Harry Frankfurt writes that it is through caring that we infuse the world with meaning. Caring provides us with stable ambitions and concerns; it shapes the framework of aims and interests within which we lead our lives. The most basic and essential question for a person to raise about the conduct of his or her life is not what he or she should care about but what, in fact, he or she cannot help caring about.
The most important form of caring, Frankfurt writes, is love, a nonvoluntary, disinterested concern for the flourishing of what is loved. Love is so important because meaningful practical reasoning must be grounded in ends that we do not seek only to attain other ends, and because it is in loving that we become bound to final ends desired for their own sakes.
Frankfurt argues that the purest form of love is self-love. This sounds perverse, but self-loveas distinct from self-indulgenceis at heart a disinterested concern for whatever it is that the person loves. The most elementary form of self-love is nothing more than the desire of a person to love. Insofar as this is true, self-love is simply a commitment to finding meaning in our lives.
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The Reasons of Love
By Harry G. Frankfurt
Princeton University PressHarry G. Frankfurt
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THE QUESTION: "HOW SHOULD WE LIVE?"
1 We have it on the authority both of Plato and of Aristotle that philosophy began in wonder. People wondered about various natural phenomena that they found surprising. They also puzzled over what struck them as curiously recalcitrant logical, or linguistic, or conceptual problems that turned up unexpectedly in the course of their thinking. As an example of what led him to wonder, Socrates mentions the fact that it is possible for one person to become shorter than another without shrinking in height. We might wonder why Socrates should have been made at all uncomfortable by such a shallow paradox. Evidently the problem struck him not only as more interesting, but also as considerably more difficult and disturbing, than it strikes us. Indeed, referring to this problem and others like it, he says, "Sometimes I get quite dizzy with thinking of them."1
Aristotle gives a list of several rather more compelling examples of the sorts of things by which the first philosophers were led to wonder. He mentions self-moving marionettes (apparently the Greeks had them!); he mentions certain cosmological and astronomical phenomena; and he mentions the fact that the side of a square is incommensurable with the diagonal. It is hardly appropriate to characterize these things merely as puzzling. They are startling. They are marvels. The response they inspired must have been deeper, and more unsettling, than simply-as Aristotle puts it-a "wondering that the matter is so."2 It must have been resonant with feelings of mystery, of the uncanny, of awe.
Whether the earliest philosophers were trying to fathom the secrets of the universe, or just trying to figure out how to think clearly about some quite ordinary fact or how to express some commonplace observation accurately, Aristotle reports that their inquiries had no further and more practical goals. They were eager to overcome their ignorance, but that was not because they thought they needed the information. In fact, their ambition was exclusively speculative or theoretical. They wanted nothing more than to dispel their initial surprise that things are as they are, by developing a reasoned understanding of why it would be unnatural-or even impossible-for things to be any other way. When it becomes clear that something was only to be expected, that dissipates whatever sense of surprise it may initially have engendered. As Aristotle remarks concerning right triangles, "there is nothing which would surprise a geometer so much as if the diagonal turned out to be commensurable."3
I am going to be concerned here with, among other things, certain discomforts and disturbances by which human beings are rather typically beset. These differ both from the sorts of discomforts and disturbances that may be caused by logical difficulties, such as the one Socrates mentions, and from those that tend to arise in response to features of the world like those on Aristotle's list. They are more practical and, because they pertain closely to our interest in trying to manage our lives sensibly, more urgent. What presses us to inquire into them is not disinterested curiosity, or puzzlement, or wonder, or awe. It is psychic distress of another variety altogether: a kind of nagging anxiety, or unease. The difficulties we encounter in thinking about these things may sometimes, perhaps, make us dizzy. They are more likely, however, to cause us to feel troubled, restless, and dissatisfied with ourselves.
The topics to which this book is devoted have to do with the ordinary conduct of life. They pertain, in one way or another, to a question that is both ultimate and preliminary: how should a person live? Needless to say, this is not a question of only theoretical or abstract interest. It concerns us concretely, and in a very personal way. Our response to it bears directly and pervasively upon how we conduct ourselves-or, at least, upon how we propose to do so. Perhaps even more significantly, it affects how we experience our lives.
