In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Please Be More Insensitive to Other Women

Insensitivity is a valuable factor in love

"My biggest weakness is my sensitivity. I am too sensitive a person." Mike Tyson

"Wallow too much in sensitivity and you can't deal with life, or the truth." Neal Boortz

"I do not want to sound as if I am recommending divorce, but in the three years after my divorce, I thought that before the divorce I had been fragile and weak; in the following three years, I understood that I had confused sensitivity with weakness. One can be both sensitive and strong at the same time, and there is no contradiction in this regard." Rita


The call for emotions to play a greater role in our life is generally understood as a demand for greater sensitivity toward other people. But such a call should not be understood as a call for overall greater sensitivity-like other mental capacities, sensitivity has a structure and should also involve certain insensitivity. Accordingly, love includes both greater sensitivity and a larger measure of insensitivity (or indifference) toward other people.

Emotional sensitivity has the same function as a burglar alarm ringing when an intruder appears; it signals that something needs attention. But what kind of alarm should our emotional system be? To what kind of events should it alert us?

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Sensitivity is the capacity of an organism to be aware of a stimulation; it is associated with the capacity to respond to that stimulation. Emotional sensitivity expresses awareness and responsiveness to the emotional object.

The typical emotional object is another person or the person experiencing the emotion; typically it involves a certain concern about the subject (the one experiencing the emotion) and the object (the one the emotion is directed at). Emotions serve to monitor and safeguard our personal concerns; they give the eliciting event its significance.

Emotional sensitivity is not identical with the emotional personal concern. Sensitivity in its literal sense is mainly a change detector; it is usually expressed in a certain feeling. An emotional concern is a more comprehensive attitude that also involves cognition, evaluation and action readiness. Like a burglar alarm, emotional sensitivity indicates the presence of something that needs attention, but it does not tell us what action to take or how to respond. For this purpose, a more complex attitude is needed.

What is the optimal nature of emotional sensitivity? A prevailing answer may be that the more sensitive the system, the more changes it will detect, and thus the better it will fulfill its task. Although it is the task of emotional sensitivity to detect changes, it is meant to detect only significant changes, those that are meaningful to our emotional concern. Being indiscriminately sensitive may be counterproductive as it will quickly overload the system with irrelevant and even destructive noise. When it comes to emotional sensitivity, it is often the case that up to a certain point "the more the merrier," but after that "it is too much of a good thing."

Sensitivity is also a matter of genetic disposition and personality. It is estimated that about 20% of people are born highly sensitive; there is no doubt that this is liable to cause difficulties in their close personal relationships (see here). We may speak about various degrees of sensitivity and some of them may be problematic in an ongoing loving relationship, although this depends upon the given personality and circumstances.

The opposite of being sensitive is being insensitive (indifferent), which is associated with being apathetic. In contrast to sensitive people, insensitive people are unresponsive to and detached from changes in their situation; they remain stable in the face of such changes. However, the discriminative sensitive system underlying the emotional system forces the system to be indifferent outside the boundaries of its sensitivity. We may say that the emotional system is sensitive only to events within its boundaries; outside those boundaries, the emotional system is indifferent.

Emotions are partial in two basic senses: they are focused on a narrow target such as on one person or a very few people; and they express a personal and interested perspective. Emotions direct and color our attention by selecting what attracts and holds our attention; they make us preoccupied with some things and oblivious to others. Emotional partiality indicates not merely the sensitivity of emotions toward various factors, but also their indifference to others.

Emotions express our sensitivity toward other people; however, this is not a call for indiscriminate moral sensitivity, but for greater sensitivity within structured boundaries. Moral sensitivity without boundaries may be seen as expressing greater sensitivity, but such sensitivity can be harmful as it lacks any order of moral priorities, hence implying an inability to distinguish between significant and insignificant moral issues.

We cannot conduct our lives properly if we give the same importance to everything; we must have some order of priority. A person who attaches the same importance to everything will soon be overloaded. We must learn to be insensitive to some issues and to be more sensitive to others. Otherwise, our mental system will become occupied with unimportant issues and will be overwhelmed. In a similar manner, we cannot remember all the information we receive during a day; we retain only the important data.

Sensitivity is indeed the hallmark of emotions and its role in love is significant. Being in love is being sensitive to the beloved. However, too much sensitivity can ruin love; indiscriminate sensitivity is problematic as it disrupts our order of priorities. In the same sense, indiscriminate freedom is problematic. Our attitudes, as well as our sensitivities, should be structured according to our values. We cannot feel the same level of sensitivity toward every child in the world. Our own children should be our priority.

An essential moral difference between virtuous people and ordinary people is in their sensitivity. Virtuous people are less sensitive to immoral temptations and are more sensitive to moral wrongdoing. They cannot be characterized merely by their insensitivity to sinful temptations; they should also be characterized by their sensitivity to the suffering of others. In order to be a really virtuous person, it is not enough that a faithful husband desires no woman other than his wife; he should also be sensitive, in a quite a different manner, toward other women and men. Thus, one cannot describe a Don Juan as a sensitive person simply because he has a positive attitude toward almost every woman.} Even if a womanizer is indeed sensitive by nature, he cannot be considered virtuous, since he is not insensitive to certain temptations (see here).

A faithful husband and a Don Juan may be taken to represent two types of sensitivity: discriminate and indiscriminate. The indiscriminate sensitivity refers to all individuals in an equal manner; all individuals are entitled to receive the same moral response from me. Hence, all women are perceived by a Don Juan as deserving of a loving attitude. The discriminate sensitivity distinguishes the differences between the various individuals and hence adopts a different emotional attitude toward each of them.
To sum up, sensitivity is important for love and moral behavior; similarly, insensitivity (or indifference) is also of great significance for love and moral behavior. It is the nature of sensitivity, together with insensitivity, that determines the romantic and moral value of our sensitivity; the presence of sensitivity alone is not sufficient in this regard.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, my beloved long-term partner, I do wish you would be as sensitive to me as you are toward other women and as indifferent to those women as you are to me."

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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