Archive for May, 2009
Someone facebooked me the other day and asked why I haven’t talked much about love here, and wondered if it was because love is hard to define. I thought it was a cool question – the definition of love – so I thought I’d write a little sumn sumn just about the task of defining love, and then maybe later filling that out.
Love definitely is hard to define – for me at least. That’s because love, as a term, gets a lot of mileage, and that makes it sort of fuzzy. Now, terms can become fuzzy in a few different ways. For one, they can be fuzzy by being vague. A term is vague when it’s not quite clear what its boundaries are; that is, when it’s not clear just when the term applies. Think of the term ‘beard’. It’s a little fuzzy (har har) because it’s vague. There aren’t hard and clear boundaries that separate a beard from a non-beard. For instance, today I used a one guard on my neck. I’m pretty stubbly at this point, but is that a beard? If it is, how much less length would I need to no longer have a beard? (Or is it not length, but the number of hairs that makes a beard? Again, fuzzy.). But, for all it’s fuzziness, beard is still a perfectly useful and meaningful term. It just comes with some gray area. Love is fuzzy, but is it fuzzy because it’s vague? I don’t think so. It seems to me that, even if it’s a tough task, it’s possible to outline clear boundaries to say exactly when a person is being loving or not, and I don’t think that these boundaries would just be randomly selected (unlike if we were to say a beard is x number of hairs at a certain length – that would just be silly and dogmatic).
So love is fuzzy, but it’s not vague. It’s fuzzy for another reason: it’s ambiguous. That is, the term love can be used to mean a wide variety of different things. Notice though that beard, another fuzzy term, doesn’t have this problem. A beard refers to one thing – the bit of hair on your face. Love, on the other hand, is used much more widely. We talk about loving chocolate, and loving our partners, but those don’t mean anywhere near the same thing. “I love chocolate” means something like “chocolate is very useful to me for getting pleasure”, but that’s probably not a very good meaning for love when someone says, “I love my boyfriend”. No one makes a big deal about treating chocolate like a mere object to be used for pleasure, but we don’t tend to think it’s okay to think about people that way. Love, still, is used in both ways all the time, and in a million others.
I’m not going to be a preacher about this, and complain about people claiming to love their dogs, and televisions, and spouses, and chocolate. I only want to point out that the wider a range of meanings a term has, the less meaningful it becomes. Love is in that awkward position.
This just flittered into my head on the way back from lunch with my landlord. We normally assume (or I would think most of us normally assume) that if there’s a real best out of a group of options, that’s the one we should prefer. For instance, if we’re faced with choices of meals, and one of them is the healtiest, best priced, most readily available, most delicious, etc., it would be pretty stupid to prefer one of the others. We might not be morally wrong to choose another one, but we’re being stupid. We’re not making sense, because we’re not choosing the (objectively) best option. This holds all the more obviously in moral situations. I’m faced with a choice to save a drowining person, watch the person drown and do nothing, or help drown them. The best option is obvious. If I don’t choose that one, I’m just plain wrong.
But here is what seems like a situation where I have a strong preference for something, but I don’t believe it to be the best of the available options, and yet I don’t think I’m wrong to prefer what I prefer: government. I honestly think I’d prefer a socialist or communist government. That’s actually a pretty strong preference for me, but, I don’t think that either of those is the best form of government. I tend to think that something pretty close to what America has now is the best form, because it allows for the most personal liberty – a value I hold pretty highly. So why would I prefer communism or socialism over this capitalist, constitutional republic, even though I think the latter is overall a better form? Well, like I said, I think our government makes the most room for personal liberty (while also safeguarding its citizens), and I think that’s the general role of government. But, it affords a lot of liberties that I don’t care anything for (like the liberty to dominate competitors in the marketplace, hoard material posessions, etc.), and those liberties come with costs that, since I don’t want them anyway, I don’t care to pay. Communism generally doesn’t carry these costs, so I’d really prefer that system. And all that is justified; there’s no reason I should prefer our government over communism or socialism (personally). I’m totally within my rights to wish (personally) to live in such a society. So, my preference is unscathed. But, considering the role of government, I have to say that our current style is the objective winner, since it does what government ought to do better than competitors (generally). The result? – an odd situation where I rationally, justifiably prefer one option, and yet hold that it’s, in the end, an inferrior one. Weird.