier,L’enigme du don (The Enigma of the Gift) (Paris: Fayard, 1997)): inalienable possessions are things that in somesense remain property of the giver even after having been given.12 See for example the article of McC. Barry, ‘Adult Friendships’, in G. Graham and H. Lafollette, Person to Person(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989) about what he calls the ‘Informality of friendship rules’. JacquesGodbout emphasizes the same point in L’esprit du don (Paris: La Découverte, 1992) and in his article in thiscompanion.
  9. 9. 9 Conceptualizing so many things that happen in a personal relation as a gift leads to a verybroad conception of the gift indeed. What to think then of gifts in the narrow sense of materialgifts? On the one hand, they just happen in a personal relation as one of the many things(hopefully) done out of love. On the other hand, material gifts tangibly concentrate thesignificance of a relation in a thing, and as such explicitly affirm someone’s love. The bestmaterial gifts come as a surprise to the receiver, reminding him of the non evidential characterof the others love. One can object of course that many occasions for material gifts are quite ritualized (birthday,Christmas, etc.) and hence great occasions for giving out of habit. My reply is twofold here.Firstly, there is obviously much room for spontaneity and surprise in the context of ritual gifts.And secondly, one may conceive of ritual gifts as games in which the core of a personal relation(love, uncertainty) is, if not genuinely present, then at least explicitly replayed.Personal obligations I explained in the foregoing section how earnest people in personal relations take eachother’s motivations. The only really appreciated motivation is love. Actions out of compassion or duty occupy at most a marginal place in a sound personalrelation. However, people involved in a personal relation do have mutual obligations. Normally theseobligations are not why they act; they act out of love and not out of obligation. But sometimes,and for various reasons, love cannot motivate one’s action because it is too weak andoverpowered by other passions. In such cases obligations can take over as the motivatingsource. What exactly are those obligations? First of all, we have the ordinary moral obligations.Naturally, A and B are obliged to respect each other, not to kill each other or to steal from eachother. Apart from these universal obligations that one has towards everyone, some obligationsA and B have exclusively towards each other. These special obligations, insofar as they aregrounded in love, I call the obligations of love. Obligations of love are not the only type of special obligations. Think for example of theobligation to keep a promise or about role-bound obligations (an example of the latter is theobligation of secrecy a doctor has towards his patients). These are also obligations one hastowards specific persons and not towards everyone. What makes them different from the obligations of love is precisely their ground. Forinstance, what grounds the obligation to keep a promise is the fact that one made the promise.And what grounds the obligation of secrecy is the fact that one occupies the role of doctor or
  10. 10. 10patient. Before enlarging the differences between those special obligations and the obligationsof love I will try to specify the content of the latter. Exactly to what is one obliged out of love? The answer is fairly simple: one is obliged to dowhat one would do if one acted out of love. Now this sounds a little awkward. A has obligationsof love to B only because he loves B; but given that he loves B it seems unneeded to oblige himto do what he would do out of love, because he does it already, and in fact out of love. One sees the point of these obligations however if one realizes that there are a lot ofcircumstances in which A is not inclined to act out of love for B although he loves B. Forinstance, when As love for B loses the battle against a passion that has greater motivatingpower and that would lead to an action that is in some way incompatible with an action out oflove. Examples of this abound. Just think of someone who does not inform his best friend about aninteresting vacant job because he wants it for himself. As his best friend he should haveinformed him. Or consider a mother who, haunted by serious troubles at work that captivateher mind, is not inclined to give her child the attention that she would usually give it out of love.There is a good chance however that she will still attend to her child, be it out of a sense ofobligation. The content of personal obligations varies from personal relation to personal relation. Thereason is that this content is parasitical on what one would do out of love, and that hinges uponmany factors, such as the nature of the love, the strength of his formative desires, one’scharacter, and last but not least, what the other person accepts you to do out of love. So much for the content of the obligations of love. Let us now turn to their object in moredetail. We mentioned already that obligations of love are special obligations that we havetowards specific persons and not towards everyone. They share this feature with some other obligations, such as the obligation to keep a promiseor the obligation to act according to a role. Behind this similarity lurks a difference however,that comes into sight when we ponder the question to whom exactly the obligation is directed. For instance, if A makes a promise to B, than A has the obligation to keep this promise to B asB is the one who accepted the promise. Likewise, if A is a doctor and B a patient than A has theobligation to remain silent about B’s medical plight because B is patient. However, if A loves B,than A has an obligation towards B as a unique person. That is why they are personalobligations.
