“He is a hustler, he's no good at all, He is a loser, he's a bum
He lies, he bluffs, he's unreliable, He is a sucker with a gun….
But mama, I'm in love with a criminal
And this type of love isn't rational, it's physical
Mama, please don't cry, I will be alright….
If love consists of a comprehensive positive evaluation of the beloved, how can we love a criminal? Do we romantically love only good people? How important is the moral character of the partner? Is Britney Spears really in love? These questions have no easy answers.
Two general cases might explain loving a criminal: (a) love that is based mainly upon physical attraction, and (b) love that is based on caring for the person as a whole human being, while still condemning his behavior. I believe that although such cases seem to exist, they do not express profound love—but some other more superficial positive attitudes.
Superficial and Profound Romantic Features
“Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” Jerry Garcia
In analyzing the experience of romantic love, I use two major related distinctions: (1) evaluating the romantic partner in light of two basic evaluative patterns: (a) attractiveness, and (b) praiseworthiness of personal characteristics; and (2) evaluating the romantic experience in light of its (a) intensity, and (b) profundity.
I have suggested that the complex experience of romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns referring to (a) attractiveness—that is, an attraction to external appearance, and (b) praiseworthiness—that is, positive appraisal of personal characteristics. Romantic love consists of both sexual desire and friendship: while sexual desire is focused upon attractiveness, friendship is mainly concerned with the pattern of praiseworthiness. In order to speak about love we need to have the two pattern (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).
Romantic intensity is like a snapshot of a given moment; in romantic profundity the temporal dimension of love comes in. Romantic intensity expresses the momentary measure of passionate, often sexual, desire. Romantic profundity embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time along with life and romantic experiences that meaningfully resonate in all dimensions, helping the individuals flourish and thrive (Ben-Ze’ev, 2014).
The main added value in including the temporal dimension in romantic profundity concerns the issue of shared activities. When we move from sheer romantic intensity to romantic profundity, what is vital is not merely that more time is spent together, but that it is time in which essential activities associated with the given emotion take place. Thus, the sharing activities constitutive of profound love require time for their implementation. If time is available but the activities are missing, this experience is not profound (Krebs, 2014).
With these distinctions in mind, we can examine whether loving a criminal can be an experience of profound love.
The Romantic Aspect: Is Britney's Protagonist In Love?
“Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Britney Spears' song clearly indicates that protagonist's attitude is based merely upon physical attraction. As the man is a hustler, no good at all, a loser, a bum, not smart, devoid of a conscience, an unreliable liar, a bad boy with a tainted heart, he seems to have no significant praiseworthy quality. Since this love is based upon the superficial aspect of attraction, the weight of which reduces constantly over time in long-term relationships, it cannot be considered profound love. Some may even characterize this character's attitude as intense sexual attraction.
If Britney's protagonist insists that her attitude is love, there must be some praiseworthiness characteristics in the man that she evaluates highly. It seems that his main positive characteristics are his power and love for her (“He's got my name tattooed on his arm, His lucky charm”). Many female in the animal kingdom also search for a powerful animal that can protect them and ensure their safety and that of their offspring. Indeed the official video of the song begins by showing how the criminal protects Britney's persona from her slimy partner who treats her badly. The attraction to a wild, and in a sense abnormal, person, is expressed in the desire for a wild sexual partner and wild sex involving sadomasochism.
In light of the above distinctions, it is clear that the protagonist's love is not profound—it is almost entirely based upon physical attraction, and when we seek some evidence that he has additional personal qualities, we find they are indicative not of a loving attitude, but of his own status as powerful person. The relation between powerful men and their female partners is rarely equal and reciprocal, as is typically the case of profound love. The love here is not necessarily irrational (in the sense that it may be an optimal solution in the current specific circumstances), but it lacks the basic aspects of profound love.
Is such love immoral?
The Moral Aspect: Can We Love a Villain?
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
The risks of loving a criminal are obvious; for example, it may be taken as encouraging violence (which is what Britney Spears was accused of when the video of her song was released), it seems to run counter to our sense of morality, and it can be dangerous to other people. There are significant moral reasons for hating criminals rather than loving them.
Are there nevertheless circumstances in which we can morally justify this kind of love?
In her very interesting paper, “Loving Villains: Virtue in Response to Wrongdoing,” Kamila Pacovská (2014) defends the experience of loving villains. Pacovská emphasizes that she does not speak about a villain who hurts his lover, but about one who hurts others. These lovers know very well the cruelty of their villain’s activities and might criticize them harshly, but they nevertheless do not end the relationship.
