The philosophy of love
Dr Luke Brunning, Lecturer in Applied Ethics, explores how philosophers are challenging old assumptions about relationships and offering new visions of flourishing intimacy.
Traditional philosophers have long had many theories around love, which offer us no shortage of puzzles. If we love people for their qualities, for example, is it ok to love anyone with the same qualities, or stop loving someone if their qualities change? If, instead, we value our lover’s quirks because we love them, then why can’t we extend our loving eye to more people?
Philosophers have also grappled with sex. A classic 1990s textbook, “Ethics and Sex”, has chapter headings like “homosexuality”, “sex and procreation” and “sexual perversion.” To contemporary students, this text feels dated. The idea that sex might be enjoyable, or part of a flourishing life, was presented as something that needed to be justified.
Until recently, the complexities of modern relationships were missing from these discussions. Philosophers focused on marriage, which increasingly lacked relevance to people in more fluid, short-term, or legally unrecognised relationships, or to people who were legally unable to marry due to their sexual orientation, lack of legal gender recognition, or desire for plural marriage. Even nuanced discussions of marriage and intimacy typically represented only the perspective of the typical philosopher of the time: someone privileged, white, heterosexual, and non-disabled.
Absent was nascent affection, flirting, dating, casual flings, messy cohabitations, long-distance relationships, love-triangles, remarriage. The emotional dimensions of intimacy were not there. Philosophy also gave us no sense that women might share a bed, that three people might have a relationship, or that sexual attraction does not always accompany the desire for romance.
Reflecting the diverse realities of relationships
In recent years, philosophers have started exploring the complex realities of human love and relationships in several important ways.
Diversity is now better recognised, for example, as we consider love beyond heterosexuality.
Discussion of sexual orientation, intimate identity, and the impact of social categories has been shaped dramatically by queer and transgender writers. Esa Díaz-León and Robin Dembroff, for instance, have developed nuanced accounts of sexual orientation. Talia Bettcher’s work from a transgender perspective helps us understand the relationship between sexual orientation and gender identity. Gen Eickers has written movingly about the impact clashes of identity have on emerging love in the lives of transgender people.
Discussion of non-monogamy is also changing our view of love and intimacy. Carrie Jenkins, for instance, has shown that romantic love can take more than one object, and explores the implications of this, personally and socially, in several important books. Other writers, from Elizabeth Brake to Justin Clardy, ask what non-monogamous lives show about commitment and other ideals, and about the role of the state in promoting limited visions of romantic flourishing.
As Natasha McKeever and I have shown in our work, engagement with people on the asexual spectrum helps us arrive at a better understanding of the connections between sexual attraction, desire and activity. Attraction takes many forms, and distinctly sexual attraction is not required for romantic life and may not even be an important part of good sex for some people either.
Exploring society’s attitudes and behaviours
Experiences of various marginalised groups on dating apps have led to a better understanding of romantic privilege and the harms of being fetishised or evaluated on appearance. Robin Zheng, for example, developed a nuanced account of racial fetishisation experienced by Asian women on dating apps, which helps us understand why these attitudes are harmful and how they are sustained in society.
Other writers, like Anne Eaton or Kate Manne, are dissecting the social forces that sustain the oppression and objectification of fat bodied people; attitudes that can prevent people pursuing intimacy on their own terms.
Consent is also a really important and growing area within philosophical study. Slowly, philosophers are arriving at a better understanding of what consent is, why it matters morally, how it is expressed, and the ways it can be undermined.
To take one recent example, philosophers are trying to work out whether withholding information about ourselves can invalidate or undermine consent. Informed consent may imply that we have a right to know certain things about a partner, but they may also have a right to privacy, especially when other people want to know things about them which may be socially stigmatised, harmful, or invasive. The work of Tom Dougherty has been influential in sparking many of these discussions and generating a range of incisive responses.
Perhaps more interesting, however, is our increasing grasp of the limitations of traditional discussions around consent and sexual ethics. Consensual sex can still be bad sex, and our practical ability to communicate with other people, set boundaries, and explore what we might want, can be undermined or pressured in subtle ways which philosophers are only now understanding. Talk of promise, consent and agreement presuppose that the lovers involved had equal standing, but we see now how the lives of most of us are marked by disparities inherited from our social world. To make sense of it all, philosophers like Quill Kukla have been following trails of power and privilege into the bedroom.
We are becoming more comfortable with pleasure, too. Although worries remain about the force and pervasiveness of objectification, especially as carried through modern media, the significance of being a sexual subject — someone desired, someone with a body — is not being ignored.
In part, this is due to an emerging grasp of how strange sexual desire can be and the connections between patterns of pleasure, pain and power. But we are also recognising that some people, such as older people or disabled people, can be romantically disenfranchised; this means that the state or providers of medical or social care fail to recognise the importance of romantic and sexual intimacy in their lives. Nor is intimacy between older people or disabled people commonly depicted in the media, let along actively affirmed.
Emotions, technology and agency — new and emerging areas of study
Intimacy grips the body. New work on the emotions is more exciting than old puzzles about love.
What is jealousy, for example? How does it differ from envy and is it something to be managed or embraced?
What space should lovers make for anger, or blame? Might shame be constructive?
Recent research about grief has also transformed how we understand love. Like chemists, philosophers also learn about the nature of our intimate bonds by watching them react and dissolve.
Nor is the focus just on negative emotions. We are building a richer picture of how intimacy can become less competitive, free from anxiety, and how our attention can be more generous.
The future of love is also under scrutiny. Technology has always transformed intimacy, from the telegraph to Tinder, and the increasing influence of algorithms on dating has prompted important questions about the nature and value of these interactions. The ethical promises and pitfalls of digital matches and compatibility scores are coming into focus, as are the ways robots, artificial intelligence and even love drugs might enter romantic life.
So many of these new areas of philosophical study are being prompted by real-life experiences. My students, for example, are seeking to understand the complexities they face in their own relationships and want to build on the growing work in this area. Consent matters to them because they have all-too-often had theirs violated. Agency matters to them because the intimate lives of young people are often overlooked or constrained.
In a time when caricatures of ‘wokeness’ or fragility are commonly levelled at younger people, and academic researchers more widely, it is inspiring to see philosophers from different backgrounds starting to challenge old assumptions and offer new visions of flourishing intimacy. We all stand to benefit.
Dr Luke Brunning is a lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, where he directs a research centre for the study of love, sex, and relationships with fellow Leeds lecturer Dr Natasha McKeever. Luke is also writing a book on romantic life for Polity Press.
Follow the Centre for Love, Sex and Relationships on Twitter @Leeds CLSR
An earlier version of this article was published in the Times Higher Education.