by Thomas R. Wells
The argument in brief:
1. Romantic love hijacks our desires and practical reasoning
2. If your desires and practical reasoning are hijacked your decisions aren’t authentically your own
3. If there were something that would prevent you from falling in love (a ‘vaccine’), it would prevent this hijacking
4. If there were a vaccine against romantic love, you should take it
I. The Case Against Romantic Love
First, I do not deny that being in romantic love feels great. But I do deny that this answers the question of whether being in love is a good thing. After all, heroin feels great, but that doesn’t make it good for us.
Romantic love – and note that I am talking throughout about the crazy euphoric kind of love here, not the boring companionable kind – is exactly like being on drugs because it is. It operates by hijacking our emotions, desires, and practical reasoning at the neurochemical level by manipulating our dopamine and endorphin systems (valuation and pleasure). Love is a cognitive distortion field that makes us gloss over particular people’s flaws and want to refocus our lives around them. The term ‘endorphin’ is short for endogenous morphine. It binds to the same opiate receptors as heroin. We suffer literal drug withdrawal symptoms when separated from the object of our love.
Second, I do not deny that romantic love is a widely shared human experience that is a central theme of ‘western’ culture (all those songs and movies). But I do deny that this fact means that love ought to be part of everyone’s life. There are lots of things central to human experience which we would be better off without, such as tyranny, sexism, racism, homophobia, cancer, aging, war, etc. The fact that something is central to human experience doesn’t demonstrate that it is worth keeping that way.
We should be clear-eyed about what romantic love is and not confuse it with its current cultural fetishisation, particularly in ‘western’ societies. In particular, love is not an expression of individualism but its opposite.
It is obvious that romantic love often generates conflict with social order and conventions. People fall in love with those of the ‘wrong’ gender, race, caste, and so on all the time. This is why communitarian societies so often see romantic love as a threat, and seek to suppress it, just as they also suppress all kinds of other behaviour and thinking that might undermine the ‘harmony’ of the community, including individuals demanding the right to live their own way. But being suppressed by communitarians doesn’t mean that romantic love is a threat because it is an expression of individualism. The opposite is true. Love is a threat to both individualism and community.
The neurological basis for love is an evolved adaptation that serves a biological (species level) function of reproduction by making people so irrationally enamored of each other that they will be willing to embark on the extraordinarily brave and foolish project of raising children together. Like all such evolved functions it is the product of natural selection in that individuals prone to intense-pair bonding were more likely to leave more children, and those children would also have that trait and so it would come to dominate. This explains where love comes from and its function, but it doesn’t explain why we should adopt this function as our own. The ‘interest’ that our genes have in reproducing themselves into future generations is distinct from and can conflict with our interests as individual agents. As feminists have argued long and well: we are not baby factories; we have our own lives to live.
II. Authenticity: Living Your Own Life Requires Freedom from Love
200 years of pop culture have succeeded in making most people believe that being in a state of romantic love is when you are most truly living for yourself. This follows I think from the society vs individual framing mentioned above, and also from the popularity of the ‘feelings view’ of personal identity, in which experiencing strong feelings is taken as evidence that we have encountered something real and true. (This may also be why anger is so popular these days.) This has replaced a more philosophical ‘thinking view’ in which authenticity is related to autonomy, our recognition of ourselves as reasoning beings who can give ourselves and others reasons for our actions that do not reduce to merely neurochemical explanations or post hoc rationalisations.
Let me try to get you to see the attraction of the thinking view. A key distinction is that our thoughts, desires and actions do not simply happen to us; we can tell an account of how we got to where we are that we can reflectively endorse. In this light, authenticity concerns how far we recognise ourselves in our actions and thoughts; how far our will is our own. This is a fuzzy idea to be sure, and it better thought of in terms of more or less than yes or no. My claim is that romantic love (and perhaps some kinds of anger) is so radically transformative of our thoughts, feelings and values that it crosses the threshold between things that we do and things that are done to us.
