West London Humanists and Secularists

Report on Love Symposium - 19th September 2013

The main purpose of this meeting was to provide some input into the development of the concept of Kindness in the Triax. It had been decided that this would also be a good opportunity to try to shed some light on the many ways in which the word "love" is used, since a precise and restricted meaning of this word is used in the definition of Kindness in the Triax.

Love and the Triax
Philip Veasey opened with an explanation of the role and definition of Kindness in the Triax. It is one of the three axes of virtue:

  • Kindness
  • Self-Honesty
  • Courage
the latter two having already been "workshopped" in previous WLHS meetings (see The Role of Courage in Morality and Honesty and Integrity).

Kindness is defined as "love in action". If one has the emotion of love (in the Triax sense), it will lead you to act with kindness towards those you love with the objective of making them happy. For the Triax, we define love formally as follows:
A "loves" B if and only if B is unhappy implies A is unhappy
In other words, we love someone if their happiness is necessary (though maybe not sufficient) for our own happiness. This love is altruistic in that it does not expect anything in return beyond the satisfaction of the need to make the other person happy. This does of course leave "happiness" undefined but, for most purposes this is acceptable. There is also an issue of degree or intensity of love corresponding to the degrees of happiness in A and B but, despite such technicalities, the definition captures something which most people can relate to quite comfortably.

Intensity is not the only dimension of Triax love that we need to understand. To describe such a love we also need to know how far away A and B are on the kinship spectrum. It is one thing to love one's nearest and dearest, it is another to care about the fate of people on the other side of the world that you don't know and never will. Love at both ends of this spectrum can be seen to have evolutionary advantages and a wide spread help both families and societies to be stable. There are people who love intensely but only those near them. There are those who feel their passionate care for the human race and the environment will save the planet, who yet show very little regard for those around them. There are also those who care little about anyone.

An interesting corollary of the Triax definition of love is that we all love ourselves perfectly since A "loves" A if and only if: A unhappy => A unhappy. This is not to say we are all selfish since "A is selfish if A loves B => A = B". However it might lead us to be less self-congratulatory about any altruism we display.

It is worth noting that a simplistic formulation of the Golden Rule, as in "Do as you would be done by" is not altruistic, as one's kind behaviour is motivated by the hope that others will behave the same way to you. This provokes the question of whether a love instinct is a better basis for morality than civilised self-interest.

Roger Haines had hoped to attend this event but did contribute by writing a short note "Interpersonal Love versus Altruism" on the Triax definition of love.

According to Plato
Charles Rudd shared with us his reflections on re-reading Plato's Symposium, a key text for Greek notions of love. The Symposium ("drinking party") comprises a discussion about love (eros), with several speakers, dominated as usual by Socrates, who makes the best known speech.

We rightly associate Plato with Platonic love, a phrase which goes back to the Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino (1469), but Plato uses eros in a wider sense, to include physical as well as non-physical (Platonic) love. In Athenian society, or at least that part of it which is recorded in literature and on vase-paintings, male same-sex relationships were regarded as normal and respectable, and (unlike such relationships today) were typically between an older and a much younger man. In addition to the physical aspect, the older man would mentor his junior partner and prepare him for public life.

Plato does not mention female same-sex relationships, and these are hardly documented in Greek culture apart from the poetic fragments of Sappho, who lived in Lesbos and has given us our word "lesbian." In this male-dominated ethos, women readers of Plato may well feel excluded.

Socrates claims to have been taught about love by a priestess called Diotima, who is probably a fictitious character. It enables Socrates to appear in the unusual role of learner, and Diotima talks to him in just the same way as Socrates talks to his disciples.
  • Love is neither good nor bad but something in between.
  • Love is not a god, not mortal, but a daimon or spirit, whose function is to convey messages from the gods to men. This is our word "demon", but we must forget the demons of Christian mythology with their horns and cloven hooves shovelling souls into the fires of hell.
  • Love is the son of Poverty (Penia) and Resource (Poros)--poor but scheming.
  • The object of love is beauty: love of beauty leads to love of wisdom (sophia), since wisdom is a beautiful thing.
  • Lovers are in search of their other halves: here Socrates picks up something said in greater detail earlier by Aristophanes.