When we seek to understand the world of nature, we do so at least partly in the hope that this will enable us to live within it more comfortably. To the extent that we know our way around our environment, we feel more at home in the world. In our attempts to settle questions concerning how to live, on the other hand, what we are hoping for is the more intimate comfort of feeling at home with ourselves.
2 Philosophical issues pertaining to the question of how a person should live fall within the domain of a general theory of practical reasoning. The term "practical reasoning" refers to any of the several varieties of deliberation in which people endeavor to decide what to do, or in which they undertake to evaluate what has been done. Among these is the particular variety of deliberation that focuses especially upon problems of moral evaluation. This species of practical reasoning naturally receives, from philosophers and from others as well, a great deal of attention.
It is unquestionably important for us to understand what the principles of morality require, what they endorse, and what they forbid. It goes without saying that we need to take moral considerations seriously. In my opinion, however, the importance of morality in directing our lives tends to be exaggerated. Morality is less pertinent to the shaping of our preferences and to the guidance of our conduct-it tells us less of what we need to know about what we should value and how we should live-than is commonly presumed. It is also less authoritative. Even when it does have something relevant to say, it does not necessarily have the last word. With regard to our interest in the sensible management of those aspects of our lives that are normatively significant, moral precepts are both less comprehensively germane and less definitive than we are often encouraged to believe.
People who are scrupulously moral may nonetheless be destined by deficiencies of character or of constitution to lead lives that no reasonable person would freely choose. They may have personal defects and inadequacies that have nothing much to do with morality but that make it impossible for them to live well. For example, they may be emotionally shallow; or they may lack vitality; or they may be chronically indecisive. To the extent that they do actively choose and pursue certain goals, they may devote themselves to such insipid ambitions that their experience is generally dull and without flavor. In consequence, their lives may be relentlessly banal and hollow, and-whether or not they recognize this about themselves-they may be dreadfully bored.
There are those who maintain that people who are not moral cannot be happy. Perhaps it is true that being moral is an indispensable condition for a satisfying life. It is certainly not, however, the only condition that is indispensable. Sound moral judgment is not even the only condition that is indispensable in evaluating courses of conduct. Morality can provide at most only a severely limited and insufficient answer to the question of how a person should live.
It is often presumed that the demands of morality are inherently preemptive-in other words, that they must always be accorded an overriding precedence over all other interests and claims. This strikes me as implausible. Moreover, so far as I can see, there is no very persuasive reason to believe that it is so. Morality is most particularly concerned with how our attitudes and our actions should take into account the needs, the desires, and the entitlements of other people.4 Now why must that be regarded as being, without exception, the most compelling thing in our lives? To be sure, our relationships with other people are enormously important to us; and the requirements of morality to which they give rise are therefore undeniably weighty. However, it is difficult to understand why we should assume that nothing can ever, in any circumstances, count more heavily with us than those relationships, and that moral considerations must invariably be accepted as weightier than considerations of all other kinds.
What misleads people in this matter may be the supposition that the only alternative to accepting the requirements of morality consists in greedily permitting oneself to be driven by self-interest. Perhaps they assume that when someone is reluctant to submit his behavior to moral constraints, it must be that he is motivated by nothing more elevated than a narrow desire for some benefit to himself. This might naturally make it seem that even though there are circumstances in which morally proscribed conduct may be understandable, and maybe even forgivable, that sort of conduct can never be worthy of admiration or of genuine respect.
However, even quite reasonable and respectable people find that other things may sometimes mean more to them, and make stronger claims upon them, than either morality or themselves. There are modes of normativity that are quite properly compelling but that are grounded neither in moral nor in egoistic considerations. A person may legitimately be devoted to ideals-for instance, aesthetic, cultural, or religious ideals-whose authority for him is independent of the desiderata with which moral principles are distinctively concerned; and he may pursue these nonmoral ideals without having his own personal interests in mind at all. Although it is widely presumed that moral claims are necessarily overriding, it is far from clear that assigning a higher authority to some nonmoral mode of normativity must always be-in every circumstance and regardless of the pertinent magnitudes-a mistake.
3 Authoritative reasoning about what to do and how to behave is not limited to moral deliberation. Its scope extends, as I have suggested, to evaluations in terms of various nonmoral modes of normativity that also bear upon the conduct of life. The theory of normative practical reasoning is therefore more inclusive, with respect to the types of deliberation that it considers, than moral philosophy.
