Epistemology,  Ethics,  Love

O’Donovan’s Love Dilemma (pt.2)

Oliver O’Donovan suggests that another way to think about the priority or the inclusiveness of love is to think about the object of love (for the first way, see here).

Who or what is it that one should love, given the immigration situation, for example? Should we supremely love those who cannot defend themselves and, having no power, find themselves at the mercy of an impersonal immigration system? Or should our loves be focused on either ideals of law or those for whom our decisions will most affect?

What we love or, more precisely, what we are supposed to love entails a presupposed order of loves. Self, nation, future generation, ideals, oppressed people all compete for our love. And how do we decide which one ought to be loved the most? And when we do choose, for whatever reason, we make the object of love the ultimate object, universalizing a particular and, at the same time, raising it up as the object of supreme love.

To see this consider the uninterpreted picture floating through social media’s steams, that of a man on a boat grasping his young child and screaming in terror. Let us say we choose to make this man the object of love that then governs all our other obligations (in priority mode). We call for immigrants found in the Mediterranean to be given safe housing, access to healthcare and welfare. How we justify this may include the story of the particular man on the boat, but we are not now talking about one man, but people who are fleeing their countries in general. But the man and his child in the picture have become the ideal of our supreme love, our love for the generalization of what we see instantiated by a particular man and child.

The same process could be described occurring within those who choose another object to receive supreme love. Those who take the opposite view are enamored by the hero who stands up to the threat of a collective people who will attempt to adopt a project of what O’Donovan calls a “managerial philanthropy.” The hero is strong and courageous in the face of tyranny and he or she inspires a greater love for the law, for ideals and for sovereignty.

O’Donovan points out that whatever dilemma we face there will always be a supreme love. He suggests that the correct ordering of our love is the crucial question not love’s relation to other moral obligations. To avoid the tyranny entailed by either view we should recognize our equality with others but that equality is not that we all come first in the ordering of our loves, but that we occupy second place. He concludes:

“Take away love for God, and the ontological parity which makes true neighbor-love possible is upset; one human being takes the place of God and confers value and significance upon the other” (Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 229). 

O’Donovan, like Augustine, argues that an ordered love answers the problem generated by the love dilemma. First, justice is conceived of provisionally. Our attempt to doing the most loving thing now is eventually superseded by a perfect justice carried out by God.

Second, O’Donovan’s view suggests that we should avoid vilifying opponents. If love is a good thing, then it is not necessarily unloving to disagree with whatever position one advocates (I say not necessarily because there may indeed be the radical anarchist on the one side and the radical nationalist on the other who justify their views in decidedly immoral ways).

There are some disadvantages with O’Donovan’s view. First, it is not clear if what he says helps with a practical dilemma. Sure, we are more aware of our presuppositions, but what exactly is the right thing to do? How does our love for God show us what course of action our nations should follow? Applying O’Donovan’s view tells us simultaneously a great deal and far too little.

Second, a provisional kind of justice is accompanied by a provisional knowledge. Consider our concept of love. What makes it complete, on O’Donovan’s view, is revealed in our experience of an event that demands the application of that obligation. What then determines the concept? Is it the event or the concept. If there is no a priori concept of love available then surely love remains undetermined. Love is determined as we go along.

There is an answer to this question: if God is the supreme love, then it is God’s understanding of love (since he is love) that should be the determining factor. In order to know God one must know his thoughts. The thoughts that God wants us to have are expressed in the Bible.

I conclude in the style of O’Donovan: with no concrete or practical conclusions and with the hope that by reading we have done some thinking.

As the title suggests there is more to this discussion. Part 1 can be found here

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.