I want to believe you

You want to have a conversation about the valorization of “love”? Great — I hope you mean it.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image by Tristan Chambers, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

In recent years, the concept of “love” generally (not just one form of it) seems to have become a recurring topic and object of scrutiny in aro blogging. A while back, Siggy included some relevant links in the Asexual Agenda Friday linkspam (a part of what prompted this post). One of those links has been since deleted, but the other one is about the rejection of love as a measure of human worth or morality. If you look around, it’s possible to find a handful of other posts in this same vein. For example:

You’ll notice that some of these posts refer to “loveless aro” as a type of aro, but not all of them use this language, and some of them waver or distance themselves from it. From my perspective, “loveless aro” is salient less as a category than as an impetus for a (very anti-Platonic) philosophical discussion.

And what a discussion it could be, if y’all got serious.

Hear me out here. This challenge to the importance of “love” — does this only go in one direction, or does it apply in the reverse? You know that old song “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You”? Something always struck me as off about that sentiment, even as a kid, and I figure it deserves its place in this conversation. If feeling love isn’t the end-all-be-all, then being loved shouldn’t be treated like the only way to matter either, right?

You with me so far?

If this conversation is about how the emotions of “love” itself are not a moral good, then don’t stop there. Why only “love”? Is that the only emotion that gets moralized? You know it’s not. Why not talk about the way people moralize all sorts of other emotions, like hope? Or disgust? Or anger?

And if it’s not just feeling love that shouldn’t be moralized, but also being loved, then can’t we also apply the same challenge to all other emotions, in all directions?

Do you see? Do you see the connection here to tone policing? Or fallacious appeals to emotion? Do you see how something being uncomfortable or upsetting doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong?

(Why do you think I wrote Affective Contortions? No, really, why do you think I wrote that?)

If you take the conversation in this direction, then things get complicated fast — because sometimes emotion is relevant — and that means there’s something complex enough at hand to be worth unpacking.

What is the place of emotion in moral reasoning? In what ways should the importance afforded to emotion be curtailed? How relevant or irrelevant is it really? If it factors in, then what’s the formula? Are you actually going to sit down and sort out the meta-level questions about how to gauge right and wrong?

I want this. I want this conversation to shoot for the moon here.

Make it happen.


11 responses to “I want to believe you

  • aceadmiral

    I really appreciate this post, because I definitely agree with you that there is a lot more potential to the “loveless” conversation that most writings on the topic I have read have not even begun to scratch the surface of. Your point about “being loved” never getting unpacked and critiqued is a really good an insightful one, both on an objective level and as an indicator of the larger blinkering of the discourse in this conversation.

    That said, I have a different feeling on why this convo drives me bananas, and has to do with the extreme fixation on emotions and/or feelings (especially attraction) present in the aromantic and to a lesser extent the asexual communities. Especially the ever-popular repetition of this being a reaction to “[aces/aros] can still love,” this seems to be stuck in a frame that is not serving the conversation well at all, most risibly but visibly illustrated in Alex Crook’s essay: ” It feels very similar to the old “asexuals can still feel romance” slogan.” Like, there’s a lot of things you do with romance, but “feel” isn’t one of them. Romance isn’t an emotion or a feeling; it’s a style, a framework, a pattern. To generalize out, good aromantic critiques need to engage with actions, not emotion, and I think that’s true regardless of whether it’s about “romantic love” or another sort, which means also minimizing our use of or even eliminating this framing of “feeling” love. Love is a transitive verb. And maybe that’s a political statement, yeah, but we’re thinkers and activists! This is literally what we’re out here trying to do!!! It’s a harder conversation to have than the emotional one, yeah, but we need to have hard convos like this one and the one you’ve proposed if we’re going to actually be able to do anything beyond labels and grievances :/

  • raavenb2619

    Nicely put. Can I post a link to this on Tumblr?

    You’ll notice that some of these posts refer to “loveless aro” as a type of aro, but not all of them use this language, and some of them waver or distance themselves from it. From my perspective, “loveless aro” is salient less as a category than as an impetus for a (very anti-Platonic) philosophical discussion.

    I don’t find it surprising that this sort of “okay but why are we just assuming that if someone thinks about or feels emotions in this particular way they’re automatically a bad person” discussion started with love and aromanticism, but I definitely agree that it shouldn’t be limited just to love and/or aromantics. (“You’re Nobody till Somebody Love You” really is a great example of how the conversation can/should expand in scope.)

