Love and Hope
Iris Murdoch and Diogenes Allen, philosophers of the 20th century, believed that love lies at the center of ethics. But they interpret love in a way that surprises some readers, at least at first. Love is not, at root, what you feel or do, though of course it encompasses emotion and action. Murdoch and Allen say that love consists first in the way we perceive other people and the world in general.
People naturally view other people as objects. There are many possible reasons for this, rooted in human nature as explained by psychology, evolution, or theology. Murdoch leaned toward Freudian ideas according to which human conscious experience is often shaped by unconscious forces having to do with instinctual desires and/or very early psychological development. The explanation isn’t as important as the fact. Most of the time we perceive other people as “things”: objects we want to have, or use, or flee. We feel attracted to some people for companionship, or profit, or sexual fulfillment. About others we feel repulsion or fear. And often we simply ignore people as useless and uninteresting.
Murdoch and Allen say this is a natural and nearly ubiquitous experience. Given human nature as it is, we almost always see other people as planets in orbit around the sun—and the self, what Murdoch called the “fat, relentless ego,” is the center of the solar system.
Almost always—on rare occasions we sometimes break out of the egocentric view of the world. Sometimes something happens—an illness, perhaps, or a brush with death, or a sudden realization that one has irretrievably harmed another—and an agent is freed to see another person (or the whole world) as existing independently of the agent. Besides writing philosophy, Murdoch wrote many novels, and some of her characters experience surprising interruptions in their egoism. For a moment they see the world and its inhabitants without them in it. And seeing it thusly, they love.
That other person that I encounter is not merely a threat or promise. She is an independent center of the world. She experiences hopes, fears, desires, and vulnerabilities just as much as I do. The interior world of that soul is real, whether I ever notice it or not. Murdoch thought that if and when we see another person this way we almost automatically feel compassion for her.
(Side comment: personally, I doubt the ubiquity of compassion following on accurate vision. Human psychology admits wide variation. Some people may be capable of clear vision without giving a damn about their neighbors.)
Whether or not we agree with Murdoch and Allen that perceiving other people this way is the foundational component of love, we must agree that such experiences do happen. Most of us will admit that we have, rarely, seen the other not as an attractive, useful, scary, boring, repulsive, or disgusting thing, but as a center of experience, a person. Allen says that such experiences of love are clues we must heed to build a satisfactory philosophy of life.
Again: whether we agree with Murdoch and Allen about the significance of such perception, we have to agree that it is truthful. Human beings are not essentially objects in orbit around me. Whenever I perceive persons as objects I misperceive them. When I see another person as an independent center of willing, feeling, and meaning, my sense of that person is far closer to the truth than my normal egocentric view. The great problem in the moral life, Murdoch says, is that most of the time we live in a fantasy world created by our misperception of other people.
No matter how disagreeable a person is, she is not essentially an irritant to be avoided. No matter how desirable a person is, she is not an object to be owned and enjoyed. No matter how much threat a person projects against my plans, she is not merely an obstacle.
If we want to live morally better lives, Murdoch says, we need to learn how to see people more accurately. Against moral theories that make choice the key term in morality, Murdoch says, “I can only choose within the world I can see, in a moral sense of ‘see’ which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort.” (Sovereignty of Good, 37) In real life, she says, moral choices are often compelled by what we can see—and by what we fail to see.
Allen agrees with Murdoch about the importance of accurate vision in ethics, going so far as to call it “perfect love.” Then he goes further than Murdoch, saying that love as clear vision can be central not just to ethics, but to our understanding of ultimate reality. It directs us to God.
Precisely because egocentricity is natural to us, we experience perfect love fleetingly. The fact that we are embodied beings means that the world impinges on us, forcing us to respond to challenges, pushing us back into an egocentric stance. We may recognize the importance of accurate vision, and we may make some limited progress toward love. But then we die. And if death is the end, it erases whatever gains we made.
Murdoch made peace with that thought. It is crucially important, she believed, to strive to see others clearly, though we will probably fail often. We strive to be good “for nothing”—that is, without any hope of afterlife or reward.
Allen objects. If real love is something we experience only fleetingly, such that all our efforts to learn to love dissipate with our last breath, it hardly seems all that important. Some people might make an existential choice to try to see the face of the neighbor, but that would be the end of it. If other people chose differently—well, who is to say what is trivial in life and what is important?
Christian doctrine says that God is a Trinity. Ultimate reality consists of three persons who love each other so fully that it is correct to say they are one substance. In the Trinity there is no egocentricity, rather perfect yielding. The Son only does what he sees the Father doing. There is no struggle to accurately perceive the other; the members of the Trinity know each other “from the inside out,” as we might say.
Now if the doctrine of Trinity is true, Allen says, then our intuitions about love are right. Love really is the most important thing in life. More than that: the steps we take toward love in this life, however small, point to a “consummation of love” that can come in the next life. The doctrine of resurrection offers hope, hope that we can in the end become what we ought to be.