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Love and the Pitfall of Moralism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2017


In what sense does love presuppose appreciation of the other's character? First, I argue that loving appreciation is more often a source of truthful vision than of bias and idealisation. Second, using the example of Elizabeth Bennett, I show that the tendency to forfeit love for those who lose our good opinion can be an expression of undue moralism and pride. Nonjudgmental responses to the other's flaws show how virtuous love can combine both realistic vision of the other's flaws and appreciation of the other that does not stand on balancing flaws with qualities. Such love is in the end connected with a conception of goodness inspired by Kierkegaard and Weil.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2017 

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1 Winch, P., ‘Trying’ in Ethics and Action (London: Routledge, 1972), 144Google Scholar.

2 This tradition is mainly connected with Christian thinkers S. Kierkegaard and S. Weil, but we can find secular versions of it in I. Murdoch's and R. Gaita's conception of love. For an argument that Plato's conception of love involves just and realistic appreciation of the other see for example Hejduk, T., ‘What Did Socrates Love?’ in Maurer, C., Milligan, T., Pacovská, K. (eds), Love and Its Objects: What Can We Care For? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 58–9Google Scholar.

3 I do not believe that such an attitude is necessarily linked with one's self-respect or healthy, good pride. Quite the contrary, it is a sign of healthy self-confidence that people are not so liable to be influenced by the considerations of status. See section 2 for a more detailed discussion.

4 Craig Taylor argues moralism expresses a tendency to make ‘extreme or excessive’ or sometimes just ‘inappropriate or uncalled for’ moral judgments: Taylor, C., Moralism. A Study of a Vice (Durham: Acumen Publishing, 2012), 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Taylor emphasizes that moralism concerns mainly the manner in which the judgment is made (op. cit., 35). This manner is connected with the person's response to the flaw.

6 One qualification should be made at the outset: I am speaking about love for the other, not about the relationship with the other. In that sense, one can internally accept the other's fault and continue loving her, but at the same time end the relationship on account of one's protection, both mental and physical, for example. That is why my examples of wrongdoing do not involve the lover as the victim.

7 Jollimore, T., Love's Vision (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2011), 54Google Scholar.

8 Op. cit., 61.

9 I examine the intricacy of the relation between a person's (general) character and her (particular) action in my paper ‘Dmitri Karamazov is not a Murderer: the Significance of Action’. The conscious transition from a hostile to a loving interpretation of the other's character is very well shown in Murdoch's example of mother M (The Idea of Perfection’ in The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970), 17)Google Scholar.

10 Kierkegaard, S., Works of Love (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 271273Google Scholar.

11 Op. cit., 268.

12 T. Jollimore, Love's Vision, Op. cit., 61.

13 And even Kierkegaard grants that there are blameworthy actions that can be objects of forgiveness.

14 Op. cit., 47.

15 Op. cit., 69.

16 The example appeared in an earlier version of his paper Forgiveness: a work of love?’ in Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy 28 (2017), 1939Google Scholar.

17 See for example ch. III.1: ‘Alyosha “pierced his [father's] heart” because he “lived there, saw everything, and condemned nothing.” Moreover, he brought something unprecedented with him: a complete lack of contempt for him, the old man, and, on the contrary, an un-varying affection and a perfectly natural, single-hearted attachment to him, little though he deserved it.’ (Dostoevsky, F. M., The Brothers Karamazov (London: Vintage, 1992), 78Google Scholar).

18 Austen, J., Pride and Prejudice (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 91Google Scholar.

19 I disagree here with Zimmerman who claims Jane ‘refuses to see evil in the world’ because it is too painful for her and thus her judgment is just distorted by her desire (Zimmerman, E., ‘Pride and Prejudice in Pride and Prejudice’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 23/1 (1968), 66Google Scholar).

20 For the same point see Dooley, D. J.Pride, Prejudice, and Vanity in Elizabeth Bennet’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 20/2 (1965), 185188CrossRefGoogle Scholar and E. Zimmerman, ‘Pride and Prejudice in Pride and Prejudice’, op. cit..

21 This is what she cries in ch. 36 when she discovers her delusion: ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities!’

22 Roberts, R. C., Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 88Google Scholar.

23 Op. cit.

24 Op. cit., 85.

25 Op. cit., 83.

26 Cf. Kierkegaard, S., Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Kierkegaard's writings XV (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 170fCrossRefGoogle Scholar. and Weil, S., ‘The Iliad, Poem of Might’, in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), 2455Google Scholar. Weil contrasts the attitudes of admiration and scorn that are based on strengths and weaknesses to that of love.

27 See especially the chapter ‘Goodness beyond virtue’ from Gaita, R., Common Humanity: Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice (London – New York: Routledge, 2002)Google Scholar and the Preface from Gaita, R., Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception (London – New York: Routledge, 2006)Google Scholar. This point is connected with another of Gaita's claims that even the worst villain does not deserve to be treated like vermin. Murphy attributes such an attitude to ‘moral humility’ in ‘The Case of Dostoyevsky's General’ and ‘The Elusive Nature of Human Dignity’ in Murphy, J., Punishment and the Moral Emotions. Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion (Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 C. Taylor, Moralism. A Study of a Vice (op. cit.), ch. 2.