    Re-reading Affective Contortions, that definitely strikes me as similar to my own experiences with “love” and reminds me of K.A. Cook’s essay. It also reminded me of something I had almost completely forgotten about, Disney’s…”forced happiness” thing, for lack of a better term. The closer experiences or intellectual property is to the core of Disney’s brand, the more I feel this sense of “no, you’re not allowed to be sad”. It’s particularly powerful in their theme parks, and definitely threw me for a loop once when I was conflicted and frustrated about Disney’s homophobia, but ended up being kind of “”emotionally manipulated”” into being happy, I guess, because “who’d choose to be an angry grumpy Grinch? Don’t be a Grinch”.

    To take an initial stab at your closing questions, I’d like to say a good first approximation is that the emotions of someone performing an action are irrelevant to the morality of that action; but I find myself being pulled in the direction of “if someone does something bad but with good intentions, surely that must make it a little better”, which is then countered by my distaste of “for your own good” as a justification for behavior of dubious-at-best morality. I think emotions can be relevant when it comes to personal growth and self-improvement (someone unknowingly acting bad with good intentions might more easily improve their behavior than someone with malicious intent), but that’s separate from the morality of the actions themselves. (And of course, someone feeling hurt by another person’s actions can be relevant to judging the morality of the actions.) So I guess I’ve ended up at “the emotions of someone performing an action are irrelevant to the morality of that action”? (It’s entirely possible I’ll have a different opinion tomorrow, next week, or next month.)

    Case in point, I’ve reread that last paragraph and have a different opinion now. Considering two people who do identical good actions, but one with good intentions and the other with bad intentions (maybe they’re just bad at being mean or accidentally do good?), I’d judge the former person to be more moral than the latter person, even though their actions are identical. I think that’s because I don’t want to incentivize malicious intent or malicious actions. So I’m revising my answer to “malicious actions and malicious intent should be disincentivized _without conflating malicious intent with a lack of positive intent_”.

    • Coyote

      Sure, feel free to link if you want. I appreciate it.

      Re: not allowed to be sad, that’s why it was so important to me to discover Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. I wouldn’t even say that it’s a particularly well-written book, just that it puts forward something that was really important to me to hear — that “positivity” and “positive thinking” as an ideology and a movement can (and has been) horribly cruel. The book goes into more of the history of positive thinking as a post-Calvinist movement, but it also talks about how much it’s permeated American culture and even how we think about medical questions like recovery from cancer. There is so much to be said about the moralizing of emotion, and I would love for more people to get in on that conversation.

      I think I see where you’re coming from on the factor of intent, but as a technical note, I think I’d actually separate “intent” from what I’m thinking of as “emotion.” Plus, I also want to know — even setting an actor’s own emotions aside, how much weight do we put on others’ emotional reactions to an act? That seems relevant sometimes, but it also can’t be totally determinant.

      Note part of why I’m presenting this prompt to the aro community is because I have been told, by someone in a position of aro leadership, that emotional reactions are morally determinant. So the impetus for this post isn’t just idle thinking about what else could be interesting to talk about — it’s also a response to how much emotional reasoning I’ve encountered in the aro community.

      • raavenb2619

        I think I’d actually separate “intent” from what I’m thinking of as “emotion.”

        Hm, that’s a fair point.

        Plus, I also want to know — even setting an actor’s own emotions aside, how much weight do we put on others’ emotional reactions to an act? That seems relevant sometimes, but it also can’t be totally determinant.

        My initial reaction is that others’ emotional reactions are a very large component in assessing the harmful impact of an action, but on closer inspection I’m not sure that’s right. You mentioned a counter example I agree with in the comments here, of Siggy being potentially less bothered by a mean comment not retroactively making the mean comment okay. So, I guess all can do is shrug and answer “somewhere between 0% and 100%”.

        Note part of why I’m presenting this prompt to the aro community is because I have been told, by someone in a position of aro leadership, that emotional reactions are morally determinant.

        I’m sorry to hear that. (That does explain some of the, not exactly hostile, but pointed, I guess, way this post is written.) Would you be comfortable saying more about that, and/or the “emotional reasoning [you’ve] encountered in the aro community”? I’m definitely aware of some pushback against lovelessness within the aro community itself, but so far I’ve only seen it in that context, instead of a broader “emotional reactions are morally determinant”.

        • Coyote

          I could say more, but I also don’t want to get sidetracked, so I’d rather not get into it much in the comments of this particular post. You can message me privately if you like.

          In any case, I really do want to see more discussion on this topic as a whole. I’d say it’s both the logical next step and something that could be really generative. Regardless of where it ends up, though, I’d really like to believe that all this “loveless” talk is in earnest about advancing a critique of emotions dogma.

    • kernsing

      Case in point, I’ve reread that last paragraph and have a different opinion now. Considering two people who do identical good actions, but one with good intentions and the other with bad intentions (maybe they’re just bad at being mean or accidentally do good?), I’d judge the former person to be more moral than the latter person, even though their actions are identical. I think that’s because I don’t want to incentivize malicious intent or malicious actions. So I’m revising my answer to “malicious actions and malicious intent should be disincentivized _without conflating malicious intent with a lack of positive intent_”.