  11. 11. 11 But how to grasp the idea that the object of an obligation of love is a unique person? Ireverse the question to launch the answer. Why is the object of an obligation to keep a promiseor to act as a role requires not unique? Obviously that is related to the character of their respective grounds. Consider promises. Amust keep his promise to B because he promised so to B. But he could have made the samepromise to someone else. If so, he would be obliged to keep his promise to that person. To besure, I do not mean that it is arbitrary to whom A made his promise. I only say that one -including A himself - could easily imagine circumstances in which it would have made sense tomake that promise to someone else. That is why the object of the obligation to keep a promiseis not B as a unique person. The same obtains for role-bound obligations. But not for the obligations of love. In some way,it is impossible for A to love someone just as he loves B. In some way, his love for B is souniquely tied up with B that A plainly cannot love someone else like that. Twice I said ‘in someway’ because frankly, I dont know exactly how. What I mean is more or less that, from A’s pointof view, it seems impossible to love someone else in exactly that way. In order to complete my tiny conceptual map of the obligations of love I distinguish thembriefly from moral obligations. The next paragraphs explain in a nutshell how I understandmorality. 13 Morality is a system of rules that enable the peaceful coexistence of people withvarious and often competing interests. Core examples of moral rules that I mentioned beforeare the prohibition of murder and theft. Moral rules frequently have an equivalent legal rule. For example, it is not only morally butalso legally forbidden to murder or to steal. There are characteristic legal ways to enforcecompliance with those rules.14 Some of the special obligations are obviously moral obligations. Both the obligation to keep apromise and various role-bound obligations facilitate the peaceful coexistence of people withvarious interests. And - putting complications aside - one can say that both kinds of obligations,or at least part of them, are legally enforceable, hence have corresponding rights. None of this however holds for the obligations of love. Firstly, it would be weird tounderstand these obligations as a means for enabling the coexistence of people with competinginterests, because people who love each other do positively care about each others interests;every obligation to do so is simply superfluous. And secondly, the obligations of love are definitely not legally enforceable. Hence they haveno corresponding rights. To illustrate this, I rake up an old example. Although your best friend13 For one example, see the introduction to H.G. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1988).14 A classical statement of the relation between morality and law can be found in H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), ch. 8.
  12. 12. 12has an obligation of love to inform you about a vacant job you cannot claim the right to beinformed about it by him, and surely not press charges against him because he didn’t. Three more differences between moral obligations and the obligations of love concern theway people react to their violation. It has often been observed that people react withresentment, indignation or contempt to the violation of a moral obligation. But these reactionsare too morally charged for a violation of an obligation of love. A more common andappropriate reaction in this context is pity. We find it regrettable that someone did not fulfill hisobligations of love and we pity the person to whom those obligations are directed. A subsequent difference is that people feel the urge to change a situation that is perceived tobe unjust. In the case of love however, there is no such urge. There is only disappointment. And thirdly, everyone can react with indignation to the violation of a moral obligation.Evidently everyone includes the victims who suffered from the violation. Their resentment isprobably even stronger than that of others because they are directly affected by the violation.But it will still be resentment and only differ in degree from the reactions of other people. Not so for the obligations of love. Again, in principle, everyone can react with pity to theviolation of an obligation of love. But here ‘everyone excludes the person who is directlyinvolved. His reaction will be different in kind from the reactions of other people. B for examplewill not simply find it regrettable that A did not observe his obligations of love to him. He willbe personally hurt. And that is, at least to my mind, something fundamentally different.15 Most - if not all - classical ethical theories fail to justify the obligations of love, mainlybecause their vindications do not commence with the fact that these are obligations towards aunique person. Take for instance the various kinds of rule ethics: these are ethical theories that formulaterules that guide our actions (be it deontology, Kantian ethics, contract theories or ruleconsequentialism in one or another version). In these theories, the procedure that leads to theformulation of rules simply overlooks most of peoples individual features and is left with someextremely general features shared by all persons. As a consequence, these theories can onlyformulate obligations that one has towards a person as the bearer of these general features,and that means in fact towards anyone.15 In the debate between morality and virtue ethics it is quite common to distinguish between two types ofevaluative terms (See for example M. Slote, From Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992),introduction and ch. 10). The central evaluative terms of a moral theory are right and wrong and they applyprimarily to actions. The central evaluative terms of an ethics of virtue are admirable and deplorable and they applyprimarily to the character traits of a person. The difference between these two kinds of evaluative terms isconceptually related to their violation that I already mentioned in the text: resentment versus pity. Bydistinguishing a third kind of reaction (being personally hurt) I make room for yet another type of ‘obligation’ and‘evaluation’. It brings us close to a kind of obligation to the self (although, of course, the object of the obligation isanother person) and to integrity, the violation of such an obligation being a kind of self-betrayal.
