Love and Hate

But of course you can’t have love without hate…

“But of course you can’t have love without hate.

They go hand-in-hand.

It’s a psychological fact.”

I thought, at first, she was teasing me. She is one of those charming people who always have the flicker of a smile about them, so it’s hard sometimes to tell whether she is in earnest. But she was: love and hate go together, she insisted, you can’t have one without the other.

I was baffled. Did she mean that one has to hate in order to love? No, of course not. What she meant was that the capacity to love comes with the disposition to hate the person one loves.

Well, I thought, that is at least some comfort. So we’re only really talking about the potential to hate. By being a lover, I am only a potential hater.

It’s a viable possibility, then, that one might live one’s life in loving and blissful ignorance of the capacity for hatred one has inadvertently developed.

Saying that love goes hand-in-hand with hate is just a way of saying: treacherous lovers beware.

Not exactly the most chivalrous conception of romantic love, but perhaps an honest one. There is, after all, a seductive logic in thinking that love is the gateway to the deepest kind of betrayal and therefore the deepest kind of resentment. If so, this talk of ‘psychological fact’ boils down to the logic of loving and hating, and not – say – to survey data from unfortunate lovers.

Is this logic sound? If it is, it means, for one thing, that forgiveness has to be a protracted affair. If I am betrayed by my lover, I must first hate before I can forgive. If love and hate are interdependent, there must be no short-cuts: hatred must have its day. If I could jump straight to forgiveness, love would not, after all, require hate.

There can be no such thing as instant forgiveness.

That seems right. If forgiveness were instantaneous, one would naturally be suspicious about whether one had really been in love in the first place.

And yet, we mustn’t found our logic on suspicions. The very possibility of a saintly forgiveness which circumvented hatred, no matter how improbable, must indicate that the psychological fact that love goes hand-in-hand with hate is not, after all, derived from the logic of love and hate. If the interdependence is a psychological fact, it is an empirical one: 

It just so happens that most lovers would, under the right conditions, hate their beloved.

But would they? We have rather been taking it for granted that the object of love and of hate would be one and the same, post-betrayal. What makes that true? Betrayal might cause a instantaneous rupture of the object: one part cocooned in a nostalgic bubble; the other an object of derision and contempt.

This splitting apart of the emotional objects, if that is what happens, is important. For that would indicate that love and hate are not hand-in-hand, they are back-to-back.

 

Why suffering is bad

“I’m not going to spend time working out why suffering is bad.

It just is.

I’d rather spend my time trying to end it.”

She spoke very fast.  When words surge as fast as that, they are following a well-worn route. She’d had this line of thought before.  But her eyes shone as though she were surprised by what she’d said.

She could probably see that I wasn’t comfortable.  I wasn’t.  Why?  It’s not as though I’m in favour of thinking about whether suffering is bad instead of ending it.  I want to end suffering too, insofar as I can.

I was braced for a tirade against the profligacy and indulgence of moral philosophy.  I’m temperamentally disinclined to sit comfortably through those.  I like moral philosophy.

In fact, she didn’t complain about ivory towers, hair-splitting, out-of-touch professors, outmoded moral concepts (virtue?), or unrealistic thought-experiments.

What she said is that she didn’t want to waste time.  Life is too short.  Understanding why suffering is wrong wouldn’t change her actions or her convictions, so what would be the point?  It would just delay her.

I stood there wondering how to respond, casting about for examples of when understanding why something was wrong changed my subsequent course of action or what I believed.  I had none.

It dawned on me that she’d caught me in a pragmatist’s snare: she had boxed me in to thinking that I had to find an example of a time when moral philosophy had been useful.

She might as well have said that she wasn’t going to waste time thinking about mathematics, fine art, or jurisprudence, not when there was suffering to fought.  What is especially morally wonton about moral philosophy?  It shares the virtues and vices of any other rarefied intellectual pursuit.

A less-than-full-blooded defence, to say the least.

There is a lingering oddity in saying that moral philosophy has no likely moral outcome, and no special connection to moral improvement.

So what does one say about the utility of moral philosophy to the committed activist?

It was momentarily tempting to point out that if moral philosophy is not morally useful, then having meta-philosophical thoughts about the inutility of moral philosophy must be doubly wasteful.  But I loathe ad hominem tricks, and the temptation passed.

There was, though, a germ in that ad hominem point, namely, that moral philosophy is often unavoidable.  Just as she, despite her pragmatic outlook, found that she was drawn into what was, for her presumably, a time-wasting articulation of her outlook, so too are we often inescapably drawn into moral philosophy.  Complex circumstances demand that we weigh and evaluate what counts as appropriate reasons for our actions and beliefs.

This makes wandering into the foothills of moral philosophy inevitable…

…irrespective of whether such explorations are actually useful.  If so, better to do it with a map of where previous explorers have been.

Even if that’s right, it isn’t enough.  For one thing, there may well be moral crusaders who never question or deviate from their course, despite the complexities and vicissitudes of life.  For them, perhaps moral philosophy would be a waste of time.

And it’s not altogether clear why we shouldn’t aspire to be moral crusaders.

The last line of defence is an ancient one, perhaps too old now to hold up.  It is this: that what we take to be suffering may be a symptom of something else, or even – an illusion.  Don’t you think we had better make sure our sense of ‘suffering’ is the right one, the better to spend our scant resources?

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Endnotes

1.  The notion that we do not come by our moral convictions as a result of intellectual effort is a striking feature of William James’ The Will to Believe:

Here in this room, we all of us believe in molecules and the conservation of energy, in democracy and necessary progress, in Protestant Christianity, and the duty of fighting for the immortal Monroe, all for no reasons worthy of the name.

