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An Interview with Monica Roland (1)

Cover Image for An Interview with Monica Roland (1)

----------------Portrett: Shoko Matsuki----------------

In the first part of our interview with Monica Roland (PhD in philosophy from UiO), we try to suss out her philosophical stance on love in general. Topics covered include: the notion of love as a moral emotion; misconceptions about love; contributions to the literature by philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt; and many more. Read Part 2 here. Please enjoy.

The p**rinted version will appear in the fortcoming issue entitled "Biologiens filosofi" ("the Philosophy of Biology") [#1/2020]**, which is due out in the beginning of March. You can pre-order a copy here.

Awesome, Painful Love: A Heart-to-Heart Interview with Monica Roland, Part 1/2


It is fair to say that no other emotion pervades and affects our lives as deeply as love. Its ineffable essence is the basis of countless stories about love sought, reciprocated, lost, rejected, regained, and lost again, found in culture we engage with daily. More intimately, the awesome highs and painful lows we experience when we’re in love influence how we act in important ways; for love supposedly “conquers all,” “makes the world go ‘round,” and so on. In brief, platitudes abound in discussions on romantic love.

Other forms of love exist as well, of course. We express love for ourselves, our parents, friends, partners, pets, passions, and gods, in differing, sometimes conflicting, ways. For instance, loving one’s offspring in a romantic (or especially in a sexual) manner, as opposed to as kin, is (rightly) considered to be morally suspect, to say the least.

Today, many emotive issues pertaining to love, e.g., denial of marriage (in particular, between same-sex couples or polyamorous persons), sexual identity, and unhealthy (or immoral) attachment, prompt controversy. Paradoxically, our understanding of love becomes increasingly uncertain as we become cognizant that it may be reducible to a physio-chemical response. It appears that this demystification of love alienates it from the romantic expressions we have familiarized ourselves with in popular culture. These divergent conceptions arouse our interest in love as an object of philosophical inquiry. How is it that we can characterize it in a non-romantic fashion? Is love something akin to respect, aiding in the construction of our moral frameworks? Or is it simply a leftover evolutionary response designed to generate communal stability?

Among ‘philosophers of love’ we find Dr. Monica Roland, whose doctorate dissertation was entitled What is Love? (no reference to the 1993 song by Haddaway intended). Dr. Roland—or ‘Dr. Love’ as some have felt inclined to nickname her—completed her dissertation at the University of Oslo (UiO), where she was an affiliate at the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMSN), and she obtained her doctorate degree in April of 2017.

Her main research interests are in the philosophy of love (and more generally the philosophy of emotions), normativity and the nature of reasons, rationality (and its relation to irrationality), philosophy of science and feminism. Dr. Roland is currently employed as a Research Advisor at the Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet) and as a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Research (STK) at the University of Oslo. This semester she is teaching a module on gender and science at said centre while writing and submitting papers on love to various publications.

In this rather lengthy interview, we probe Dr. Roland on a number of aspects regarding the nature of love, some of which pertain to our biological makeup. Dr. Roland sounds off on such interesting topics as the possibility of unconditional love; the importance of stable relationships; love for artificial intelligence; so-called ‘love drugs’; and many more. Please join us on our quest to find love (and earn respect) as we pick the brain and heart of Dr. Roland.


Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. Let’s start with the most vicious question: So, what is love?

That’s a huge question in so many ways because the word ‘love’, at least in English, can mean so many things. It can refer to so many different phenomena. I think a lot of people, when they talk about love, talk about romantic love. In popular culture, when they talk about love, it is almost always romantic love, or even infatuation, and a lot of philosophers do not want to talk about infatuation. Rather, they separate it from love, or ‘love proper’. So you need to specify what you are talking about, and that is a big part of trying to answer the question. Are you talking about romantic love, or are you talking about close friendships? Because that can be love as well. Or are you talking about familial love, the love that parents, for instance, have for their children? Or, are you talking about loving philosophy, or loving nature, or love for humankind, etc.? The same word denotes different things. Now it might be the case that all these different types of love just mentioned, like loving philosophy, or nature, or a person, have something in common. But my project was not to look at all the different types of love there is, rather I wanted to see whether what we call romantic love, close friendships, and familial love have something in common. And if so, what are those features?

And to give you a very brief answer to that question, my claim is that what these three types of love have in common is that they can all be described as a moral emotion. But in what way is it a moral emotion? Well, it seems that a lot of philosophers of love, whether they want to say that love is a moral emotion or whether they deny it, all agree that to love a person is to love that person as an end in themself. And that seems to me to involve the moral attitude of respect. And so it is in that minimal sense that it makes sense, I think, to say that love is a moral emotion. Of course, it could be a moral emotion in a lot of different ways as well, and it could also be more than just a moral emotion.

