A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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3/ Critique of the confusion between love and desire

For me, love differs from desire for one main reason: the former attributes a value to the loved object (I say ‘attributes’, not ‘creates’), whereas in desire nothing of this kind happens. In other words, desire attributes no real value to the desired one, while love is fundamentally affirmation of the value of the loved one.

Some concrete examples could help us to understand this: I may look longingly at this apple pie: I desire it, but I do not love it. It would be absurd to maintain that I have with this pie a love relationship. Why? Because I do not attribute a value to it. I do not consider that it has a high position in the hierarchy of beings. But I do desire it. Likewise, a man may desire a woman without loving her (and vice versa); he is attracted to her (or she is attracted to him), but does not attribute her a value. Conversely, we may imagine a man loving a woman, without having any desire for her (what is called a platonic love, isn’t it?).

So there is empirical evidence that desire and love are two irreducible concepts, and they differ depending on whether or not value is attributed to the object of our sentiment.
In the case of desire, one does not need to attribute a value to the object, because it seems that desire is a dynamic force which is self-sustaining, feeds on itself and gets stronger, by its own activity. It does not need any object, or even, disappears when the object is achieved: we do not need a rib steak to be hungry, but it is when we eat a rib steak that hunger disappears.
On the contrary, love arises only when an object appears and draws our attention. It does not vanish in the very possession of the object, but finds its fulfillment there. I take pleasure from the presence and thought of the beloved being, I want to prolong the moment, whereas when I am sexually –or culinary- satisfied, I do not want to start again my activity (viz. to find one more time the being or the thing in question).

If it is true, then it is with respect to value that love and desire differ. We could metaphorically say that love is objectivist, and desire subjectivist.

So the fact that subjectivism, as we have seen, reduces love to desire, and attaches great importance to desire, is a clear sign. It is not that the subjectivist necessarily refuses to attribute a value to the desired object; but when he does so, he adds at once that this value were not in the object, but that it is the subject who created it. This could have been the case, since the dynamism of desire is likely to have such a power, but my analysis of subjectivism has shown the impossibility of any creation of value, I think.

To consider that “have a value” is equivalent to “be desirable” leads most often to the subjectivist approach: The value of things consisting in their ability to cause desires, and value being proportional to their intensity, it is to be admitted that value is essentially subjective 1.

Now we understand how it is to possible to consider as equivalent ‘valuable’ and ‘desirable’, like Misrahi: Value: […] value means the desirability of an object or an act, viz. the intensity level of desire that makes an object or an act worthy of being desired 2.
And how it leads to a creative subjectivism: Evaluation: […] this act seems to suppose the objectivity of criterion, viz. of values enabling us to measure and judge the value of a man or an action. In fact, evaluation is also and above all the act by which consciousness posits values, i.e. invents and defines purposes considered as worthy of being achieved 3.

To sum up, I think it is enough to prove that desire and love cannot be reduced to one another, since the notion of desire involves that of subjective value, whereas love implies the statement of the real value of its object. Now we must examine this last idea, and draw its consequences.

1. Ehrenfels, System of value theory
2. What is ethics?
3. Ibid.