Suppose that an enterprising bio-chemist actually managed to create a concoction of pheromones that would induce romantic love when inhaled. Suppose you were sprayed with this potion and accordingly fell in love with the next person you saw. I think that just about everyone who thinks about this would see this as a gross violation of our integrity, that a significant transformation has been done to us and that this is illegitimate. However, on the feelings view of personal identity it is hard to see why. Love feels just the same – because it would be neurochemically just the same – whether it is induced by someone spraying you with a potion or whether it is produced ‘organically’ from within your own brain in reaction to someone.
It might seem that there is a major difference though, since in the normal case of romantic love there is no creepy biochemist spraying chemicals about. The neurochemicals that give you the experience of love are produced by our own brain, just like the neurochemicals that support our other thinking processes. The brain that does all that thinking supposedly so central to authenticity is the same brain that falls in love. Surely the products of our own brain can’t be inauthentic since they are what make us us? How can we coherently say that sometimes our brain is ‘on our side’ and sometimes ‘it is not on our side’?
Consider this second thought experiment. Suppose there were a brain worm parasite that caused the same radically disruptive symptoms as romantic love. I think it would again be easy to recognise this as inauthentic. (This example is not so far-fetched. Apparently there is such a parasite that makes mice attracted to cats and easier for them to eat: it would be absurd to say the mice are living their authentic life as they are drawn towards their death.) I think of romantic love as analogous to a computer virus lurking in our brain until it is activated. Once activated it functions like a parasite to displace our existing goals and reasons with its own and redirects our attention and energies accordingly. Sure it is endogenously produced by our own brain, but, like a cancer tumour, it is still alien to our self.
Finally, let’s return to the happiness objection – since it is one that always comes up when I try to explain this idea. How happy we would feel on love is irrelevant to the question of whether or not we are living our own life. Nor is the fact that the person we would be would retroactively endorse their transformation. Compare with people in a cult: the fact that the person you would become if you joined a cult would feel happy and entirely ‘yourself’ is no reassurance to the person you are now. The person you are now can reasonably take steps to prevent such a transformation taking place.
III. A Vaccine Against Love Puts You Back in Control
Let me conclude by talking to those who have followed me so far (thank you!) but haven’t been convinced. I think that a vaccine against love would be valuable even to those people who don’t value their authenticity as highly as I just outlined, and even to many who welcome the appearance of love precisely because of its transformative effects on our affect and cognition.
Love is a cognitive distortion field which makes us gloss over our partner’s flaws and want to refocus our lives around them. But this can lead people to put themselves at great risk, for example under the power of what a clear-eyed view shows to be vile and abusive people. The cost of such a mistake varies with people’s level of resources and background legal and social institutions (e.g. the women in Jane Austen’s novels had to be very cautious about who they could allow themselves to fall in love with as divorce was illegal and a mistake could not be unmade.) Despite improvements in prosperity and rights, there are still many people even in rich countries like the US who probably cannot afford to take the risk of falling in love with the wrong person. They would probably want to take the vaccine (especially if it were cheap and reversible).
A second group of people who might want to be protected from the transformative experience of romantic love are those who are very happy with the life they have now and don’t want it upended. That might include people who are already in a loving committed relationship and don’t want to fall in love with someone else, causing themselves emotional turmoil, and tempting them to wrong their partner. (This kind of thing does happen to people all the time.) Does this case apply to you – or can you imagine it applying to you in future – and would you take steps to prevent falling in love if you could? In that case you agree that falling in love is not always a good thing simply because it can often be a good thing, and that the ability to prevent love is a valuable freedom.
The upshot is that romantic love is something rather like another transformative experience: parenthood. Having a child can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a terrible thing if it is not what you want, or if it is with the wrong person, or at the wrong time. The availability of ‘family planning’ methods supports parenthood by reducing the incidence of unhappy/unwilling parenthood. In the same way, a reversible vaccine against love would support romantic love by reducing the incidence of love that makes lives worse.
Thomas Wells is a philosophy lecturer in the Netherlands. He blogs at The Philosopher’s Beard.