Pacovská poses the question: Is the fact that someone loves a morally flawed person, or even a criminal, a sign of his or her moral shallowness, or is it a sign of his or her saintliness, moral strength and depth? She argues that even if in many cases loving villains indicates some character defect on the part of the lover, there are cases in which loving a villain is a virtue, as in the tradition of "love the sinner but hate the sin.” Pacovská suggests that in certain instances, compassion rather than condemnation is the moral response to the wrongdoing of another. The saintliness of those who love villains lies in the fact that they are able to see the value and worth of the human being even when that person has acted in a criminal manner. A nun who takes care of a wounded villain expresses, Pacovská argues, something akin to love; although his deeds may repel her, she sees beyond the villain's actions, recognizing him as a fellow human being.
Pacovská also discusses whether it is possible for an imperfect person to love an imperfect person. The answer is clearly yes. Each of us is imperfect to a certain degree, and hence each of us can love another person who is also imperfect. However, being imperfect is different to being criminal. Most people are imperfect but not criminal. Even if those who love villains are not blind to their vice and harshly condemn their activities, this does not enable them to be profoundly in love with the villain, as profound love involves sharing their values and activities.
Love the Sinner But Hate the Sin
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft
I believe that in speaking about hating the sin and loving the sinner, we refer not to romantic love, but to another positive attitude. In the Jewish tradition there is the expression of wishing “the end of sins and not of sinners.” Here again there is a distinction between our attitude toward the sin and our response to the sinner; however, the wish to abolish merely the sins does not imply the wish to love the sinners—although it may involve the wish to find compassion for them.
Virtuous people can care for and have empathy and compassion for criminals, without diminishing their condemnation of the criminals’ activities and without showing sympathy or being profoundly in love with them. A decent person cannot love a murderer. This is in the spirit of “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.”
People may have various attitudes in response to sins that are less grievous than criminal actions, such as lying, untrustworthiness, or duplicity. The higher the moral nature of the agent, the more difficult it will be for her to live with someone who has a lower moral nature; even lesser sins, such as being untrustworthy, will prevent them from falling in love with such a person. The most the highly moral agent is likely to compromise on will be a harmless person. People with a lower moral character can fall in love with dishonest people provided that they have some other good qualities, such as caring for their partner's well-being.
Profound love is not a theoretical attitude; it is an ongoing experience involving many joint activities. Angelika Krebs (2002; 2014) argues that love is essentially dialogical. In loving somebody, you enlarge yourself through closely interacting with and responding to the other person. We do not flourish in isolation; our nature is social. In joint action, the participants are integrated into a (psychological) whole, and their contributions fit together to actualize the common good. Profound differences in basic moral values will impede such interaction and common flourishing, thereby preventing profound love.
A good example of this is Ryan, a conservative divorcee, who told me: “I would not be able to marry a man who is a leftist, even if I find him very attractive—although most of the men I have slept with are leftists." She explained that if she married a leftist, when they watched the news on TV and a conservative politician was speaking, she would be in total agreement, while her leftist spouse would be angry, and this would make their togetherness impossible. Mind you, their moral values such as honesty, trust, kindness and caring are by far more relevant to their everyday life decisions than their political views, which are unlikely to make much impact on their joint everyday choices. Accordingly, the differences in their basic moral values are more likely prevent them from falling in love with each other than their different political views are. (Eventually, Ryan married a man who is slightly right of center.)
Certainly, this is a complex issue and the situation might be different, for instance, in parental love: most parents will not stop loving their son if he proves to be a villain. The wife of a villain who is in prison might also continue loving him by, for example, attributing his deeds to difficult external circumstances and not to his character.
“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I have examined two types of romantic experiences that seemingly involve loving a criminal. In the first type (that of Britney Spears' protagonist), physical attraction is all that supports such “love,” and in the second type, other personal characteristics have greater weight than the moral attitude. In the view suggested here, neither of these romantic experiences can develop into profound love. The first cannot because it lacks a positive evaluation of personal characteristics and hence may be regarded as mere sexual attraction but not as profound love. The second cannot because other superficial characteristics, such as being a good provider, have greater weight than the basic moral values that underlie everyday joint activities. This will prevent them from fully engaging in meaningful activities together, which is at the basis of long-term profound love.
Loving a criminal may be exciting for some people in the short term, but for (highly) moral people, the criminal or immoral nature of the partner will be a significant hindrance to a truly flourishing relationship.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The Subtlety of motions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2014). Ain't Love Nothing But Sex Misspelled? The Role of Sex in Romantic Love. In C. Maurer, T. Milligan, and K. Pacovská (Eds.), Love and its objects. Palgrave Macmillan.
Krebs, A. (2002). Arbeit und Liebe. Die philosophischen Grundlagen sozialer Gerechtigkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Krebs, A. (2014). Between I and Thou – On the dialogical nature of love. In C. Maurer, T. Milligan, and K. Pacovská (Eds.), Love and its objects. Palgrave Macmillan.
Pacovská, K. (2014). Loving Villains: Virtue in Response to Wrongdoing. In C. Maurer, T. Milligan, K. Pacovská (Eds): Love and its objects. Palgrave Macmillan.