"If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it." (Arthur Schopenhauer.)

"When women hold off from marrying men, we call it independence. When men hold off from marrying women, we call it fear of commitment." (Warren Farrell)

Romantic love, like other emotions, is experienced from a very personal and egoistic perspective. The egoistic aspect in romantic love is evident in the common attitude of "I want you, my love, to be happy, but only with me." Is romantic love then an egoistic emotion that we should condemn, or an altruistic one that we should praise? The answer is not straightforward.

Although romantic love encompasses genuine care for the beloved, it is not a general concern for the beloved's happiness in all circumstances. Typically, the lover desires the beloved's happiness only insofar as the lover is either a part of this happiness. The spouse can be an extension of our self only in a conditional manner: the condition is being connected to us. In particular, we do not want our beloved to be sexually happy with another person. Pablo Picasso expressed this concern in a rather extreme manner when saying "I would prefer to see a woman dead than see her happy with another man."

The egoistic nature of romantic love generates an inherent contradiction: whereas romantic love expresses great concern for the beloved, it also to some extent wishes to revoke the beloved's autonomy.

Romantic love is not a typical altruistic attitude for two major reasons. First, it is discriminative by being directed toward one or very few people; second, it is not merely concerned with the well-being of the other person, but the subject's own personal interest is dominant this attitude. However, romantic love is not an entirely egoistic attitude, as it involves care and concern for another person.

Altruism often entails superficial involvement, whereas profound romantic love involves deep commitment. The involvement of an altruistic person may be expressed in giving a certain amount of money or performing a benevolent deed; it is often a somewhat distant involvement. The profound commitment involved in romantic love is often associated with personal sacrifice, and as such, unless it also promotes the well-being of the lover it cannot be maintained over a long period. One cannot sustain a profound positive attitude while constantly suffering or sacrificing one's own well-being. The deep commitment associated with emotions is expressed in a strong motivational component that aims to elevate and support the beloved. Since romantic love involves a profound and daily commitment, it might even be considered as having a greater moral value than mere altruism.

However, a total lack of discrimination is also problematic. Thus, Don Juan could be described as an extremely kind person, since his attitude toward each and every woman was highly positive. Even if some womanizers are kind by nature, it would be improper to describe them as virtuous people, since they lack any discriminative attitude and are too easily drawn into temptation.

Profound romantic love should be associated with a model of intimacy which encourages the self-development and fulfillment of each partner and thus requires greater autonomy, sensitivity, and flexibility of each partner. Romantic love requires some kind of commitment not merely to one's partner, but to one's basic values. Although this model emphasizes the agent's freedom and autonomy, it does not assume total freedom, but rather a restricted form of freedom. The concern for oneself as well as for others should be distinguished from egoism. Attempting to nurture your capacities and genuine needs, while at the same time developing a loving equal relationship that promotes both the lover and the beloved, is not egoism.

The commitment to the other person is less significant in sexual desire, where satisfying our needs is the major, and sometimes the only, concern. Whereas lovers care profoundly about their beloved and want them to prosper, in sexual desire the object's needs and attitudes are less of a priority. Nevertheless, sexual activities are not completely devoid of concern for the other person, as this person's satisfaction often increases our own. However, this is a more superficial and egoistic concern which does not focus on the fulfillment of the other's wishes. The value of the sexually desired person is for the limited purpose of sexual satisfaction. Sexual desire has a purposive nature which is not typical of love: as long as the sexual desire exists, there is a need which is not satisfied; the moment it is satisfied, attraction disappears.

Despite the lesser commitment involved in sexual relationships, it is these relationships that most lovers want to be exclusive to them and to them alone. In the sexual domain egoism (fidelity) is praised and altruism (infidelity) severely criticized. Does this do justice to the profound values of morality?

To sum up, lovers should be neither egoistic nor altruistic, although their love should involve both egoistic and altruistic elements. Lovers should care about themselves as well as about the beloved. This attitude may be termed, "Altruistic Egoism".

See also The Subtlety of Emotions, and In the Name of Love

 

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