And I do argue that love is more than a moral emotion, in the sense that it is more than just a response to a generic value that we all share. It is also a response to particulars, to particular qualities that we have as individuals. So we are not loved just for being a person or human, it’s not just our generic value that is acknowledged in love; love is also acknowledgement of our personal needs and qualities. I call that the ‘duality of love’. But I also say that love is a state for which there are normative reasons, and that, of course, is a huge topic. I also touch upon the topic of love as a source of normativity, that is, whether love itself provides us with reasons for certain actions, and furthermore, its relation to morality as a source of normativity or moral acts. So, these are huge topics, and I try to cover it all in my thesis. I don’t think I have an exhaustive answer to these questions, but I think that I am on my way to at least having a better understanding of some of them.

Do you think it is possible to evaluate love in an idealized, abstract form?

If by an 'idealized, abstract form' you mean philosophize or doing philosophy on love, then yes, I think that’s possible. A lot of people do it, or rather a lot of philosophers do it, and so it is obviously possible. The more pressing question is whether you can say something insightful about love within a philosophical framework. I think so. As with all things in life, good philosophers can say insightful things about them, even if they might be wrong. We can learn something from their process of packing out the problem, even if they end up with the wrong answer or conclusion. Of course, I don’t think that philosophers are the only ones who can say something insightful and give us knowledge about love. Literature, obviously, can, and so can popular culture, and the different sciences, and life as well. But I do think that just as for other topics, such as ‘what is rationality?’, ‘what is consciousness?’, ‘what is a belief?’, and ‘what is knowledge?’, philosophy, or at least good philosophy, is a really, really helpful tool for thinking systematically about something, and I think that goes for the topic of love as well.

How was it that you came to study love philosophically, and, assuming you had one, what was your view on love prior to starting your research?

Initially, I was not going to study love. I never thought that I was going to write a PhD thesis on love. My original plan was to write about motivation and freedom of the will, as a continuation of sorts of my Master’s thesis, where I wrote about Harry Frankfurt’s hierarchical theory on free will. I started doing that, but as I proceeded with my work, and as I read more and more on both free will and motivation, I continuously stumbled upon the concept of caring. Frankfurt, for instance, has written an anthology called The Importance of What We Care About. And as a continuation of that I started noticing that more and more philosophers mentioned love, as well. I started receiving a lot of emails suddenly about conferences on emotions and love, and it was love all over the place. Then my supervisor Olav Gjelsvik said, "Maybe you should look into that love stuff?" And I thought, "No, no way, I’m a serious philosopher! Love, that’s the stuff of great literature and poetry, but what can I say about love?"

But I am sort of emotionally slow, and after a while it started to dawn upon me that it could be interesting to write about love, because I could see that it certainly is relevant for our motivational makeup, and I was also getting a bit tired of the free will debate. Not because it’s not interesting, but because a lot of smart people have said really smart things about it for quite some time now, and I am not sure if there is much more to add to it. 

I started, then, from a point where I didn’t have love in mind at all, and ended up thinking that love is a very interesting philosophical topic and that I actually might have something to say about it.

Do you think your personal life has affected your view on love?

I think our personal lives affect us in ways that we don’t know or understand, so it’s hard for me to say. But whatever has affected me to study love, whatever the explanation is, I think there are a lot of good reasons to study love, and not just from a philosophical perspective. I think close relationships are extremely hard. But they are also among the best things that can happen to us. And we need them, it’s important for our survival, not just physically, but also socially. And it’s an important condition for having a good life. As human beings, we are social creatures, we need good, stable relationships, and I think that love, whether it is romantic love, or close friendships, or familial love, brings meaning to our lives. And that makes it worth studying in itself, I think.

What do you consider to be the most common, or most salient, misconceptions that philosophers make about love? And what about non-philosopher? Put differently, do you think that there are some emotions that most (be they philosophers or not) tend to confuse with love? Frankfurt enumerates a few, e.g., lust, infatuation, and obsession.

I agree with Frankfurt, and a lot of other philosophers, that infatuation is a related but different phenomenon than love, or ‘love proper’. I think a lot of people confuse infatuation with love, and I think we often see that done in novels and movies as well. The conception of romantic love in popular culture, seems to be that it should be this very passionate thing, something that is just going to knock you off your feet and take over your world. And of course, infatuation very often feels like that, and very often infatuation also develops into love. But I don’t think it is the same as love. I think that, psychologically speaking, infatuation might be a necessary condition for romantic love. But I think it’s separate from the ‘deeper’ phenomenon; the feeling or emotion of love.