In a famous passage known as The Ascent of Love, Diotima/Socrates traces a progression from physical beauty to more rarefied and valuable kinds of beauty; beauty of virtue; beauty of knowledge (episteme); and finally the absolute, unchanging form or idea of beauty to which love aspires. This brings us to Plato's theory of forms, or ideas. Idealism has had a very long history in Western philosophy, giving way only in the 20th century to a largely empirical approach.

Modern Theories
Philip gave a brief account of what he had discovered, from a quick trawl of the Internet, about more modern theories of love. We had planned to invest much more effort in this direction for the symposium as there is certainly far more to be said and probably many important ideas have been missed.

What had been found was that Helen Fisher was one of the most prolific writers/researchers on the biological aspects of love. One of the main features seemed to be that feelings which people describe as love are usually accompanied by unusually high concentrations of certain chemicals in the body and often with activity in specific parts of the brain. The main distinction seems to be between feelings associated with reproduction and sexual desire, where high levels of testosterone and oestrogen are the markers, and feelings associated with bonding where the markers are dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin. Both have clear race survival advantages and it is not surprising that they have evolved. The bonding feelings appear to be more complex and include a wider range of emotions including the "in-love" feeling and the bonding between parent and child.

Other theories are found under the banner of psychology where one of the most popular is Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love. This proposes that Intimacy, Passion and Commitment are the three components of all feelings talked about as love. Various feelings are described as mixtures of these components in order to classify them as shown in the table below.

Combinations of intimacy, passion, commitment













Infatuated love




Empty love




Romantic love




Companionate love




Fatuous love




Consummate love




He managed to summarise this by using the triangle below. This is all very neat but Philip felt it did not explain much of the more difficult areas where biological theories are shedding light.

The Music of Love
Well perhaps not, but at least the thoughts of our own professional flautist, William Morton who had been giving the topic some thought. William felt that love belonged very much in the right brain domain and that it was important to accept that, although it is beyond words, it is very real and valuable to the consciousness of the person experiencing it. He expressed wonder at the multitude of feelings associated with it, both the good ones, such as:
  • ecstasy
  • the 'tingle factor'
  • euphoria
  • happiness
  • joy
  • I'm fine - OK! SUCCESS!!
More neutral ones such as:
  • indifference
  • disinterest
  • no particular feelings, one way or the other
And the less happy ones, such as:
  • sadness
  • grief
  • depression
  • anger
  • hatred
which can occur when things go wrong. William felt that there were some areas of love that were worth understanding much better such as the way lack of parental contact and love can lead to disturbed personalities, the way love manifested itself at different points along the Asperger's-Autism spectrum and the way many people's lives are made much happier because of affectionate relationships with animals.

Abuses of Love
Philip felt it might be useful to think for a while about the ways in which the idea of love is abused by people. He feels that a surprising number of people seem to believe that when they use the word love, those hearing them understand exactly what they mean. This is so frequently not so. Some use this phenomenon to manipulate others, probably as a learnt behaviour rather than a conscious one. When a sexual partner turns to you and says, "Darling do you love me?", this may be a light and simple request for reassurance that can be easily given. It may, however, be asked when there is real doubt about the nature of feelings. In such circumstances it can be more of a demand for a blank cheque to interpret a Yes as meaning exactly what the questioner wants it to mean. A reply of "Well, what do you mean by love?" may often be met with the reply, "Well, if you don't know, then you don't love me". All very unhelpful.

Another extraordinary phenomenon is the way that some people feel that if they tell someone they love them, then that person owes them something, as in "You can't leave me, I love you". What is even more strange is that so many people, when blackmailed in this way, are prepared to go along with it.

PV, CR & WM - 11 October 2013