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An Interview with Monica Roland (2)

Cover Image for An Interview with Monica Roland (2)

----------------Portrett: Marte Lindholm----------------

In the second and final part of our interview with Monica Roland (PhD in philosophy from UiO), Roland sounds off on such topics as parental duties; self-love; love for artificial intelligence; 'love drugs'; and many more. Read the introduction and Part 1 here. Please enjoy.

The printed 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 2/2

Do you think parents have a duty to love their offspring? You mention that the normative aspects of love are more obvious when regarding familial relations. Would you consider “reasons for love” to stem more prominently from biological ties? Are there other ways to generate “reasons for love”?

Right. These are difficult questions. Questions about reasons always are. So, do we ever have a duty to love? That is, are there cases in which we are required to respond with love? If so, how does that requirement fit with the fact that love is a nonvoluntary response? Does it, for instance, mean that one can be blamed or criticised for a lack of an emotional response that is not under one’s direct voluntary control?

When I first thought about these questions, my intuition was that if there ever were cases in which we are required to love someone, then the case of parental love seems like a good candidate. There seems to be few, if any, reasons against loving one’s young children, and from this it seems to follow that a lack of parental love is inappropriate and thus criticisable. For instance, it seems that infants and young children have the right to be loved, or at least to be provided for in a love-like way, and that parents, in virtue of being in a special relationship with their offspring, have a duty to provide for this type of care and also is in a unique position to do so. Adults with a normal psychology will develop love for their children, and love naturally provides us with motivation to act for the beloved. Parental love in particular provides the parent with motivation to help, protect, and provide for their child, and also generally the ability to do so.

But there are of course cases in which a parent doesn’t develop this emotional connection to their child. Mothers who suffer from postpartum depression, for instance, lack this response. In such cases we judge that a normal and desirable response is missing. But that doesn’t mean that we blame them for the lack of such a response, rather these women are offered professional help in order to overcome their depression. Thus, what we mean when we say that a lack of parental love is criticisable in such cases is not that the mothers themselves are to be blamed for the missing response, but rather that the situation itself is criticisable and needs to be fixed.

We are, however, more prone to blame in other cases in which a parent is emotionally indifferent to the child, or doesn’t provide the necessary care. In such cases we judge that the parent doesn’t fulfil his or her duty towards the child, and that other and more suitable adults should take over the responsibility. It is in this sense, I think, that it makes sense to say that parents have a duty to love their children. As a parent you have very strong reasons to love your young children and care for them, and these are reasons that it doesn’t make sense not to respond to.

So do the reasons for parental love stem primarily from biological ties? Well, both yes and no. On my account, the reasons for parental love stems primarily from the parent-child relationship. But the word ‘relationship’ can have at least three different meanings. First, it can refer to what I call the formal relationship. That is, the fact that someone is your mother or father, son or daughter. Now, this fact might be a biological fact. But it can also be a conventional fact. Adoptive parents also stand in a formal relationship with their children, and that fact alone provides the parent with a reason for love. That is, the formal relationship generally provides parents with a strong reason to love their children.

But the word ‘relationship’ can also refer to the historical relationship you have with someone, like one’s history of shared activities. And it is the historical relationship that often makes it the case that we develop love for each other. If we didn’t spend time together, we probably wouldn’t be able to love each other. Last, the word ‘relationship’ can also refer to the quality of the relationship, by which I mean the history of concern and care participants in the relationship have displayed and developed for one another. And all these aspects of the relationship generate reasons for love.

Now, for friendship and romantic love, the relationship obviously also plays a vital role in the development of love. And it generates reasons. But these types of love differ from familial love, I believe, in that laudable relational qualities of the persons involved also generate reasons for love. In friendship and romantic love you don’t start out with a formal relationship, as is the case for familial love, rather the formal relationship is dependent on the fact that you have a history together.

Anyways, I could talk about the topic of reasons for love for hours, but this is a short introduction to my thoughts on the matter.

