Love is one of the most mysterious yet universal themes of life. What does it mean to love one another? And what room is there to deviate from the classical lovestory? Univers sought answers from contemporary philosophers.
What is love? Last month, on Valentine’s Day, philosophers from different international universities were invited by Tilburg University’s Department of Philosophy to deliberate about their research papers on love. The meeting fits into a long-standing philosophical tradition. Love has been subject of philosophical inquiry since ancient times. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle already grappled with the notion of love, resulting in terms like ‘eros’ (a desire for something) and ‘philia’ (friendship-like love).
To this day, a lot remains unclear about love and everything related to it. In order to spark the debate again, two fascinating perspectives on love that were recently shared on the Tilburg University campus will be highlighted here.
Why do we keep loving our beloved?
During one of the first sessions of the day, the Indian philosophers couple Neelam Mahant and Nikhil Mahant posed the fascinating question of why we continue to love our beloved. Growing old together is a dream for many, but it seems easier than it really is. What is the secret of such a long-term love relationship?
For Neelam and Nikhil, love is much more than the affection that lovebirds feel for each other. In fact, this feeling of affection is not even required for love. “Love is often characterized as an emotional attraction one has towards someone else, but that is incorrect,” they say. “It would imply that there is no room for conscious, voluntary decisions on love matters.”
“The idea of falling in love is nonsense”
“Therefore, the idea of falling in love is nonsense; it deprives us from our volition. And since the ‘in love’ feeling at some point always fades, it would take away from us the assurance that relationships can be enduring, which seems contradictory to reality.”
But then what is love instead? Real love is commitment. “It is when you commit yourself to engage in a long-term relationship with that other person,” Neelam and Nikhil claim. This commitment is external rather than internal; we show it by our explicit actions and overt behavior. “Even though the inner feeling may disappear, we stick to the relationship by behaving accordingly. It’s the way you act that matters.”
For Neelam and Nikhil, the reason that we keep loving our beloved ones is that we stay committed to the relationship. But why would we do this if there is no emotional reason? “We derive our identity from this relationship. To commit to someone is not about carrying out a chore, but about building an identity. Lovebirds fulfill each other like yin and yang and construe each other’s personalities.”
“Lovebirds fulfill each other like yin and yang”
People who stay together their whole lives are afraid of losing their identity as a so-called ‘partner of’ or ‘lover of’. To discontinue a relationship means a shift in our sense of self; a gap emerges in our self-image. We value a stable identity and it is for this reason that we strive for long-lasting love.
Discrimination in the bedroom
Later during the day, Jeroen Rijnders, affiliated to the University of Oslo, talked about his paper ‘Discrimination in the Bedroom’. In this paper, Rijnders takes a slightly different approach to love and focuses more on people’s sexual preferences.
Rijnders takes issue with the idea that there is no accounting for taste, sexual taste in particular. He believes that there are certain controversial sexual preferences people hold that are morally objectionable. Those contentious sexual preferences are for example people’s choices not to sexually engage with Asian or bisexual persons.
Rijnders: “Controversial sexual preferences can have a negative influence on ways we are dealing with the sexually excluded,” he says. “These preferences are connected with other non-sexual attitudes towards them, such as biases, (un)conscious stereotypes, and false beliefs.”
Those negative attitudes become visible in professional areas and educational environments as well as in the legal world. In these areas, differential treatment takes place that is formed by irrelevant sexual preferences based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and body type.
“Persons that are deemed more attractive are more likely to get the job, receive better evaluations, or get more favorable verdicts than those who are considered less attractive.” As a consequence, choices are grounded in sexual taste rather than relevant qualities and capacities, which is morally wrong.
Apart from these indirect harms, sexually excluded people also suffer direct harms. Controversial sexual preferences cause that certain people are being ‘depersonalized’, which means that they are reduced to a mere member of a group who possesses only those traits that characterize that group.
“Personal and unique characteristics are lost out of sight here, which creates a low self-esteem. In the end, people don’t see you the way you are.”
Another big risk that arises due to controversial sexual preferences is that those affected actually become sexually isolated. “By excluding people, their opportunities to find sexual partners and other intimate relationships will shrink.” Automatically, this will decrease their chances of living a happy life, since sexuality, marriage and love are important determining factors for this.
Unlike Rijnders, a classical liberalist would state that people have fixed and predetermined sexual preferences and therefore cannot be held responsible for them. “There is no decisive empirical evidence for this way of thinking,” Rijnders says. “Rather, a dynamic model of sexual cognition seems to be true. This means that sexual preferences – which is not the same as sexual orientation – are characterized by a significant degree of fluidity.”
“Your personal bubble creates your sexual wants”
According to Rijnders, we can influence this fluidity by intentionally exposing ourselves to certain stimuli that form our personal predilections. “It is the media and the people you have contact with that affect your personal taste. It is your personal bubble that creates your sexual wants.” If this is true, people have control over the preferences they develop: we have a significant amount of freedom in choosing which influences we are exposed to.
It is in virtue of this that we have a moral responsibility for our controversial preferences. “People have a moral responsibility to engage in changing their preferences, challenging the dominant, discriminative norms typically presented in our mainstream culture, and aim to develop more inclusive, respectful sexual preferences.”
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