Illustrasjon av Shoko Matsuki

Another misconception that I think people make about love has to do with the term ‘unconditional love’. What do people even mean when they talk about ‘unconditional love’? I don’t think unconditional love is possible. But it might be that we are just talking about different things. So, this is my interpretation of it: when people talk about unconditional love they might talk of, for instance, a mother who, despite the fact that her son is a mass murderer still loves him, and she can’t let go of that. But I don’t think that’s unconditional love. She loves him because it’s her son. Her love is conditional on the fact that this is her child.

So if you by unconditional love mean that you will love someone no matter what they do to you, or no matter what they do to others, then I would first say that it sounds like a very unhealthy love, something close to an obsession, or addiction, or even an illness. In most such cases I am not even sure I would call it love. But be that as it may, if you love someone, you most likely have a historical relationship with that person, and that relationship is part of the explanation for why you love that person and also a reason for loving that person. So the love is conditional on the relationship. Let’s say someone came up to you on the street, someone you had never seen before, and that person said, “I love you! I LOVE YOU! I will do anything for you! I will be your best friend,” and so on. You would probably feel very uncomfortable and think that it was weird and that the person in question is a bit off. So to sum it up I think it’s a misconception about love that it can be unconditional.

In your doctorate thesis you tacitly list Susan Wolf, David Velleman, and Harry Frankfurt as notable influences on your view on love. What can these philosophers teach us about love?

Besides Plato, I think Harry Frankfurt was my first big love when it came to philosophy. I read his seminal paper “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” and I was blown away. And I read much of his work after that. I think what he can teach us about love is that love is essentially something volitional. It forms our wills and affects us as agents. Now, if you ask people who are not philosophers on love what love is, I think a lot of them will say that it’s a feeling, that it’s something that you feel for someone. And that’s obviously true, it’s hard to imagine love without feelings. Furthermore, love is a source of a lot of other feelings as well. If your relationship with a loved one does not go well, then it’s a source of feelings like grief, or anger, or jealousy. And if things go well in that relationship, or with that person, it’s a source of joy, happiness, and perhaps pride.

But love is more than just a feeling. It is also a source of motivation. We do far more for those we love than for others. I think Harry Frankfurt’s work on love really captures that aspect of love.

As for David Vellemann, what I think we can learn from him or his account of love, is that it makes sense to talk of love as a moral emotion, that you cannot love someone properly if you don’t respect them. Love involves the moral attitude of respect. That being said, there’s obviously a lot more to say about love, and I think Velleman merely tells half the story. As already mentioned, love is not just a response to our generic value as ends in ourselves, but also to our particular qualities and particular relationships.

So what can we learn from Susan Wolf’s account of love? She writes really well about Bernard Williams thought experiment about the man and the drowning wife. There are two people out in the water drowning, one of them is a stranger and the other is the man’s wife, and he can only save one of them, and naturally wants to save his wife. The question is, Is he morally justified in saving the wife? This example has been heavily debated in philosophy, and most of the debate has focused on precisely the moral aspect of the example. But it can also tell us something important about love, and our expectations about the psychological make up of someone who loves, and the relation between love and morality. I learned a lot from Wolf’s discussion of the thought experiment, and it brought me forward in my thinking about the relation between love and morality.

Your view on love differs from that of Frankfurt in particular, in that you claim love is essentially moral. How come?

So, Frankfurt argues for a nonmoral account of love. What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t, of course, imply that there are no moral constraints on our personal relationships or that one doesn’t have special responsibilities to one’s loved ones. Rather, his argument for the claim that there is nothing particularly moral about love rests on his view that love and morality are two different sources of normativity and that love is not a result of moral reasoning.

Now, I agree with Frankfurt in that love is not typically elicited by an awareness of a moral duty to love the other. That is not a necessary condition for love. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the essential attitude to love is a moral attitude, such as respect. Furthermore, his claim that love and morality are different sources of normativity rests on a false assumption, I think, that motives and reasons are the same, and also that there is a clear distinction between the personal and the impersonal. The explanation of why you are motivated or inclined to act in favour of a loved one is your love for them, and of course often considerations that it will provide for their well being. The explanation for your motivation to do something for a stranger, such as providing help as the first one to arrive at a car crash site, is not love as such, but is provided by a sense of moral duty and compassion. But both these types of motivation, I argue, are grounded in the perception of the other, whether it is a loved one or a stranger in need, as an end in themselves and the value of the other that follows from that.

Frankfurt, presumably would not disagree. On his account love is essentially disinterested. That is, to love someone is essentially to care about them as ends in themselves, and not just in an instrumental way. But where I believe that such a valuation of the other makes love a moral emotion, Frankfurt seems to disagree. He does not make that connection.

