Good Love and Bad Love: A Way of Evaluation | JOHN McMURTRY (1992)

Good Love and Bad Love: A Way of Evaluation 


 The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1992), pp. 226-241

What is missing in the vast history of ideas about love, from Plato’s Symposium to Irving Singer’s recent three-volume study, The Nature of Love,1 is any philosophical grounding in the biological and the social-structural conditions within which love and choices of love take place. Critical consideration of love as a relationship of perilous disease possibilities, of sexist power and dominion, or of proprietary control and repression is by and large absent from 2500 years of inquiry.2 What is also missing, in consequence, is the development of any adequately cognizant principle of value by means of which we can tell the good from the bad in love in the face of these problems.

In this analysis, I will begin by accepting as love whatever linguistic practice recognizes as love. Usage confers legitimacy on wholly different and incompatible meanings of love, from “altruistic devotion” to “bodily addiction,” from universal concern to private obsession. If there is a unifying sense to these meanings, I will not seek it. The evaluation here will not be in terms of what is and is not love, but in terms of what it is for love in any of its varieties to be good or of value, and what it is for love to be bad or of disvalue.


Feminists have made us aware of the dominance of the patriarchal structure of conventional sex relations over almost three millennia in all the major cultures—in particular, in the relationship of marriage, where in the traditional nuptial vows the woman was obliged to consent to an inviolable and permanent commitment to “obey” her husband “until death do you part” in whatever situations confronted their “one body” in the course of their lives as, essentially, subject and subjected. Confucius put the matter more starkly within the context of the “Five Relations” of conventional Chinese social propriety: “Woman’s duty is to prostrate herself before her husband in a perfect form of obedience . . . . There is no place for independence on the part of any woman.”3

The patriarchal structure of love classically governed father and child and master-servant relations as well, and found its ancient basis in Judaic as well as Roman law which recognized the patria potestas right within the paterfamilias to beat, to abandon, or to put to death the child or servant possession of the family patriarch. The still current idea of a “rule of thumb,” which we conventionally deploy as a metaphor for acceptable practical standard, refers to the approximate thickness of the rod or whip with which a husband could rightfully flog his wife in marriage until comparatively recently. Woman’s more or less absolute disenfranchisement within the relationship of love, marriage, and civil society over most of world history is too well known to labour here. Suffice it to say that from ancient China to nineteenth century Europe, it included prohibition from holding property, exclusion from position of responsibility or independent employment outside the home, requirement of unconditional submission of the woman to her father or husband, deprivation of civil rights, and so on.

Such one-sided power and powerlessness within the accepted and established man-woman relationship, akin in its nature to the relationship of master and slave, still structures love-images today in the “free market.” Here too the woman is pictured as consenting to her role. She is consumable object, acquired along with the new car or other power-giving purchase by the New Father, money demand. Yet historical, literary, and philosophical accounts of love standardly ignore the problem of patriarchal power, or presuppose it in one or other of its forms as a given order of existence. Even the sense of “giving” in love, which the “pluralist” Irving Singer claims is the “bestowal” essence of love in all ages,4 may be ultimately grounded in this patriarchal tradition. That is, bestowal of attributes on a loved one entails the power to grant or withhold these attributes at will. Recognition of a loved one’s worth, independently of one’s gift of recognition, in contrast, leaves the existence of this attribute as something belonging to the other’s own being—not something one bestows on them. The latter operation may be patriarchal power endowed with a benign face.

The patriarchal ideal of love is not yet dead, even in the present of feminist politics and power. A woman is still represented in commercial images across the cosmopolitan world as an object of male love because of her seductive weakness and innocence, her dependency, her submissiveness to male achievement and power, and her possession as a beautiful appendage. One might celebrate this ideal and the virtues of the strong man protecting woman’s fragile beauty from the harsh outer world, as we find in the romantic tradition and in mass-media stereotypes of sex-love to the present, but at some time we must ask ourselves whether this ideal of love is not, in objective truth, bad—a detriment to the autonomy and growth of the woman, and to the breadth and vitality of the love relationship. If it is indeed bad, then the standard appeal to “pluralism” or to “contractarian ethics,” which leave us without any principle of value to reject such an ideal of love as bad in itself, may be a disguised acceptance of what is bad. We need, it seems, some deeper value bearings here to move us beyond the hold of an ancient structure which with even liberal conceptions may still covertly determine what we call love.


