Love as an Object of Right Desire

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


To deal with love as an object of right desire, we must first clarify the relation of love to desire; and, in addition, we must call attention to the prevalent misuse of the word “love” in everyday speech.

The word “love” is generally misused as if it were a synonym of “desire.” When children, and their elders as well, say that they love pleasant things to eat or drink, or that they love to do this or that, they think they are saying no more than that they like something, that it pleases them, or that they want it. This misuse of the word is corrected, though it probably will never be prevented, by a better understanding of the relation between love and desire than most people have.

The most basic psychological distinction in the sphere of our mental acts and in our overt behavior is made by the line that divides the cognitive from the appetitive. Our desires and emotions or passions belong on the appetitive side of that line; our acts of knowing, understanding, and thinking, on the cognitive side.

In the appetitive sphere, the most fundamental distinction is between acquisitive and benevolent desire. It is the latter to which the word “love,” properly used, should be attached.

The prime characteristic of the appetitive is its tendency or impulse to act in a certain way toward the object of appetite, whatever that may be. This tendency or impulse is usually, but not always, accompanied by feelings or sentiments, sometimes involving almost overpowering bodily turmoil, as in the case of fear and anger, and sometimes quite mild affections, as in the case of some bodily pleasures and pains.

Putting aside the emotional or feeling aspect of our appetites, let us consider here only the tendencies or impulses to action that are involved in such things as desiring — wanting, needing, and loving.

Hunger and thirst are the most obvious examples of acquisitive desire experienced by everyone at one time or an other. We often eat without being hungry and drink without being thirsty. But when we are famished or parched, we experience a strong desire or impulse to go and get something edible or drinkable. That tendency or impulse is acquisitive desire m Its most obvious manifestation.

In every instance of acquisitive desire we are impelled to seek something for ourselves — to get it, lay hold of it, consume it, appropriate or possess it in some way. All acquisitive desires are selfish in the sense that they are self-seeking impulses, desires that, when satisfied, leave us momentarily contented.

When we experience such acquisitive desires and are impelled by them to such self-satisfying actions, we say, “I want this” or “I need it.” The difference between wanting and needing has already been made clear.

But not all our desires or appetitive impulses are acquisitive and self-seeking. We sometimes, even often, have desires and consequent impulses to do something for the benefit of another. We are impelled to give to another instead of getting something for ourselves.

Just as the words “want” and “need,” properly used, name all the forms of acquisitive desire, so the word “love,” properly used, should be reserved for all forms of benevolent desire — and for the impulse to give rather than to get. As acquisitive desires and getting represent the selfish aspect of our lives, so benevolent desires and giving represent the altruistic aspect.

We are selfish when we are exclusively or predominantly concerned with the good for ourselves. We are altruistic when we are exclusively or predominantly concerned with the good of others. Our selfish impulses are all for our own benefit. Our altruistic impulses are all for the benefit of others. To act benevolently is to confer benefits upon others.

If people generally misuse the words “need” and “want,” saying they need when they mean they want, it is even more generally the case that all of us misuse the word “love.” Children, and not only children, say they love ice cream, or that they would love to have a sailboat or a sports car. Such things are not loved; no benevolent desire or impulse is involved. We also say we love our freedom, which is something we certainly need but do not love. Only when we say that we love our friends, our spouses, or our children, and perhaps even our country, is the word “love” being used properly.

Even then, when we use the word to express our feelings about or impulses toward another person, it is not always the case that we are properly using the word “love.” For example, when young children say they love their parents, they do not mean that they have any benevolent impulses toward them. On the contrary, they do need their parents for a variety of the goods they acquisitively desire and that they want their parents to get for them and give to them. Parents, on the other hand, who are unselfishly concerned with the good of their children and are impelled to confer upon them all the benefits within their power to bestow, truly love their children.

In the sphere of our adolescent and adult relationships, we often say that we love other persons when, in fact, we need them for some self-satisfaction or want them for some selfish purpose. Not present at all is any benevolent impulse exclusively or predominantly concerned with the good of the other.

There are four things that one person can say to another: “I want you”; “I need you”; “I like you”; and “I love you.” If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love. If one needs another for some selfish purpose, such as acquiring wealth, the desire is still acquisitive rather than benevolent. Only when loving another is rooted in liking or admiring that other — and when our liking of what we find good in that person impels us to do what we can to benefit him or her — is it correct to say that we love that person. We can, of course, like persons that we do not love; but with one important exception, to be noted presently, we cannot love persons (in the sense of having benevolent impulses toward them) without first liking them, which consists in admiring what is good about them.

We have only one word in English for “love,” where speakers of ancient Greek and Latin had three words. The three Greek words were eros, philia, and agape. The three Latin words were amor, amicitia, and caritas. But in addition to the word “love” in English, we also have such words as “friendship” and “charity,” and such phrases as “erotic love” and “sexual love.”

The Greeks used the word eros and the Romans used the word amor for the kind of love we call erotic, amorous, or sexual. Such love may involve sexual pleasure.

Nevertheless, it is love rather than sexual lust or unbridled sexuality if, in addition to the need or want involved, there is also some impulse to give pleasure to the persons thus loved and not merely to use them for our own selfish pleasure.

When no sexual desire and impulse is involved in our relation to another person that we say we love, we have the form of friendship that the Greeks called philia and the Romans amicitia. We like others for the virtues in them that we admire; and because we admire or like them, we love them in the sense of wishing to act for their good and to enhance it by whatever benefits we can confer upon them.

This does not exclude obtaining self-satisfaction from such love. It may not be totally altruistic. A friend whom one loves in this way is an alter ego. We love him or her as we love ourselves. We feel one with them. Conjugal love, or the friendship of spouses, persists after sexual desires have weakened, withered, and disappeared.

Finally, the third kind of love, which the Greeks called agape and the Romans caritas, we sometimes refer to as “charitable love,” and sometimes as “divine love,” or the love of God and of human beings, ourselves and others, as creatures of God. Such love is totally unselfish, totally altruistic. We bestow such love even on persons we do not admire and, therefore, do not like. It is giving without any getting. It is the love that impels one human being to lay down his life for another.

It is not a misunderstanding of love or a misuse of the word to associate love with sexual desire. Erotic or sexual love can truly be love if it is not selfishly sexual or lustful.

But only one who understands the existence of love in a world totally devoid of sex — one who uses the word “love” to signify the benevolent impulses we have toward others whom we like and admire and call our friends — can claim to understand the meaning of love as distinguished from the purely acquisitive desires we have when we need or want things or persons for our own sake and for self-satisfaction.

However, when we say that we love the truth, or when we interpret the word “philosophy” etymologically as signifying the love of wisdom, we are departing from the understanding of love as benevolent desire.

We may admire truth or wisdom; we may even pursue the truth or seek wisdom as objects of right desire; but we are not impelled to act benevolently toward them. Our impulse to make the truth available to mankind or to increase its store of wisdom may be a benevolent concomitant of our great admiration for truth and wisdom, but that benevolence flows from our love of humanity, not from our love or truth or wisdom.