  13. 13. 13 Virtue ethics fares no better. Consider for instance the thought that one ought to act out oflove because it is virtuous to do so.16 This seems to imply that one should try to act out of loveas much as possible towards as many persons as possible. This recommendation, besides beingsomewhat unrealistic, cannot explain why A should in particular act out of love for B whom heloves already. Consider finally a type of virtue ethics that relates virtues directly to the realization of certaingoods.17 A virtue is seen then as a quality in a person that makes the realization of a goodpossible. I will further assume that a virtuous persons actions are implicitly guided by rules thathelp to realize those goods. It’s easy to apply this scheme to the case at hand. Consider the maintenance of personalrelations as a good, worthy to be realized (recall the values of a personal relation). One can onthat ground conceptualize the obligations of love as implicit rules that help maintain thoserelations. However, this model cannot explain As obligations of love to B as a unique person. Whatobliges A according to this type of virtue ethics is not B but the realization of a good that differsfrom B, namely, the maintenance of his personal relation with B. In other words: the obligationsof love would be directed here towards the wrong thing.Final thoughts Mauss’ Essay sur le don offers a very fertile and saturated analysis of gift practices andunravels many of their key features. Among them are the ambiguity of motivations for giving(hovering between altruism and egoism, or between spontaneity and obligation), the personalcharacter of a gift, the importance of uncertainty and the role of gift practices in constitutingsocial relations. Mauss takes much interest in the relation between gifts, the desire for power(honor, status) of the donator and the humiliation of the receiver. These features have receivedconsiderable attention in the anthropological and sociological literature on the subject. Mostimportant, however, is Mauss famous discovery that practices of giving are reciprocal and insome sense governed by three obligations: the obligations to give, to receive and to return.1816 For an account of the obligations in personal relations in terms of the virtuous character of acting out of love, seeM. Slote, From Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) ch. 9.17 The classical statement of this type of virtue ethics can be found in A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of NotreDame Press, 1981), ch. 14.18 I deliberately use the qualification here ‘in some sense’, being aware of the fact that it is not clear in what sense. Irefer to the extensive debate on ‘following a rule’ that has followed Wittgenstein’s remarks on this topic. Forexample: is following a rule a matter of having an explicit representation before the mind, or is it rather a matter ofbeing bodily disposed to do certain things in certain circumstances (cfr. Bourdieu’s habitus)? A very interestingpaper on this topic is Ch. Taylor, ‘To Follow a Rule’, in Philosophical Arguments (Massachusets: Harvard UniversityPress, 1995).