Feminists tend to think of the proprietary structure of love as merely a problem of patriarchy. This is a deep mistake. Either or both parties of a sex-love relationship may seek to hold the other as a possession, consciously or unconsciously asserting rights of exclusive access to the other’s love. The proprietary hold may indeed be sought by the weaker party in virtue of the weakness. Or it may be demanded by each over the other. Or it may be freely consented to in a contract of mutual consent. The “bond” or “wedlock” in the ideal case is wholly symmetrical. Each relates to the other as an equal, that is, each is equally bound within the other’s territorial enclosure or agreed-upon possessory right.

The property-structure of love in some form is found across human cultures, though the egalitarian structure of love-possession is increasingly the alternative to patriarchal possession. Nowadays, it is not unusual in North American and Western civilization for neither party in a sex relationship to be in a position of dominion over the other, but for each instead to equally possess the other as “my own,” “forever mine,” and so on. The relationship of possession, however, entails the exclusionary consequent, “nobody else’s,” “hands off,” and so on, as its corollary. This aspect of the normal love-bond is less affable than its positive side, and so is not much talked about in the established literature. The relationship of mutual property-hold over one another’s being, whether equal or unequal, can often be total in its claim on the other’s life, even its past, so that no access of another to any aspect of the loved one’s existence can pass unnoticed or not be a potential site of jealous vigilance and concern (a possessiveness upon which Iago played in Othello, and because of which Angel Clare abandoned Tess of the d’Urbervilles to her ruin). Whatever the range of the domain held within such a mutual ownership arrangement—whether confined to the most intimate regions of the other’s life, or totalized as possessory relation to the entirety of the other’s existence-—it is a relationship akin to private property because it supposes the right to exclusion of all others from the possessed regions, from normally clothed parts of the body to facial expressions to ideas communicated in conversation to even guessed-at private thoughts.

Virtually all love relations regarded as acceptable in popular music and culture as well as in classical literature and philosophy presuppose the private-property structure of love as “true” love. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely this structure of “true love” which is at the root of endless conflicts over love—including those issuing in violent assaults and murder.5 The reality beneath the prevailing myth of “happily ever after” is that containment of love within a possessory relation can be intolerably demanding and repressive. From the rebellion of the archangel against the all-loving Lord or of the child against the possessive love of the parent to the notorious struggles within the possessive relationships of romantic love, we find a recurrent pattern of deep conflict and uprising against this underlying order that is almost invariably at the basis of love’s tragedies. So there is surely some need to critically reflect on this “mine and thine” structure of love, not just assume it as a given.

As with the long presupposed patriarchal structure of love, so with the non-patriarchal property structure of love which has progressively succeeded it, two basic steps of analysis are required. The first is to acknowledge the presupposed structure and its restrictions of love’s possibilities, and the second is to critically evaluate it. It may be that its assumed morality is in the end justified, but we need to be aware that it is there before we can know that it is justified. We need also to understand the principle of value by which we can judge it before we can know whether it is of value or disvalue in our lives.


By “the health economy of love,” I mean the three basic physiological implications of the traditional sex-love relationship:

  1. pregnancy and/or birth or prevention of both;
  2. disease to one or both partners in consequence of sexual intercourse or prevention of disease;
  3. incapacitation of normal faculties by long- or short-term “lovesickness” or no incapacitation and mutual empowerment by the love relationship.

The greatest silence in the philosophical and creative literature on love is reserved for (ii). It is difficult to think of a single discussion of organic disease as a problem of sex-love over 2500 years of this literature. Yet it has been a basic problem from time immemorial, however much we may discreetly avoid its mention by philosophical remove from the world. As we are learning today with such mortifying clarity from AIDS, the connection between sex-love and disease could hardly be more important to human life and decision. It needs the attention of those who would understand the nature of love in other than a denaturalized way.

