Love: From Qualities to the Person

Imagine a set list of qualities that you want in a potential intimate partner.  Most of these qualities, I would imagine, would include intelligence, good sense of humor, attractiveness, kind, loyal, respectful, and so on. This list can be as detailed or as broad as you want, and it can include a lot of qualities, or as little as you want. Let’s call this set of qualities [S].


When you meet someone with [S], you are instantly attracted to them and the more the person has the qualities of [S], the stronger of a connection you may have with that person. However, what is it that you love: the person or [S]? This question goes back to Plato.  Do you love a person because of [S], or do you love [S] because of that person?

If the former, you really love [S] and the person just happens to be a vehicle to carry [S]. You are already recognizing value in the beloved, and that is the reason why you love that person.  You love the person because of the value you see in that person.  You’re saying that x loves y because x finds the features of y valuable or attractive. Philosophers call this the appraisal view because the person has [S] and you are appraising the person based on [S]. I love x because I already see some value, namely [S], in x.

Appraisal View

Appraisal View of Love

(As a side note, Alan Soble calls this erosic love.)  The value of x exists first.  I love x arises as a response to this antecedent value.  But this means that love is the dependent variable: love is explained by the fact that x possess valuable properties.

There are at least two problems with the appraisal view that philosophers have brought up.

One problem is that love is non-constant. When we love a person, we typically think of love being a constant thing. Even if you happen to be angry, disappointed, or anxious at the person you love, it doesn’t change the fact that you love the person. However, if you happen to love the person because of [S], what happens when [S] changes? Well, according to this theory, I should not love x anymore because remember, the reason I loved x was because of [S].

Another problem is that love is no longer exclusive. If I love x because of [S], then presumably I could happen to love anyone because of [S]. After all, [S] was the reason I love x. As a side note, this problem is easily solved through practices of ethical non-monogamy, but that’s for another post.

So let’s go back to Plato’s original question: Do you love a person because of [S], or do you love [S] because of that person?

On the other hand, if the latter, then there’s a more romantic involvement that you love the person and you begin to appreciate and notice [S] because of that person. By loving that person, you don’t recognize the value that is in the person.  Rather, you are seeing the person valuable because you love that person.  You’re saying that x finds the properties of y to be valuable because x loves y. Philosophers call this the bestowal view because loving the person bestows value on that person and only after does [S] become lovable.

Bestowal View

Bestowal View of Love

(Following Soble, he calls this agapic love.) Notice with this view if we ask why we love someone, we can’t give any reasons (otherwise it’s the appraisal view). There is no justification as to why we love someone, which is why we sometimes say “love is blind.” I love x means that I see value in x, and not some preceding [S]. Notice with the bestowal view, love is creative and not simply a response to something valuable. By loving x, I am putting value in x that was not there before. I find certain qualities of [S] valuable because I love x. The love is doing the creative work: it explains why I find [S] valuable.

Philosophers have also had problems with the bestowal view and they are quite similar to the problems of the appraisal view.

First, the bestowal view also makes love non-constant. If I love x without any reason, then what’s to stop me from not loving x? In other words, if I love x for no reason, it doesn’t follow that I will continue to love x later.  Just as love “magically” came into existence, it might also “magically” go out.

Second, love is also non-exclusive. If I love x for no reason that has to do with x, what’s to stop me from loving another person, say z?  At least with reason-based love (the appraisal view), there’s some conceptual limits on me loving people other than x. As a side note, I don’t really consider this a problem metaphysically, but we socially and logistically find this troublesome. 

And so, philosophers have been bickering back and forth between these two views since Plato. Is there a way to have both? Philosopher Troy Jollimore thinks there is. He argues that appraisal is like perception: we are simply responding to something out there in the world. Bestowal, however, is like action: we are actually doing something creatively. When it comes to ordinary perception, it depends on our actively directing our attention and using concepts, interpretations, and arguments to perceive things accurately. Likewise, when we see our beloved’s value (appraisal), it also depends on actively attending to them and interpreting them (bestowal). When we love someone, we are attending to the valuable properties that the person already has, and when we attend to them, we do so in such a way that it gives us reasons to love this person. These values, however, come to you in such a special way that you appreciate these properties in a significant way.