2. Stoics are notorious for claiming that conventional notions of pleasure and suffering are misguided.  Suffering is, really, an illusion.  For example:

Yes, death and life, fame and ignominy, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, – all these come to good and bad alike, but they are not in themselves either right or wrong: neither then are they inherent good or evil   – Marcus Aurelius

3. A radical modern proponent of the view that there is something wrong with our conventional moral norms is Herbert Marcuse:

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need in the sense just defined.

Irrespective of whether he is right that we have internalised consumerism, the important point for this discussion is his concern that our intuitive moral norms may be untrustworthy; invisibly dominated by socio-economic forces.   

If so, then the corrective is to regularly examine the sense of ‘suffering’ we apply in our activism.  In other words, do some moral philosophy.

“So, you believe in God?”

Just because I doubted an evolutionary explanation….

“So,” [pause]

“You believe in God?”

I was making my usual Platonic point about the poverty of the senses – about how abstract notions such as ‘oneness’, ‘similarity’, ‘dissimilarity’ and so on, couldn’t be derived from sense experience.  I might even have used the phrase: ‘the poverty of the manifest image’. I like that phrase.

The conversation was going well. We touched on evolutionary biology and the evolutionary advantages of grouping concrete objects into abstract ‘kinds’ of objects.

“So be it”, says I,  “but that doesn’t help to explain how we were able to invent ‘kinds’ in the first place. You can’t point to a kind of thing. Evolutionary biology can explain how we point to things themselves, so long as pointing is evolutionarily advantageous.”.

I begin to warm to my subject: “we don’t see a species, class or kind”.  What I’m trying to get at is that our ability to classify things is a precondition of our having any experience at all, not something we learn from repeat experiences. No doubt classifying is an evolutionarily useful ability, but advantageousness doesn’t explain how we can do it at all.

And then the god-bomb went off. I might have seen it coming, or heard it ticking. I should have. I mean, you can’t go around pointing out how mysterious abstract thought is without inviting a deus ex machina.

Nobody likes inexplicables, and I did make abstract thought sound like a divine gift.

But there is – isn’t there? – something epistemologically puzzling, mysterious even, about how we come to classify particular things into abstract kinds.

Would it help solve the mystery if we introduced a bit of guesswork into the way we develop into our ability to classify things into kinds? Maybe we can make headway if we say that we mostly pretend that things are similar, and leave it to scientists to find out for sure.

Perhaps we know, roughly, that some things look a bit like other things, and at that point we take a conceptual risk and say they are ‘the same kind of thing’.  That is, broadly speaking, what science does.

Naturally this process involves some gerrymandering. I mean it’s not as if we ever see two things that are exactly alike. So of course, we imaginatively chop reality into bits that seem more manageable for our purposes, and quietly ignore the bits that don’t fit.

But you can see, now, why I kept quiet about this argumentative move. I was sitting around a table with some pretty predatory conversationalists.

One whiff that science could explain abstract thought, and I would have been mincemeat.

Or would I? How might this scientific gerrymandering work? You’d still already have to have some idea of what ‘similarity’ is before the very first time you tried out your gerrymandering on the world.

This proto-scientist still begs the question: where did we get ‘similarity’ and ‘dissimilarity’ from?  Normally, we learn about our environment from repeat exposure. But testing whether things are as similar as they appear must beg the question that we know what ‘similar’ is.

So ‘similarity’ must be something we bring to the world when we look at it. Without a pre-existing sense of what ‘similarity’ or ‘difference’ is, our image of the world would be a horrible undifferentiated mess. We need to start with some intellectual resources, to have some idea of what to look for, in order even to begin to make sense of it all.

I can see how all that sounds dangerously unnatural.

It sounds as though I deny that the evolutionary history of ‘perception’ can explain how we perceive in the extraordinarily differentiated way that we do. Well yes, in a sense I do deny that – evolutionary explanations are nice, but it’s good to notice when they don’t satisfy us.

The evolution of perception would be something like a list of all the trials and errors we’ve had as a species (or as an individual) in the ways we’ve invented of classifying the world.  I claim that before that list can even get started, we need to explain how we got the tools to classify anything in the first place.

I’m certainly not saying that we are doing anything cosmic or divine when we apply rudimentary ideas of ‘similarity’ in the act of perceiving something.

All I want to say is that having some sort of an understanding of similarity is logically prior to perceiving it.

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Endnotes
  1. The astute may already have noticed that this line of thought is essentially Neo-Kantian (albeit with suitable disclaimers about the idiosyncrasies of the above).  I am content with that label – Who could disagree with the Kantian dictum?:

Thoughts without content are empty, intuition without understanding is blind

2.  Conversations are imprecise.  I did say: “we don’t see species, classes or kinds”, but perhaps I shouldn’t have.  I am, of course, perfectly happy to say that we can see similarities between objects, and if we can do that, then perhaps we can see that an object might belong to a particular class of objects.  (But that still sounds slightly different from saying that we see the ‘class’).

I am only claiming that seeing a similarity is not an ability that is derivable from sense-experience.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t occur in sense experience.  That really would be odd.

And the last thing I want is to cross swords with J.L. Austin.  Poor Mr Maclagan is immortalised for having implied that we cannot see a resemblance, but that we ‘apprehend’ or ‘intuit’ it with some other mental faculty.  Austin replied:

I have heard it said that it is odd to talk of ‘smelling a resemblance’: and certainly it is as well to consider other senses than that of sight.  But it is not odd to talk of smelling two similar smells, or two smells which are sensibly alike (though the plain man might well ask, how could they be alike except sensibly?).  And if I were forced to say either ‘I smell the resemblance’ or ‘I intuite it’, I know which I should choose.  The plain dog would, I am sure, say it smelled resemblances: but no doubt your philosophical dog would persuade itself that it ‘inhaled’ them.

I am, most definitely, the plain dog.