Now, you hold that the moral response of love necessarily presupposes respect for the beloved, but some philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant, take there to be a tension between love and respect. For Kant, the former is the ground for positive, benevolent acts, whereas the latter is the ground for negative acts of respect, which require us to keep at bay from one another. You suggest that you do not agree with this sort of position. In fact, you write that you think that respect can be the ground for beneficiary acts. What would you say to someone who held this kind of Kantian position?

As you mention, for Kant, respect is predominantly negative. It requires that you don’t use the other as mere means. Thus, it is primarily about what you cannot do to the other. But, as I have already argued, I believe that respect can also be a source of positive motivation and duties. Just as love, it can be a source of benevolent acts. For instance, respect can motivate you to help strangers in need. Say you are the first to arrive at a car crash site. In such a situation, most of us will think that we have a duty to help. This duty is grounded in the recognition that the strangers in need are ends in themselves. And that recognition constitutes the attitude of respect. Thus, in this sense, there is no tension, I think, between love and respect. They can both be the source of negative and positive acts.

Of course, loving someone will motivate you to act on behalf of the other far more often than if you did not love that person. David Velleman, for instance, emphasizes this difference between respect and love when he argues that respect is the “required minimum response” and love the “optional maximum response” to one and the same value. Loving someone will very often put you in a position to promote their well-being, while you are not in the same position to act for the well-being of people you don’t know or love. Thus love will most likely promote benevolent acts more often than mere respect.

I’m not really sure whether Kant would disagree with me on this, but this is in any case how I view the relation between respect and love.

We have discussed at length the kind of love we have for other people, but what kind of love should we have for ourselves? Is self-love the first step to loving others in the right way, as the adage suggests?

Those are great questions! Kant is among those philosophers who address the topic of self-love, and he is famously skeptical of it. For Kant, self-love is just egoism and a severe threat to morality, and thus something to be avoided. Frankfurt, on the other hand, talks about self-love as one of the most important loves in his book The Reasons of Love. For him, self-love is not equivalent to acting upon every desire that you have. It is not about satisfying all of your inclinations. Rather, that would not be self-love, he says, but self-indulgence, which is something else entirely.

Now, the nature of self-love, according to Frankfurt, in many ways resembles the love parents have for their children. A loving parent would not give in to every desire of the child, but would rather promote what is good for the child also in the long run. The same goes for self-love. Loving yourself is also to care for your future self and then you can’t give in to every desire that may occur. By not giving in to all your inclinations, but rather being guided by what you care about, you are protecting and promoting the true interests of yourself.

I am sympathetic to Frankfurt’s view on self-love. We should all care about our present and future selves. We should all strive to become our own best friend and treat ourselves the way we treat our loved ones. As already mentioned, having good healthy relationships is a condition for having a good life. This includes having a healthy relationship with yourself.

I am not sure, however, whether self-love in this sense is a necessary condition for being able to love others. I do think it is possible to love others without being too caring about yourself. People who are extremely self-loathing, for instance, can still be very loving of others. But I do think that a healthy, balanced relationship, whether we talk about friendship, familial relationships, or romantic relationships, require that one is also loving towards oneself. You can’t act solely in the interest of others all the time, you also need to pay attention to yourself.

Illustrasjon av Shoko Matsuki

If love is a moral emotion and the actions it generates are considered responses to persons as ends in and of themselves, does it make sense to discuss them from an evolutionary standpoint? Morality from an evolutionary standpoint is often viewed as instrumental because it is used as a way to aid in the survival of the species. Do you think these two views of love could be compatible?

Yes, I do think they are compatible, and I also think it makes sense to discuss love and morality from an evolutionary standpoint. Our capacity to form close relationships with others, and to feel for others, are evolutionarily-based. We are biological beings, obviously. These empathetic capabilities are our survival tools. If we didn't have the ability to connect with others in that way, we would not survive. Connecting with others in that way is not merely crucial for the individual’s physical survival, but also for the individual’s social survival within the group. Having close, healthy relationships is something we all should strive for because it is good for us. In that way, it certainly makes sense to talk about loving relationships and our capacity to love others as instrumental. They are instrumental in having a good life and also for the survival of the species.