There is also the problem of unwanted pregnancy and reproduction. This is a topic of interest here and there through the classical tradition of literature and philosophy—in The Scarlet Letter, for example—but only as an incident of social downfall, disgrace, permanent scar, danger. When in this tradition is it not presupposed in this way, and left at that with no further questioning or analysis? Yet here too the problem is one that calls for some philosophical reflection. Consider, for example, the bastard Edmund in King Lear, one of tragedy’s most virulent villains, and implied to be such by Shakespeare in virtue of his birth out of wedlock as “Nature’s offspring,” a mutant from conventional order whose treachery is accepted as a product of his illegitimate origin. He is, if we take the matter deeper, a pathological symptom of a dichotomous structurizing of human birth—good and wonderful news if the reproductive cycle is within marriage, bad and possibly murderous news if this cycle occurs outside the conventional structure. Why is this? We will find no answer, nor even question, from the philosophical and literary canon on love. It confines discussion to the relationship between the lovers. The whole underlying world of physiological reproduction and social classification and repression is taken as the order of the world. What is of interest to this approach is only how people react and relate within this prefixed structure of reality. This does not take us very deep. Nor does it require us to question our conventional ways of coping with such processes and structures. Nor can it, consequently, ever pose to us a problem of doing something about them to release us from their deformations. In short, this approach leaves us trapped inside preconceptions.

The issue with sex-love is not just an issue of lovers’ and literati’s experiences of it, and the endless interpretations of this subjectivity. It is far more problematic than that. Sex-love reaches into the depths and breadths of the human condition in ways we overlook when we isolate it to a relationship between individuals, and do not see that the entire condition of human survival is implicated in its workings.

I suggest that the first and most basic problem of sex-love is that it breaks or penetrates the very membrane of life, that ever-present dividing line between physical self and other that does not normally admit a foreign body the size of a pin past it for a moment without catastrophic consequence to existence. Even the apparent exceptions here, food and water, are normally mediated by a host of selective filters of custom, preparation, choice, and trial before they are admitted into the body. The self’s protective membrane against the other is at work everywhere to maintain its thin envelope of life.

The problematic begins with the fact that this survival membrane is the primary line of defense of life which is most immediately and compulsively sought past by the sexual drive. Every erotic move, of which there are countless numbers and variations, has this penetration as its inner theme. Prior to the progressive physical passages into the other’s body, beginning and continuing, interestingly, with the organ that consumes, there is a testing of mutual defenses on the symbolic level, and an attempt at finding common life in words. This is love’s preliminary intercourse on the safe level of language, expressing and developing a joining of thought and desire. If it goes “the whole way,” past the body’s survival membrane and defenses, it is a loss of the self at the dividing line of life, a climactic moment of shared being which may change the course of the body’s existence forever. Sex-love can only be adequately understood if its ground in this organic interpenetration is understood, and the ultimate stakes of life and death involved here are comprehended.

By its opening of the self’s membrane of survival to another, sex-love is at its poles of possibility a risking of death or compounded life, of disease or expansive health. The creative literature of love everywhere reflects these themes in metaphor, but does not recognize its base in the “falling” and possible “dying” of the body itself which has put its protective layer at risk. To miss this underlying ground of love’s dangers is to live in a world of ideas without bearings in the organic beings that we are. We cannot tolerate anything less than the most exacting care in the breakage of our very lines of existence and individuation. Biotic love must accompany subjective love as its embodied base, or the ideation and so often misrepresentation about love may prove ruinous. But where in the vast creative and philosophical literature on sex-love, including even contemporary feminism, is this issue raised, or understood as an explanatory base of sex-love’s problems?

Once we understand the life-and-death, health-and-disease stakes underlying sex-love, we are also much better able to understand historical ideas about it. The rarefication of these stakes is made manifest in love’s conventional literary metaphors of sickness and dying, of heroic vitality and rebirth, which dominate ideas of sex-love from the ancient Hindu Tantrics to the operas of Wagner. These ideas are no less creative or beautiful for their having a natural live-world which they express. Yet this natural basis is standardly lost in etherealized romantic ideals or philosophical abstractions. This causes us to misunderstand much, to wander about in a phantasmic world of conceptions disconnected from their bases in organic life.