It is deeper as well. This is because it embraces issues pertaining to evaluative norms that are more comprehensive and more ultimate than the norms of morality. Morality does not really get down to the bottom of things. After all, it is not sufficient for us to recognize and to understand the moral demands that may properly be made on us. That is not enough to settle our concerns about our conduct. In addition, we need to know how much authority it is reasonable for us to accord to those demands. Morality itself cannot satisfy us about this.
There may be some individuals for whom a commitment to being morally virtuous is a categorically dominant personal ideal. Being moral is, under all conditions, more important to them than anything else. Such people will naturally accept moral requirements as unconditionally overriding. That is not, however, the only intelligible or the only appealing design for a human life. We may find that other ideals and other measures of value attract us, and that they recommend themselves to us forcefully as reasonable competitors for our controlling allegiance. Accordingly, even after we have accurately identified the commands of the moral law, there still remains-for most of us-the more fundamental practical question of just how important it is to obey them.
4 When philosophers or economists or others attempt to analyze the various structures and strategies of practical reasoning, they generally draw upon a more or less standard but nonetheless rather meager conceptual repertoire. Perhaps the most elementary as well as the most indispensable of these limited resources is the notion of what people want-or, synonymously (at least according to the somewhat procrustean convention that I shall adopt here), what they desire. This notion is rampantly ubiquitous. It is also heavily overburdened, and a bit limp. People routinely deploy it in a number of different roles, to refer to a disparate and unruly assortment of psychic conditions and events. Moreover, its various meanings are rarely distinguished; nor is there much effort to clarify how they are related. These matters are generally left carelessly undefined in the blunt usages of common sense and ordinary speech.
As a result, our understanding of various significantly problematic aspects of our lives has tended to remain partial and blurred. The standard repertoire of concepts is handy, but it does not provide adequately for the clarification of certain very important phenomena. These phenomena must be brought into sharper focus. Therefore, the usual array of conceptual resources needs to be enriched by the articulation of some additional notions. These notions, too, like the notion of desire, are both commonplace and fundamental. To an unfortunate extent, however, they have been neglected.
5 It is frequently insufficient to identify the motives that guide our conduct, or that shape our attitudes and our thinking, just by observing vaguely that there are various things we want. That often leaves out too much. In numerous contexts, it is both more precise and more fully explanatory to say that there is something we care about, or-in a phrase that I shall employ (perhaps a bit willfully) as closely equivalent to this-something we regard as important to ourselves. In certain cases, moreover, what moves us is an especially notable variant of caring: namely, love. In proposing to expand the repertoire upon which the theory of practical reason relies, these are the additional concepts that I have in mind: what we care about, what is important to us, and what we love.
There are significant relationships, of course, between wanting things and caring about them. Indeed, the notion of caring is in large part constructed out of the notion of desire. Caring about something may be, in the end, nothing more than a certain complex mode of wanting it. However, simply attributing desire to a person does not in itself convey that the person cares about the object he desires. In fact, it does not convey that the object means anything much to him at all. As everyone knows, many of our desires are utterly inconsequential. We don't really care about those desires. Satisfying them is of no importance to us whatever.
This need not be because the desires are weak. The intensity of a desire consists in its capacity to push other inclinations and interests out of the way. Sheer intensity, however, implies nothing as to whether we really care about what we want. Differences in the strengths of desires may be due to all sorts of things that are quite independent of our evaluative attitudes. They may be radically incommensurate with the relative importance to us of the desired objects.
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Table of Contents
The Question: "How Should We Live?" 1
On Love,and Its Reasons 33
The Dear Self 69
What People are Saying About This
“A pleasure to read. . . . Its literary qualities . . . resemble the sharp lines and bright colors of a fine Mondrian or the austere elegance of good modernist architecture. . . . [A] comprehensive statement of the mature views of one of the most creative philosophers of his generation.”Philip L. Quinn, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews“[Frankfurt’s] little book provides the rare pleasure of witnessing an agile and sensitive mind grappling with an issue of universal importance.”Eric Ormsby, New York Sun“Well worth reading.”Berel Dov Lerner, Practical Philosophy“A thought-provoking work that should appeal to those interested in love, practical reasoning, and questions concerning the good life.”Jason Kawall, Philosophy in Review