But that doesn’t mean that the essential attitude you have towards the person you love and care for isn’t a moral attitude. Rather, as I’ve already argued, loving someone involves the moral attitude of respect, which per definition is a disinterested concern for the other. You value the other essentially for their own sake, not just for the role they play in your life. Thus, as a lover one is sometimes motivated to act for the good of the person one loves, even if it comes with great personal costs for oneself. That’s just the way love is. It’s both interested and disinterested at the same time.

Is it possible to love nonhumans, including but not limited to artificial intelligence (AI)? If so, would you consider an AI to be a person, in that we can consider one an end in themselves?

I love this topic! My partner is a programmer, so we talk a lot about artificial intelligence and morality, and personhood, and so on. So, do I think it is possible to love things other than persons or humans? Well, yes. It is obvious to me that a lot of people love their pets, and they might even love them as persons. I think it is also possible for some people to love, say, a house. Maybe you’ve lived there your whole life. Additionally, I think it is possible, as I mentioned earlier, to love activities like skiing or doing philosophy.

So, can you love an AI? Well, I guess it is possible. Have you seen the movies Her or Ex Machina? I love those movies! They’re extremely well done. So, in Ex Machina we meet Ava, a female humanoid robot who was created by a male genius, the founder and CEO of a multinational tech company. Now, Ava has a beautiful face and she has a human-shaped body, but it’s translucent. Inside her legs and throughout her body you can see these thick cables. Caleb, a programmer at the tech company, has been selected to test Ava, to see whether she can pass the Turing test, despite him being fully aware that she is a robot. Of course Ava passes the test. She looks like a woman and she’s very, very pretty, and she’s very convincing, and she shows human emotions, and she’s very thoughtful and intelligent. Caleb, naturally, becomes attracted to her. But can he love her as well? I think he could. And I am sure Ava could make almost anyone love her if she wanted to. As I said, she is very convincing. The question is, ‘Is she capable of loving someone?’ I don’t know.

To me, the main question of the movie is whether she is a person. But the question underlying that question is whether she is capable of really experiencing emotions, like for instance love, or whether we are just fooled by her ability to copy the expressions of them. I don’t know if there is any way we can find out.

So there could be a degree of projection or anthropomorphism?

Yeah. I do think she could fool anyone into thinking she’s a human being. Now of course, in real life we don’t have as developed robots as Ava. And they don’t look quite like her either. It is incredibly hard to create a human face with all of its intricate microexpressions. So to get back to the original question: Can you, in real life, and not just in theory, love an embodied AI? I guess so. But the question is the same here as for the case of Ava. Can it love you back? Or perhaps a better question is: Can you form a relationship with it where you have the sort of reciprocity that seems to be a main ingredient in most relationships between humans?

Yeah, there is this huge franchise in Japan at the moment that relates to this. Men are falling in love with AIs. It began with a single anime character but has diversified and expanded. You pay a monthly fee to interact with your favorite anime character on a website. You can buy a doll of the character. It talks to you about your day. You can even marry it. This seems like an AI could even grant reciprocity.

Yeah, I think it’s interesting to compare that to a similar phenomenon portrayed in the movie Lars and the Real Girl, and which also has an equivalent in real life, namely men who buy real-looking, life-sized dolls, who are not AIs, and dress them up and have them as their girlfriends.

In real relationships you are vulnerable. You risk rejection. It might turn out that the one you love doesn’t love you back, or doesn’t want the same things as you, or starts arguing with you or disagreeing with you. Many people are not very good at handling rejection. It hurts. So, what these guys are doing when having these dolls as girlfriends, is that they eliminate that risk. There is no possibility of getting hurt or rejected by them because they will always be there for them. They don’t have their own will. They are only there to please.

Do you think that is a requirement for love, then, to have that vulnerability?

I don’t know, but in real life relationships you run the risk of being let down. So what would happen if you had a romantic partner that is an artificial intelligence, if it was programmed not to hurt you or ever disagree with you? In a way it seems ideal, right?

But it might have some bad consequences that we can’t figure out yet. Some might argue that such a relationship lacks the depth of a real relationship because as human beings, in order to grow, to become better, we need some resistance and other perspectives. In order to become a great athlete, for instance, you have to handle pain, competition, and basically not winning all the time. Likewise, in order to become a great philosopher or scientist I think you also need to cope with adversity and setbacks from time to time. And the same might apply to human relationships as well. Overcoming minor or bigger setbacks together often strengthens the relationship.