Not only the ideas and expressions about sex-love, but also the age-old and variant taboos against sex-love are given their explanatory base when we move to the membrane of life as the ground of our analysis. Given the ultimate stakes of sex-love on the organic level—and these are poles of a range of possibility, not another either/or dualism—the historical social taboos and restrictions fencing in sex-love become functionally intelligible. These are standardly taken as societal givens by literary and philosophical commentary on love, whatever their tendency to oppressiveness or absurdity. Yet once we lay bare the underlying problems and dangers of sex-love’s breaking of the very lines of organic defense and life, then we can see that these taboos and restrictions serve a very useful function. They constitute a kind of unconsciously evolved social defense between organic self and other, an extra-cutaneous wall of protection that rings round the extremely sensitive and vulnerable human organism a second, social layer of defense. Given the spontaneous powers of the sexual urges, which in our species are widely polymorphous and yearlong in their drive, and given at the same time the distinctively sensitized skin and openings of our body’s interface with the world, the strict barriers of social prohibition against impulsive breakings of the membrane of life are understandable as a survival strategy of human society in all its variations. Once we recognize that we relate from within these diaphanous envelopes of life which sex-love can dangerously invade, then we can understand the human responses that have developed to this condition, whether they be the death-courting ideas of lyric poetry, or the iron regimens of social prohibition. From this recognition we are better able to find our value-bearings, and not remain unmoored in the stratosphere of literary creations disconnected from the bodily world, nor trapped inside blind social customs that imprison sex-life within crude and unconscious taboo.

The other basic level of organic reality ignored by our subjectivist tradition of thought on sex-love is the elemental reproduction drive itself. This seems to be the organic base of sex-love’s overwhelming urge towards creative joining, life’s primeval longing to recreate itself. But even our loin-focused realists from Lucretius to Freud to Henry Miller have been inclined to overlook the ultimate function of the sexual drive-to bear children. And even when thinkers like George Bernard Shaw do emphasize life’s drive to reproduce itself as an explanation of romantic love’s compulsions, as in Man and Superman, the significance of children’s lives in the love relationship never arises as an issue. Again one might ask, where in the literary and philosophical analysis of sex-love, including the feminist, is the issue of children—as distinguished from fetuses—explanatorily linked to the sex-love question and its values?

The point here as elsewhere is not to reduce sex-love to the biological functions it serves, but to contextualize it more broadly in the human condition so we can understand it as more than a two-person game. Understanding the natural grounds of sex-love attraction and the life-and-death stakes of the future it resonates with in our experience helps us to understand the volatile creations and concerns that artistic sensibilities have forever expressed about sex-love. It provides them with their explanatory foundation. This is of hermeneutic value because, for example, it gives us a natural rationale for the frenzy or repression of sex-love which otherwise may seem insane. The most basic vital motivation known to us may be the urge to live beyond the limits of our skins, most directly by the seeds of new human life we plant and nourish. That we recognize this as intrinsic to our condition as organic and historical beings illuminates the dark forces of sex, so often mystified as divine or demonic, with the larger perspective of our life-world as a whole. Madness in love is no longer so irrational, distressing, or privatized when it is thus grounded.

On the practical level of morality, the reproductive stakes of sex-love are of the greatest importance in understanding the conflicts, jealousies, social disaster, and personal anguishes it can give rise to if not consciously regulated by a guiding value. We are dealing here with the possible takeover of the woman’s entire body by a growing organism within her for socially visible months, and the birth into the world of the claims of another, long-helpless human being. We are confronting the underlying cause of the historical problems of abortion, infanticide, bastards, orphans, fallen women, unwanted children, parental abuse, and ultimately the nature of the social fabric itself. If these are not concerns of the philosophy and literature of sex-love, then its commentary seems not only theoretically denatured, but ethically insensible. By confining its attention to the relationship between lovers, it leaves the deeper bearings of these problems to the blind operations of chance and social taboo. This abdicates moral responsibility in sex-love by evading the underlying problems implicated in its workings.


Beneath the two-person interaction with which established thought about sex-love is preoccupied, there are systematic connections between the natural and social structures of sex-love that can together account for the unconscious formation of conventional codes. We have already discussed the connection between the immunological membrane of human life and the care that must be taken to ensure against pathogenic invasions of this protective membrane, a care that has been unconsciously institutionalized in sexual taboos across human societies. A similar connection exists between these prohibitions and the elemental sexual drive for reproduction—with sex-codes functioning as a socially evolved protective wall against unwanted pregnancies and births in the community, loss of family lines and stability, eruption of primary-emotion conflicts, and so on. In both cases, because sex-love involves such great stakes in its consequences, these conventional regulations surrounding it have been central to the function and survival of past social formations. It is here that we can see a cunning of reason to patriarchal orders of sex rule, as well as to the private property structure of monogamy and its variants. Both kinds of sexual control serve to rule out the serious problems which the unregulated sex-drive can give rise to. Without understanding their protective function, sex taboos may be uncritically presupposed as givens of the world’s order or, from a more questioning perspective, may seem repressive impositions on human freedom. Under deeper analysis, however, it becomes clear that these proprietary orders of sex-love by their nature systematically limit the right of sexual access (i.e., to one person or none), and thereby select against pathogenic invasion, unwanted reproduction, and the other basic threats to human well-being that might occur if the sex-urge were not confined within recognized fences of control. These limitations also might be seen to work to prevent sheerly subjective disorders associated with the gauntlet of “falls,” “faints,” “entanglements,” “heartbreaks,” “dyings,” “sicknesses,” “conquests,” “devastations,” and “breakups” associated with sex-love’s deep realignments of organic and emotional structures.

