A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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3/ Criticism of the confusion of love with desire

For me, love differs from desire on one essential point: it attributes a value to the object loved (I say: it attributes it, not: it creates it) whereas in desire there is nothing of the kind. In other words, desire attributes no real value (perhaps a relative value) to what is desired, whereas love is fundamentally an affirmation of the value of the beloved.

A few concrete examples will help us to understand this: I can look at this apple pie with eyes gleaming with lust: I desire it, but I do not love it. It would be absurd to claim that I have a loving relationship with this pie. Why should I? Because I do not value it. I do not give it a high place in the hierarchy of beings. On the other hand, I have the greatest desire for it.
Similarly, a man may desire a woman without having any love for her (and vice versa); he is attracted to her (or she is attracted to him) but does not attribute any value to her. Conversely, we can imagine a man loving a woman without having the slightest desire for her (isn't this what we call "platonic love"?).

So we can see empirically that desire and love are two irreducible concepts, and the reason for this difference lies in whether or not we attribute a value to the object of these two feelings.
Desire does not need to attribute a value to its object, because it seems to be a dynamic force that sustains itself, feeding on itself and reinforcing itself through its own activity. It does not need the object, and indeed the object attained suppresses desire: I do not need a steak to be hungry, but it is precisely when I am given a piece of meat that my hunger is appeased.
Love, on the other hand, only awakens when an object appears and arouses its interest. It is not extinguished in the possession of the object, but on the contrary finds its authentic unfolding there. I take pleasure in the presence and thought of the loved one, I want to prolong this moment, even eternalise it, whereas when I am fulfilled, culinarily or sexually, the idea of starting my activity again (i.e. finding the being or thing in question) is not attractive, and can even be unbearable.

If this is true, then love and desire are distinguished by their relationship to value. We could metaphorically say that love is objectivist, and desire subjectivist.

The fact that subjectivism, as we have seen, reduces love to desire, and attaches such importance to desire, is therefore an unmistakable sign. It is not that subjectivism necessarily refuses to attribute a value to the object desired; but if it affirms this, it is to specify immediately that this value was not in the object, but that it was the subject who created it. This might have been understandable, given that the dynamism of desire can give it such power, but our analysis of subjectivism 1 seems to us to show the impossibility of such a creation.

So it seems that equating "having a value" with "being desirable" leads most often to the subjectivist approach: The value of things being their ability to provoke desires, and value being proportional to the force of desire, we must admit that value is essentially subjective 2.

It is therefore easy to understand how we can, like Misrahi, consider as equivalent ‘valuable’ and ‘desirable’: Value therefore marks the desirability of an object or an act, i.e. the level of intensity of desire that makes an object or an act worthy of being desired and of being offered for action by others 3.
... and how it leads to a creative subjectivism: Evaluation: [...] this act seems to presuppose the objectivity of the criteria, i.e. the values that make it possible to measure and judge the value of a person or an action. In reality, [...] evaluation is also and above all the act by which consciousness sets values, i.e. invents and defines goals considered worthy of being pursued and of being proposed to others for action 4.

To sum up, I think it is enough to prove that desire and love are irreducible to each other, in that the notion of desire is linked to the subjectification of value, whereas love, for its part, implies the affirmation of a real value in its object. It is this latter idea that we must now examine, in order to draw the consequences.

1. Chapter III, I, B
2. Ehrenfels, System der Werttheorie, Leipzig, 1897 and Ribot, Logique des sentiments
3. Qu’est-ce que l’éthique ?, p. 267
4. Ibid., p. 242