  14. 14. 14 I will concentrate on this discovery in my conclusion. More specifically, I will investigatewhether, and in what sense, reciprocity and the three obligations apply to love and acts out oflove. This will lead me to modify Mauss claim about the importance of reciprocity and the threeobligations for the gift. Although Mauss is never fully explicit about these matters, what he says comes closest to thefollowing position: both reciprocity and the circle of obligations are necessary conditions for theexistence of a practice of giving, but neither of them is a sufficient condition.19 I agree withMauss that reciprocity and the circle of obligations are not sufficient conditions, but I doubt infact that they are even necessary. This doubt arises from an unsuccessful attempt to apply thoserequirements to love and acts out of love. It is fairly clear why neither reciprocity nor the circle of obligations can be sufficient for a gift.Concerning reciprocity, suffices it to recall that market transactions are reciprocal too. Severalarticles in this companion rightfully argue that exchanges of commodities differ substantiallyfrom gift exchanges. And concerning the circle of obligations, Mauss is evidently well aware ofthe importance of spontaneity. At various points he emphasizes the mysterious melange ofmotivations that characterizes a gift: a purely obligatory gift is hardly a gift at all. Before going on it is important to note a crucial difference between reciprocity and the circleof obligations. Reciprocity is something we can observe whereas the circle of obligations offers apossible explanation for that observation: reciprocity is the outcome of following thoseobligations. Sometimes however, a different explanation for reciprocity is required. Market transactionsand gift exchanges are both reciprocal. But market transactions are most definitely notexplained by the three obligations (how to understand them is a topic well explored). So thepresence of the three obligations might suffice to rule out a market transaction. That in itselfhowever does not imply that the circle of obligations is a necessary condition for the gift. And to pursue my argument, I do not believe that reciprocity nor the circle of obligations arenecessary conditions for a gift. Here we consider specifically the gifts out of love and recall apoint made in the first section. If love would be necessarily reciprocal, it would be hard tounderstand why unanswered love is so painful. Obviously it is painful precisely because it existsalready, whether it is being reciprocated or not. As a matter of fact most instances of love are reciprocal. The explanation hereto may againlie in the inherent painfulness of unanswered love. It seems wise to stop loving someone, or atleast try to do so, if there is no hope of success. The factual reciprocity of most instances of lovehowever does not imply that love must be reciprocal.19 I hope to do no injustice to Mauss in trying to capture what he says in terms of necessary and sufficientconditions (which he nowhere does). However, the important thing here is not so much to uncover Mauss’ exactposition, but rather, to have something definite to which I can contrast the distinctive features of loving and actingout of love.
  15. 15. 15 Mauss circle of obligations certainly does not apply to love. Imagine there would be anobligation to love, to accept someones love and to love someone in return. That would beabsurd. I consider these three obligations in reverse order. Firstly, the obligation to return someones love is the most farfetched. After all a lover valuesthe sincerity of his beloved (that is precisely because he values his motivation so highly). lf Aloves B, than he desires that B loves him and not just that B pretends to love him.20 The latterwould be very likely to happen if people were obliged to love in return for love. And that wouldbereave love from any significance. 21 Secondly, there is no obligation whatsoever to accept someones love. One should onlyaccept someones love if one loves that person in return. Otherwise one is at best insincere (ifyou give someone the impression that you love him) and at worst immoral (if you do so in orderto take advantage of him). To be sure, there might be an obligation not to accept but toconsider someone’s love. B cannot simply neglect As love for him. He is at least obliged topause and give it some thought , such as: is A worth being loved?’, ‘does A in some way attractme?, or will I give it a chance?, etc. Having this kind of obligation is a matter of taking otherpersons serious.22 Finally we will look at the obligation to love. Here we must separate two possible meanings.Firstly, one might mean an obligation to love a specific person. This obligation resembles theobligation to return someones love, which is also an obligation to love a specific person. Henceit is susceptible to the same criticism. Secondly, one might mean an obligation to further onescapacity to love. This obligation does not specify which particular person must be loved. It isdoubtful whether we have that kind of obligation. But at least it seems a bit more plausible tooblige someone to further a general capacity to love as time goes by.2320 The actions of a lover naturally express his love, and these expressions normally reveal this love to the belovedperson. However, expressions can be sincere or insincere. One can deliberately ‘wear an emotion on one’s face’without experiencing the emotion. That is what actors do. For this distinction, see Alan Tormey’s important TheConcept of Expression (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).21 It is extraordinary because most people would find such an obligation