So suppose you initially find someone attractive and over time, you fall in love with this person because this person is good looking, intelligent, and has a good sense of humor. Those features are part of [S]. As the relationship grows, you begin to tolerate certain things that you initially can’t stand (e.g. snoring, that s/he watches reality TV). But you also begin to bestow certain properties to this person that you initially were indifferent to.  More than that, you find them charming (e.g. the way that person laughs, the way this person sings to the radio, or the fact that this person eats the whole pizza, but then saves the last slice for you). So you begin to endow more and more properties of that person with value.

Perhaps we can say that Jollimore’s picture is like this: Appraisal (reason-based) → initial attraction → bestowal (non-reason based) → love. Here’s the illustration:

Jollimore's View

Jollimore’s View of Love

Ah, but does this lead to the problems we’ve mentioned before? Wouldn’t we see these same values in another person?  Jollimore says sure, we could appraise the same values in another person.  However, we wouldn’t bestow them on another person because loving the first person “silences” any possibility to bestow value on another. In other words, I may appraise a person and find her attractive, but I wouldn’t bestow any value onto that person and thereby would not love her. This seems to follow the standard narrative that we can find many people attractive, but only love one person. In other words, we can like many people and find many people attractive, but I wouldn’t love them because I already love this one person and loving this one person cuts out any possibility of loving others.

So for Jollimore, we would not bestow value on a new person. But why? He doesn’t give a reason.  Thus, love may not be blind, but the “silencing” is basically blinding ourselves to others.  In other words, I have a reason why I love x.  But I don’t have a reason for why I don’t love z. It still doesn’t solve the problem fully of exclusivity or constancy.

I think Jollimore’s insight makes sense, but the “silencing” doesn’t. It precludes the possibility of loving multiple people. Thus, the underlying assumption of Jollimore’s assessment is monogamy. However, he needs to argue for that position. Otherwise, there’s no justification for this “silencing.” So while I think he has a good explanation of resolving the appraisal/bestowal view, I’m not sure he fully solves the problems of either of the two positions.

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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2 Responses to Love: From Qualities to the Person

  1. Michelle P says:

    In my line of work (physical therapy) I have seen this model played out time and time again. Person x often sees something of value in y or to gain from the relationship and when that’s not being obtained any more, they wants the relationship end. I’ve heard He full gamut of excuses: he’s not the same person, she got fat, I can’t dedicated the time to take care of him that he needs, he’s angry, she’s miserable, it’s affecting the kids, I just can’t do this anymore,…and so on. I’ve noticed a trend in marriages where the injured person has financial security and the uninsured person will stay with them. But other than that, marriages seem to fall apart.

    If traumatic injury and life status is the variable to decide if we love people or not, what about illnesses or injuries that are not as obvious, such as mental illness, severe hormone shifts (as with pregnancy and PTSD), concussions and TBIs where there is no visible injury?

    A traumatic brain injury, loss of a limb, obviously changes the persons lifestyle and in many cases, economic status. It is common for the non-injured spouse to leave the other due to the way their lifestyle has been impacted by the change and devaluing the person after an accident. Or is this simply a matter of un-silencing the affections we were already predisposed to feel towards another individual

    I’m very curious as to how this model of erosic love plays out for regular people versus those who have a narcissistic personality, where ideation, valuing and devaluing are part of the abusive cycle.

    • shaunmiller says:

      This is interesting. Usually when we love a person, I think it starts with [S] and then we eventually love the person as a whole. Maybe the person will slowly change, but we can get used to the slow process. But when it’s a radical change like the examples you gave, then I think many people can’t handle it and think that this person isn’t the same person as before. The radical shifts makes the person reevaluate whether it’s worth to stay in the relationship or not where as a slow shift may be so subtle that the people can either deal with it or perhaps not even realize the subtleties.

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