29 This can explain the ‘inconstancy’ Tony Milligan charges her of, even though I believe that her feelings for Wickham cannot be called love, but infatuation. See T. Milligan, ‘Abandonment and the Constancy of Love’,, accessed 14th November 2017, 10.

30 Milligan raised the worry whether Gaita's idea of unconditional or agapic love can be considered as an ideal (or the ‘best kind’) even for deeply personal love such as romantic (or intimate) love the cases of which I discussed in my ‘Loving Villains. Virtue in Response to Wrongdoing’ (in C. Maurer, T. Milligan, K. Pacovská (eds), Love and Its Objects (op. cit.), 125–139) – see Milligan, T., ‘Love and Acceptance’, The Philosopher's Magazine 70 (2015), 8692CrossRefGoogle Scholar and ‘Abandonment and the Constancy of Love’, op. cit.). I chose the example of friendship here to show that even in the most rational type of personal (and selective) love there is room for discussion whether the conditions and standards one applies are adequate and whether one is a good friend to another. Leaving aside the problem of serious crime, I believe it is possible to argue (as I did) that in more ordinary failures and flaws, the tendency to condemn and withdraw can be considered as improper judgmentalism and disloyalty both in friendship and in intimate relationships.

31 It is part of Elizabeth's moralism that she judges a decision that does not concern her and that does no obvious harm to anyone.

32 R. Gaita, Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, op. cit., 45; see also my ‘Loving Villains’, op. cit., in which I examine loving reactions to wrongdoing in more detail.

33 See also Browne, B., ‘A Solution to the Problem of Moral Luck’, The Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1992), 350CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In addition, Browne claims that even anger is compatible with love and loving concern and does not imply the desire for retribution or payback. The same point is argued by Nussbaum, M. in her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016)Google Scholar who advocates what she calls Transition-anger. Anger should focus on wrongdoing and should not condemn the wrongdoer as a person, in so far as it does not contain hatred or contempt (see op. cit., 50). The response of anger, however important, is primarily felt by the victim of the wrongdoing, so I will leave its discussion aside.

34 S. Kierkegaard, Works of Love, op. cit., 164. This observation shows that honest severity can be compatible with love, but not the righteous kind of it (such as Mr. Bulstrode from Eliot's Middlemarch or Kostelnička from Janáček's Jenúfa).

35 See my ‘Loving Villains’, op. cit., section 4 and also M. Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. Resentment, Generosity, Justice, op. cit., 119f.

36 See J. Lippitt, ‘Forgiveness: a work of love?’, op. cit., part IV, and S. Kierkegaard, Works of Love, op. cit., Deliberation ‘Love hopes all things’. For a defense of non-judgmental loyalty as crucial to love see O. Beran, ‘In the Absence of Judgment’, to appear in Philosophy and Literature.

37 This, again, concerns only the cases when the flaw or wrongdoing is beyond doubt.

38 I believe Murdoch was thinking of this tone when she said that the realism of an artist ‘is essentially both pity and justice’ (‘The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts’ in I. Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, op. cit., 87).

39 In Murdoch's example, the description of daughter in law D would not have to be unloving if she really were ‘pert and familiar’, ‘brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile’ (‘The Idea of Perfection’, op. cit., 17) – there are people like that and they are loved and accepted as such.

40 The judgment often labels the individual person, subsumes her under a group enemy description or type. Cf. C. Taylor, Moralism: A Study of a Vice, op. cit., 22.

41 Gaita discusses this expression and its connection with Falstaff's sense of equality with all fellow mortals in ch. 3 of his Common Humanity: Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice, op. cit.

42 Op. cit., 155f.

43 Op. cit., 156.

44 This aspect of Kierkegaard's view is very well depicted in Veresaev's story ‘The Contest’ (I thank Ondřej Beran for this suggestion).

45 Weil, S., Gravity and Grace (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), ch. ‘Love’Google Scholar.

46 In Gravity and Grace, Weil contrasts self-less contemplation with the attitude of desire (to own, to control, to change) that affects the lover's vision and imagination. I believe that similar disruption of vision can be caused by the attitude of superiority. Weil suggests that in her later essays such as ‘The Iliad, Poem of Might’.

47 S. Weil, Gravity and Grace, op. cit., 67.

48 ‘The beautiful is that which we cannot wish to change.’ Op. cit., 65. Cf. also 149f.

49 Murdoch, I., Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (ed. Conradi, P., (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997)), 216Google Scholar; cf. also op. cit., 417 and Murdoch, I., Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992), 17Google Scholar.

50 Kierkegaard compares the judging lover to that which has two pairs of ears – one that hears and one that judges (S. Kierkegaard, Works of Love, op. cit., 110).

51 S. Weil, ‘The Iliad, Poem of Might’, op. cit., 48.

52 Op. cit., 49.

53 J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice, op. cit., 90.

54 A fine example of such love of the world can be found in Roy Holland’ quote from Casals, P. in his Against Empiricism: On Education, Epistemology and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 59Google Scholar.

55 I would like to thank the participants of the 5th Colloquium on the Modalities of the Good and the participants of the workshop Love, Forgiveness and Reconciliation for the inspiring discussion of the earlier drafts of the paper. Special thanks to Alison McIntyre for her thoughtful and close comments. The paper was supported within the project of Operational Programme Research, Development and Education (OP VVV/OP RDE), ‘Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value’, registration No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/15_003/0000425, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the state budget of the Czech Republic.

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