Yet there is something dehumanizing about accepting property-lines around people, and in submitting to external prohibitions that are not consciously understood and consented to. If one is not to defect to such dehumanization and unfreedom, where is one to draw the line? There is little in the innumerable philosophical and literary accounts of love to adequately ground us here. There must be some developed controls on what is a potentially life-and-death matter. But what grounding value can we be guided by that is not merely subjective or conventional, but takes full moral measure of the deep stakes involved?

It has long haunted historical judgement of sex-love that it is bad in itself. This is because of the great temptations and problems it causes, so great that they remain largely unspeakable to conventional value judgement. Even the great sages, or should one say especially the great sages—Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Spinoza—seem to have avoided these great pitfalls of sex-love by renouncing it altogether in a spiritualized purity of abstinence. This is no solution to those of us who affirm the profound joys of sex-love. But we need deeper groundings and critical reflection on the objective structures at work here. Those prescribed for us by status quo assumptions do not suffice.

The apodeictic nature of all value is that what is good is what enables a more inclusive range of being, and what is bad is what reduces this range of being—whether of thought, of experience, or of action. At first blush, an increase of sex-love relationships might seem to be commended by this principle of value, and this is indeed the inner logic of the radical free-love position. Free love is good, it is implied, because it liberates us to participate as widely and deeply as possible in sex-love’s delights. This radical free-love position is not one we find commended much in philosophy or literature. Nonetheless it deserves our attention. If market-tested success is any measure, it is in fact a pervasively lurking desire of humans, which on this account is daily solicited by countless commercials and images inviting us to be seduced to the arms of an endless array of alluring sex-partners (albeit in the company of commodities for sale). It may be that the free-love temptation is also, in an increasingly perverted way, behind the lure of pornography, prostitution, rape, incest, and so on, up the scale of viciousness which the unregulated sex-drive is capable of. Whatever form it takes, the free-love desire seems to be a widespread propensity of human beings, the most polyvalently sexualized animal in Nature, who also standardly regards individual freedom as a primary or ultimate good.

Perhaps, then, so long as we do not force ourselves upon another, free love may be conceived as a natural proclivity, to be enjoyed wherever it is mutually chosen. The problem with this position is that it is hardly less thoughtless than the conventional position it rejects. For as soon as one brings to consciousness the underlying life-and-death stakes that are involved in the sex-love relationship, from the problem of bodily health and survival to that of familial and community reproduction and well-being, one can see that there is a great danger in attending only to the free consent of the parties involved. If we are not merely to ignore these underside problems, which go far beyond the consenting partners, we need to think past not only dogmatic slumber within conventional norms, but also past contractarian ideals and the subjective states of two persons. One needs to mediate the mind-altering power of the sexual inclination with a more deeply grounded value approach than either conservative or liberal approaches in these matters have yet begun to plumb. In fact, what may be freely and mutually chosen as good in sex-love relationships is very often objectively bad in virtue of reducing the range of human beings of the partners involved or of the communities within which they live—by communicative pathogens, unwanted impregnation or costs trying to prevent it, loss of autonomy or vital time for more productive activities, emotional imbalance or exhaustion, neurotic dependency, insecurities of function and life-plan, and so forth.

We need a way of meeting these problems that takes us beyond the relationship of two people’s desires or the imposition of conventional prescriptions. This is where the creative imagination so prized in the literature of love has to be released from its hothouse confinement to tête-a-tête interactions within presupposed norms to include the full spectrum of organic problems, social structural distortions, and personal incapacitations posed as pathological possibilities by sex-love involvements. The requirements of imaginative empathy and thinking through here are global in their interest and implications. They take us a world beyond the egocentricity of lovers’ affairs or acquiescence in customary frameworks of possession. They relate us to the larger universes of nature’s and society’s needs and capacities as a whole. Nothing less than the exercise of this creative responsibility is adequate to the scope and depth of the problematic presented by sex-love’s implications. And it may be that nothing less than the imaginative powers incited by erotic interest is up to such an embracing task.