undesirable. It may be impossible becauseof the (much agreed upon) principle that ‘ought implies can’, and it is obviously impossible to love a specific personon demand.22 According to some theories of ethics this is a moral obligation (e.g. Kantian ethics). We can find an analogousreasoning in the contemporary analytic literature on Kant’s moral theory. It sometimes claims that we have anobligation to take someone else’s ends seriously. This is not an obligation to consider these ends as valuable.Neither is it an obligation to help someone else in pursuing those ends. It is rather an obligation to considerwhether these ends are valuable and worth being pursued. That obligation is a moral one, stemming from the ideathat this someone is a person, i.e. a being capable of setting his own ends. See for example B. Herman, ‘Mutual Aidand Respect for Persons’, in Ethics, 94 (1984).23 Most virtue ethics imply the obligation to promote in ourselves (and as time goes by) the character traits that arevirtues. We have a similar obligation to further our capacity to love in so far as love is a virtue. I think that beingcapable of loving other persons is a virtue but loving this or that person is not; hence the latter can never beobligatory. Again, this does not mean that there are no obligations that are grounded in the love for a particular
  16. 16. 16 The foregoing reflections establish that Mauss circle of obligations does not convincinglyapply to love. In the preceding section however, I assayed to describe a kind of obligation thatdoes apply to love: the so-called obligations of love. I finish this article with elucidating thedifferences between these two types of obligations. Firstly, they are both special and conditional obligations (obligations one has under thecondition that x is the case). But the conditions differ. Mauss obligations (especially the second and the third one) are dependent on a state ofaffairs that involves someone else. A has an obligation to accept x and to return y because B hasgiven x to him. Contrariwise, As obligations of love towards B are solely dependent on himself,namely on his love for B. A second difference is congenial to the first one. Applying Mauss circle of obligations to lovewould result in a set of obligations to love and to act out of love. The obligations of love,however, are obligations to act as one would act if one acted out of love. To put it moretechnically: love is not part of the content of those obligations but only of their ground. Theobligations of love do not entail an obligation to love someone. They can be entirely sincere andhence plausible. Let me take stock of the situation. It is one thing to say that reciprocity and the circle ofobligations do not apply to love. It is something else entirely to assert that they do not apply togifts at all. The latter is too strong. Love proves at most that reciprocity and the circle ofobligations do not necessarily apply to all kinds of gifts. They might still be necessary - or at leasthighly significant - features of practices to which they do apply. Let me for a moment pursue thistrain of thought. Are there any gift-giving practices to which reciprocity and the threeobligations do apply? The example of gratitude comes to my mind. In certain circumstances there clearly is anobligation to be grateful and to act out of gratitude (analogous to the obligations to accept andto return). And this obligation is dependent on something that someone else has given to you. Ido not intend to examine the precise conditions under which gratitude is owed, or what exactlygratitude requires in these conditions,24 nor to investigate in detail how and why love andgratitude differ. But the fact that the Maussian obligations at least roughly apply to gratitudeand not to love suffices to mark their difference. By the way, this difference must urge us to be careful in giving too much place to gratitude inpersonal relations. Not that these emotions are utterly incompatible, in the sense that it isimpossible to both love and be grateful towards the same person at the same time. Butintuitively. there exists a subtle tension between these emotions, which implies that gratitudeperson (cf. the personal obligations of section two). But it shows that there is something awkward in trying tojustify those obligations using the fact that (the general capacity to) love is a virtue (see also footnote 20).24 The only comprehensive book on gratitude that has come my way is T. McConnel, Gratitude (Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1993).
  17. 17. 17must never get too firm a foothold in a personal relation. Too much gratitude, I think, ruins loveand hence destroys the personal relation.25 In a previous paragraph I argued that the example of love shows at most that reciprocity andthe three obligations are not necessary conditions for all kinds of gift. One might attempt todeny this conclusion by alleging that love and actions out of love are no gifts after all: if not so,than they cannot constitute a counterexample to whatever aspect of whatever theory of thegift. However, this article wanted to argue that love and acting out of love are gifts and hencedo complicate (that is, enrich) our conceptual map of the gift.25 Some authors ground the obligations of children towards their parents in love (see for example J. English, ‘WhatDo Grown Children Owe Their Parents’, in O. O’Neil & W. Ruddick (ed.), Having Children (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1979)). Others attribute an important role to gratitude in justifying these obligations (see forexample, McConnel, op. cit., ch. 7). The fact that these rival accounts exist exemplifies the tension between loveand gratitude.