Loving Who You Are vs. Loving What You Do

When it comes to love, it seems to be the exception out of all emotions.  After all, it makes sense to be angry, sad, or joyful for a few minutes, a couple hours, or even a full day.  But with love, it sounds odd to say, “I love you, but this is only for a few minutes.”  So why does love have this weird emotional status?

One famous reply is because happiness, joy, and anger deals with some event out there in the world, but love deals with some general term (such as “I love cake”) or it considers the person as a whole.  Thus, people always say that they love someone because of who they are.  There is something about that person that is lovable, and that is inherent in that person (or cake).

I find many problems with this view:

  1. If we love a person for who they are, then it seems that the loving attitude should stay no matter what happens.  Well, what if that person does something so untrustworthy or so disrespectful?  According to the “love who you are” philosophy, you should–or perhaps, can–still love that person.  But this seems like a stretch that most people can do.
  2. The notion of loving someone because of who they are seems to consider the person as not being free.  Someone is means that it pure being.  But beings aren’t free.  Things that become are free.  Loving a being is like loving a rock or a pen: it stands still, without any movement.  There is no action in what things are, only things that can do things can be praised or blamed.  (This is coming from a Sartrean influence, if you can’t tell.)  I’ll quote it that comes from my research paper I’m doing:

In short, it seems that Irigaray is saying, “I love you because of who you are.”  But this goes against Sartre’s notion of humanity.  I do not love you because of who you are.  That would be loving a static in-itself.  I love you because of what you do.  I want a freedom (a for-itself) not a static being (in-itself).  And frankly, sometimes I do not love what you are doing right now.  Irigaray misses the point because she wants to focus on sexual differences, which focuses on one aspect of who that person is, but not on the actions.  For Sartre, if one tries to explain away an action or denies a mode of behavior based on some circumstance beyond his or her control (such as sexual difference), then one is opening a door to a world of excuses; it is a way for that person to tell him- or herself that circumstances are beyond the individual’s control.  It is a way to deny freedom by creating a way of shifting responsibility away from the individual.  To love someone truly means that you love that person in his or her freedom.  This means no possession, no faithfulness, and no obligations.

Instead, I propose that we love people because of what they do.  I think it makes more sense because there’s no confusion and we can still make sense of how love can fit in with the rest of the paradigm of emotions.  When we love people, it’s because those actions are deemed lovable.  It’s impossible to love someone who they are when you first meet them because you don’t know who that person is; you can only judge them by their actions.  But after getting to know them, you start to realize, “Hey, I like this person.”  But I still think that you’re loving the actions.  It’s just that these actions have established a habit and so you’re used to these particular actions from this person.  Indeed, you can predict (usually) what this person is going to do.  The reason why there’s conflict is because the other is doing something that you found disagreeable.

In the end, my stance on loving people stems from their actions, not on who that person is.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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5 Responses to Loving Who You Are vs. Loving What You Do

  1. Killer J says:

    Katchie and I have been together for 7 years. We have both changed in terms of who we are now compared to who we were seven years ago. We still love each other as much if not more than when we first told each other we loved one another.

    I’m not sure I fully understand what you’re getting at, but if I’m reading correctly then the love Katchie and I have fits within your mold.

  2. thekillerj says:

    I’m not sure I get it, now that I think about it.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    Ok, so if I asked people, “Why do you love so-and-so?” I hear two different replies:

    1. I love this person because of who she is.

    2. I love this person because s/he is caring, kind, thoughtful, considerate, etc.

    In essence, I’m saying that answer number two is a better answer. Answer number one doesn’t work for me because this makes the person into a thing. I could explain more, but I’ll start with that.

  4. Nancy says:

    ok, a couple things-
    firstly i would agree that we love people for what they do. but how is that really different from who they are? since all we really ever know of an individual other than ourselves is their words and actions, isn’t it functionally the same to say “i love who they are” as it is to say “i love what they do”?

    second, i’d like to take issue with your #1, that if you love somebody for who they are, then you should be able to continue loving them no matter what. this doesn’t account for people changing. as you said, it makes them into an object. so, while i think we can say that we love people for who they are, i think we can also say that who people are can change.

    or alternatively, perhaps what we loved was not really real. you could make the argument either way- that if someone cheats on you, either they have changed and have become someone you don’t love (ie someone who would cheat on you), OR you can say that in fact the person you loved was a fiction, and that you didn’t really know who this person was, because if you did, you wouldn’t have loved them.

    finally, you’re only talking about romantic love here. what about familial love? the love of a parent for an infant, or the love of siblings, or what have you? certainly parent-child bonds are equally strong, but they are not based on actions at all.

  5. shaunmiller says:

    Hey Nancy,

    I will try to answer your questions, but I have to admit that my ideas on this are more shakey than they are in the abortion post.

    firstly i would agree that we love people for what they do. but how is that really different from who they are?

    Well, I think when we see a person constantly doing things, we have to give these actions an identity. Thus, we say it’s this person because this is who did the actions. But over all, I think we love the actions and we say we love the person. It’s true that it makes more practical sense to say “I love you” rather than “I love what you’re doing,” but I still think it’s because loving a person is loving a being-in-itself. (These are from Sartre.) I can’t love a being-in-itself because it’s just a being. It would be like loving a rock or a pen. What I love is the person’s consciousness (a being-for-itself) and this is something I can never have. So the closest thing I can do is figure out how that other person’s mind interacts with the world. The only way to do that is by watching what this person does.

    As for people changing, the only way people can change is by actions. So think of it like this: name off things that you’d want in a loving partner. I’d list things like honesty, caring, attractiveness, some sort of commonality, independence, respectful, etc. Let’s call this list {S}. Now the person you’re with tries to approximate {S} but never comes close to it. Indeed, I don’t it’s possible for anyone to have everything in {S} fulfilled. But what we do is we try to find someone with {S} and eventually we find a person that has the most amount of {S}. What’s the point? I guess what I’m saying is that I think we actually love {S} rather than the person. It just so happens that the person you’re with has the most amount of {S} that you can find. Of course, {S} includes the actions that you like about the person.

    With the person cheating, I would say it’s because that person has lost some {S} and with that loss, you don’t love that person anymore. (Or you can, I guess it depends on how you prioritize the items in {S}.)

    Also, I’m talking about romantic love in this post. When it comes to other types of love, I think it does hold, but I think that in familial love, you would probably include “he’s my son/daughter/father/mother/sister/brother” in {S}.

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