Only if mediated by this consciousness of sex-love’s wider bearings do the lines of good and bad, of enabling versus disabling action in sex-love, come to light. One cannot make any a priori pronouncements here, because the objective circumstances of sex-love are notoriously complicated. But what one can safely say is that if there is not this sex-love responsibility employing the full capacity of imaginative exploration of the possible problems attending sex-love action, then the action is bad to the extent that there is a failure of this thoughtfulness. This is true not merely because of the deep processes of life-reconstitution sex-love sets into motion, posing physical, social, and psychological dangers and potentials which will otherwise be unseen. Even aside from the possibility of grievous impairment of capacity as a consequence of unconsidered sex-love, there is the intrinsic reduction of thought, experience, and action that thoughtless behaviour entails in itself. In contrast to this intrinsic bad, imaginative sex-responsibility deepens and broadens the scope of thought and experience by its very nature. It is a good in itself. A choice to forfeit this extended range of being within is a self-diminution. It also bears in its wake a loss of connection with the very other with whom one is entering the deepest intimacy. There is a sad incoherence and reduction of being here that is painfully exposed by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s next-morning realization that “she had bad teeth and didn’t like poetry.” Reductive sex-love is bad for our own inward life prior to its objective dangers to health and well-being.

It is not as if this principle of telling the good from the bad is repressive. Imaginative sex-love responsibility generates a more inclusive range of being in its own right, and thus relates us far beyond the sexual relationship itself to a natural and social sharing of being which can, as the poets recognize, be all-embracing in its reach. There is no question of disaffirmation of sexuality here, only a question of sensitizing it to the wider scopes of life and existence implicated by it.

Are we then to sacrifice the exuberant experience of “flings” and “passionate affairs” through a kind of moralistic inhibition? These are not necessarily excluded by the principle of value proposed here. It may well be that sex-love responsibility can affirm these leaps into the vortices of life as ultimately generating a greater scope of being. If thoughtful reflection reveals no objective problems to the parties concerned, and they are agreed as to the nature of their relationship and its non-destructiveness to life’s compass, these sex-love moments may be good in their positive extension of experience into fresh intensities of feeling and action. Moreover, they may endure in memory as accessible experience ever after, epiphanies that deepen the reach of human existence. Perhaps they may also be touched with a painful nostalgia or yearning to share again—but to the principle of value of more inclusive being, pain that takes us deeper is not bad. It is good. It is only bad pain when it disables us. Pain that reduces us, that narrows our emotional life into fixation or fear of loving in the future may be what causes many people to reject the “fling” or “affair.” Judgement here depends on the persons involved, by no means only the consenting individuals.

Where imaginative sex-love responsibility decides that the choosing towards sex-love is a disabling option all things considered—perhaps only on the grounds of prior commitments to time with loving others who depend on it—this still does not mean the repression of love possibility. Already in thought an inner world of shared being has been entered and explored. Love is still love that remains “at a distance.” If this does not diminish one’s being by obsession—although obsessive love at a distance can be very creative, as we know from Dante and Beatrice—then it is of value by the increased scope of care and connectedness it has generated. The universe of value increases wherever any more-encompassing range of thought and experience has been opened. The beauty of the “love at a distance” possibility is that none of the life-and-death problems associated with sex-love on the embodied plane can occur. Not even the problem of competing demands on one’s life-time can occur, because there is no requirement to be in more than one spatio-temporal location at the same time. Imaginative love forecloses no possibility, including the possibility of one day acting on the attraction. This possibility too is open, and better for the fuller awareness of all that this action may involve. The inward life of humanity is, as the mystics remind us, miraculous in its kingdom of possibilities.