      One semantic squiggle: I don’t really consider people to be “moral” or “immoral,” only the consequences of actions.

      Onto the actual content. I’d consider both situations (good consequences w/ good intent vs. good consequences w/ bad intent) to be equally moral as isolated incidents. But I’d say the former to be better in the sense that I predict that person will be more likely to effect good consequences in the future. Good intent matters, at least a little bit, for the sustainability of good consequences. In the same way, incentives to do actions that result in good consequences matter.

      (As an aside, I define “good (intent)” as “(having the purpose of) satisfying the preferences of people.” As to which preferences matter more, I’m still figuring that out/relying more on intuition than anything.)

      I feel the same way about emotions & morality. Emotions are amoral insofar as they do not necessarily affect one’s actions. But probably for some people, emotions do play a role in their actions & in those case emotions become as morally relevant as any other element of circumstance. They are never what determines the morality of the situation, and they are not inherently moral objects. But they can affect the circumstances relevant to moral action & consequences, in that they may affect someone’s actions as well as their preferences.

      I am also of the opinion that generally people put way too much stock on emotion in moral situations than not so it’s usually more productive to talk about how emotions don’t affect morality than how they do. Although I want more people to talk about how love the emotion can lead someone to hurt people. (I think love can refer to an emotion, an action, and/or an intention at the same time or separately.)

      Paraphrasing the tags I left on this Tumblr post: Lovelessness is not good or evil, as is love. But they can be connected to good and evil. Lovelessness can lead to good, and love can lead to evil.

      • raavenb2619

        One semantic squiggle: I don’t really consider people to be “moral” or “immoral,” only the consequences of actions.

        Whoops. Man, it’s really easy (at least for me) to accidentally fall into the “people themselves are good or bad” when talking about morality and incentives in this philosophical way.

        Good intent matters, at least a little bit, for the sustainability of good consequences. In the same way, incentives to do actions that result in good consequences matter.

        This reminds me of the difficulty of making good AI (both in fiction and in reality). Often times you have a goal, but explaining/measuring progress towards the goal is hard, so you introduce a proxy that’s easier to measure. As long as success towards the proxy results in success towards the goal, everything’s fine, but if there’s a way to work towards the proxy while not achieving (or actively working against) the goal, your proxy stops being useful. It seems like we’ve ended up in a situation where “love” (and more broadly, emotions in general) are used as a proxy for morality, but the proxy and the goal have diverged (or always were).

  • raavenb2619

    This post (specifically the OP) serves as a good reminder that we aren’t even all on the same page of “don’t tell people their experiences are love if they don’t want to call them that”

    • Coyote

      I’m not even as worried about that as I am about people swinging too far in the other direction and giving a pass to umbrella crunching, since that seems like what a lot of that junk (which is rude, yes) is responding to. My initial thoughts on that subject were more about that, but then I figured “please recognize that love can be polysemous” wouldn’t make for a very interesting post, and I’d rather point in the direction I’d rather see.

      Or in other words, to address that particular post:

      “Because my dude, yes you do. […] That’s love, that’s love!”

      This is unnecessarily pushy, so I understand why it comes off as obnoxious.

      “But it doesn’t change the fact that romantic love is still The Love for society.”

      And this is also obnoxious. While I get talking this way as shorthand or skipping over the nuances when everyone is already on the same page, I think it hampers analysis to act like Society puts out One Singular Message on anything — especially in regards to “love.” There are patterns to those messages, but it’s important not to cut corners in recognizing the multiplicity. It’s not like you have to have some niche underground subcultural ubringing in order to be introduced to a more general idea of “love.”

      Also, I’ve emailed you, by the way. It’s a long message though, so I get if it’s overwhelming.

      • raavenb2619

        Yes, thanks for the email. (I’m hoping to reply when I have time.)

        Re: skipping nuances and assuming One Singular Message of love, I’m actually starting to realize that it’s more complex than the aro community often lets on. Yes, amatonormativity prioritizes romantic love, and yes, introductory materials on aromanticism and aro experiences often need to make people aware of implicit amatonormativity, but that can coexist with the acknowledgment that sometimes, even alloros allow for non-romantic love to be named and valued as love. (Even if it feels like that almost never happens)

        • Coyote

          I swear, the way some aros talk about this stuff, it’s like they think nobody got taken to church as a kid. And while I don’t think Christianity is the only source of messages on “love” in my country, it is not one that is appropriate to dismiss! It actually boggles my mind that more people haven’t explicitly discussed that already as another source of alienation.

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