But if love is to value someone as an end in themselves, then love seems to have much in common with the moral attitude of respect. In fact, it is hard to see how such a disinterested love could not involve respect. Respect is also about valuing the other as an end in themselves. I think Frankfurt lacks an argument for why the disinterested concern essential to love is not a moral attitude. So it is unclear to me whether on Frankfurt’ account, there can be disinterested love without respect. If yes, then what distinguishes this type of disinterested concern from the disinterested concern essential to respect. Frankfurt doesn’t say. If no, then it seems Frankfurt’s account of love as essentially disinterested conflicts with his nonmoral account.

So what does it mean, then, to value someone as an end in themselves? What are the practical implications of such a valuation? Well, at the very least it imposes certain restrictions on our wills. Both love and respect constrains our wills in that it prevents us from treating the other merely as instrumental, that is, merely as means to some further end. But both love and respect can also be sources of positive motivation. It isn’t just about what you cannot do to the other, but also about beneficiary acts. As a lover, for instance, you do not support a loved one in grief just because of the benefits it will provide you, or just because it feels good to you. Rather you do so essentially because it is good for the other.

So that is a very short introduction to my objection to Frankfurt’s account and also to what it could mean that love is a moral emotion.

If love is a moral emotion, as you contend it is, then how come it generates so many seemingly immoral actions (e.g., “crimes of passion” or protecting someone you love from a judicial response)?

Right. Is it true though that love generates so many immoral actions? I’m not so sure about that. So let’s start with “crimes of passion”. If we by that mean men who kill their wives, for instance, it seems pretty clear to me that those are not acts of love, but of despair, or rage, or temporary insanity, or a feeling of entitlement, and so on. The explanation of why some people end up killing their partner or ex partner is complex. But I don’t think love has anything to do with it.

However, there might be other examples where acting out of love for someone conflicts with morality. Love is a source of partisan actions. Some people might think, for instance, that if you were the President of the United States, then giving your daughter a job at the White House might be a violation of moral norms. So I guess being able to love someone and acting out of love for that person is not a guarantee that you are capable of treating other people who you don’t love as ends in themselves.

I do, however, think it is possible that protecting someone you love, even if it means breaking the law, could be morally justified, in some situations. So let’s say that you have a daughter, who is a lesbian, and where you live being a lesbian is a crime, and the punishment is the death penalty. As a mother you love your daughter and don’t think that being a lesbian is a crime, and certainly not that it should be punished with the death penalty, and so you hide your daughter. Maybe you send your daughter to another country which has other moral codes and laws. Such an act could definitely be described as an act of love and also in accordance with the mother’s morality and perhaps the morality of most people in Western societies.

I also think it is possible to act out of concern for a loved one and truly believe that you are benefitting the other, but then be wrong. Thus acting out of love is not a warrant for never doing anything wrong. But the same could be said for acts done for the sake of moral duty or what is morally right. And so I don’t think that is unique for love. Despite our best intentions our actions sometimes have bad and unwanted consequences.

The affective aspect of love is often neglected in contemporary analytic accounts of love. Do you have any intuitions as to why that is?

That’s a good question. The topic of emotions was a neglected topic of study in analytic philosophy for a long time. One explanation for this is that during the 20th century, Kantian rationalism dominated moral philosophy. On this Kantian account, our rational capacities were given a superior role over the more primitive and animalistic emotions, which were seen as a threat to morality. So the prevailing view was that reason and emotions are naturally in conflict, and that moral knowledge is primarily reached by a process of reasoning and reflection.

However, much has changed in the last few decades. Thanks to the rise of the cognitive sciences and their interest in our more affective states, as well as the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics, most philosophers now view emotions as a much more sophisticated state than proponents of Kantian rationalism did. Many philosophers, for instance, now think that emotions involve both a motivational component, an affective or feeling component, and a cognitive component. Emotions are no longer seen as brute forces that you cannot do anything about, but rather as something you can cultivate. You can learn to respond with the right type of emotion in the right way in the right situation.

That being said, even if the emotions are quite a hot topic now, few analytic philosophers, as far as I know, seem to focus on the feeling component of the emotions, that is, our experience of the emotions, such as how it feels to love someone. But maybe that’s a job more fitting for poets and novelists, anyway? The often detached and neutral language of analytic philosophers might not be able to describe the way love makes us feel. It might not be able to grasp the agony and the euphoria and the way love can reconnect us to the world. Most of us are just not poets!

Could certain types of love be incompatible? That is to say, can one feel, for instance, both romantic love and friendly love for the same person?

I do think that you can. You sometimes hear people say things like, “He’s not just my brother, he’s my best friend” or, “She’s not just my mother, she’s my best friend.” So, I do think that it is possible. I guess that to have some sort of amalgam between the two can be a good thing. In the best romantic relationships I know of both partners view each other as best friends and romantic partners. And that seems like great relationships, right? 

Illustrasjon av Shoko Matsuki