As we know, “love can be blind,” sometimes ruinously blind, and its bestowals of value on another may need nothing so much as an objective assessment. This is not to recommend a theory of Judaic desert—or Freudian reductionism. It is to suggest, rather, a responsible social imagination inwardly exploring all that may play light on a sex-love interest, both prior to and during its issue in action. This may shatter a sex-love possibility, but according to the principle of value proposed here, that is all to the good if it cannot bear the light of day. If the sex-love possibility works against a more inclusive range of being in the world—as it very often does—then it should be declined as bad love. For example, one might feel a sex-love draw towards another whose life, on deeper consideration, one realizes, will flourish only if a full-time or long-term commitment can be made. If love is not able because of existing objective facts, such as another such relationship, to make such a commitment, then to act on this sex-love possibility would be wrong; though it may, without disabling effect be enjoyed in one’s imagination, broadening one’s inner life without hurt. In contrast, one may be able to make such a commitment to another who will, by all accounts, despite great sexual attractiveness, diminish one’s productive powers or will over the long term because of an uncaring disposition towards one’s work or life commitments. It would be bad to pursue this sex-love interest. Erich Fromm’s deepest comment about love, that it is “an expression of productivity, “6 is one that supports the way of evaluation sponsored here. If love makes possible a more embracing scope or depth of being, then it is good. If it reduces or narrows life’s range, then it is bad. If love promises to energize thought, experience, or action into new dimensions, then to this extent it is of value, perhaps of matchless value in this world. But it may not. It may be vanity-encouraging, enervating, time-wasting, life-destructive. Then it is of disvalue, perhaps of major disvalue.

Of course, these are complex matters requiring the whole attentiveness of imaginative love to find adequate value bearings. Creative considerateness resonates out from the focal relationship to the wider natural and social world within which the sex-love possibility occurs. Here we return to the first and main point, to the need for the constructive capacities of erotic interest to move far beyond the immediate domain of the loved one to the greater universe of organic and social life implicated in the possible or actual relationship. There is a world of value significance to be considered here, as the “boundlessness” of love experience intimates to us. Far from being an immoral or an amoral urge, as Kant and Hume and others have judged it,7 the erotic urge can enlarge our attentiveness beyond its normal limits and routines to fields of empathy and sensitivity that normal ethical judgement never attains. In this way, sex-love may animate a deeper ethical concern and judgement, the opposite in its character to what philosophers like Kant have assumed. The heroically selfless deeds of love we find celebrated in literatures and folktales across cultures may be such precisely because they are generated by sex-love, which can be more wholly devoted and universally embracing than normal moral concern.

Love of any kind always impels us to a shared being, for good or for ill. With sex-love, this shared being is a throwing open of the body itself, a movement past normal defense systems on all levels—with various life-and-death possibilities in consequence. It is a shared being that touches one’s organic survival and reproduction and the family and community social fabric. Its subjective flights need to be linked to these objective depths to be of authentic value. Sex-love is a process of ongoing choice towards the good or the bad, the inclusively enabling or disabling, from the first urges of joining, to the consideration of possibilities, to the decision to act, to the future path of life’s being. In truth, sex-love is but a deeply energizing site for a way of existence whose value or disvalue is decided in accordance with how capacitating or incapacitating its choices are not only to the lovers, but more ultimately, to the larger world their love both incorporates and recreates in its microcosm.

University of Guelph

An earlier version of this article was presented to The 2000 Years of Love Conference, Brock University, February 1991. I am especially grateful to G.A. Cohen, Irving Singer, and the referees of the Journal of Speculative  Philosophy for their helpful comments on the original paper.


  1. Irving Singer, The Nature of Love, Volumes 1, 2 & 3. (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984-1989.)
  2. Professor Singer’s philosophical narrative of ideas on love from Plato to the present tellingly reflects the long traditional evasion of these issues. Over the more than 1300 pages of his extraordinarily rich and comprehensive study, none of these problems arises as an issue of critical concern.
  3. David and Vera Mace, The History of Love: East and West (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1960), p. 200.
  4. Singer, Ibid. See especially the Preface to the First Edition, p. XIII: Volume 1, pp. 13, 22 & 90, and Volume 3, pp. 396-404.
  5. For a fuller analysis of the private-property structure of the conventional monogamous relationship, see John McMurtry, “Monogamy: a Critique,” The Monist Vol. 67: No. 4 ( 1972) 588-600.
  6. Erich Fromm, “Selfishness, Self-Love and Self-Interest,” Man for Himself. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1947.
  7. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (Indianapolis IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964 ), p. 87. David Hume, “Of Polygamy and Divorces,” in Sexual Love and Western Morality, ed., D.P. Verene (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 153.9

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