Illustrasjon av Shoko Matsuki

Love as a function within evolutionary psychology maintains that love exists as either a reproductive insurance measure or a way to maintain communal integrity. What would you say this approach suggests about the normalization of monogamy and the cultural prejudices that exist surrounding same-sex couples and transgender persons?

I do think that, as biological beings formed by evolution, we have a lot of conflicting capacities, and desires and needs and drives. For instance, when we developed as a species, we needed to be skeptical to strangers because they could be a threat to both you as an individual and your group, but we also had to be open and welcoming to strangers because we needed genetic diversity within the same group. In the same way, I do believe that a desire for monogamy might be developed by evolution, though biologists certainly disagree about the force driving evolutionary monogamy. It might very well be, as you just mentioned, that monogamous love and relationships exist as a way to secure the survival of the offspring. But the human species didn’t evolve as strictly monogamous. There are people who consider themselves to be polyamorous, and there are human cultures that practice polyamory. 

Of course, you could be someone who considers yourself a monogamous person. You want to commit to this one person, and no one else, but you still feel attracted to others from time to time. As I said, we have a lot of conflicting capacities. But you might not identify with that desire. That is, you might not want to act upon the desire. I think that is a very common human experience. You are in a committed relationship but then someone comes along and you think, “That person is great, but I am in this relationship with this other person and I don’t want to act on it.”

As for the same-sex couples, I [Wendy] did have something to say about that. I was thinking about some problematic evolutionary psychologists who have developed some interesting theories about love in same- sex relationships. Their idea is this, and this is the first misconception, that there are more same-sex couples now then there ever has been before in human history. They feel that this is due to the fact that the population has grown to such a degree that there is no longer a requirement to reproduce from an evolutionary standpoint and we now need to attempt to reduce the population. It is for this reason that it has become a more popularized cultural norm. Considering that when we talk about love and its relationship to biology we find a lot of misconceptions surrounding these topics I wanted to hear your thoughts.

Right. But how does that theory apply to other species that are so much smaller in number than ours? Homosexual relationships or behavior exist in every species that practice sex. And what does it mean that there are more same sex-couples now than before? Before what? How do they know that there were not as many gays around, relative to the population, when Homo sapiens developed 200 000 years ago? 

In any case, if it is true, there could be plenty of explanations for why there are more homosexuals now, than say, two hundred years ago. For one thing, it is legal in so many more countries now, and it’s no longer considered a disease in those same countries, and thus it will be more visible. People are not as scared of showing their love in public anymore, or with just identifying being gay. The acceptance of homosexuality has been a revolution! In Norway, in the beginning of the 1970s, it was still considered illegal and also an illness. But now, most Norwegians are very accepting of homosexuality. There has been a revolution in our attitudes towards gays. Also, gender is something more fluid now than it was just twenty years ago in Western society. The gender roles are not as strict. Hopefully, society will show the same generosity towards transgendered persons, as well. 

So, do you think polyamorous love is possible?

Yes, I do think it is possible. As I mentioned, there are a lot of people who consider themselves polyamorous and we need to take them seriously. Some of them compare being able to love more than one romantic partner to having several siblings, or children or close friends. For a lot of us it is not the case that you love one child more than the other, or a sibling rather than the other. There is enough love for all of them. And you have unique relationships to each and one of them. Why would you have to choose between them? That argument is often made for the case of romantic polyamorous love as well.

I do think, however, that most of us are not polyamorous, but that doesn’t mean that polyamorous love isn’t real or possible.

There is, by the way, a philosopher working on love named Carrie Jenkins. She’s polyamorous and she’s living in a polyamorous relationship and she has written on polyamorous love, as well.

There is currently a debate in the field of medical ethics regarding so-called ‘love drugs’ and ‘anti-love drugs’, which, if developed, would enhance or diminish, respectively, the romantic bond between couples in a relationship. Some scholars worry, among other things, that they would render the user’s feelings of love inauthentic. Are you aware of this debate, and if so, do you have any thoughts on the matter?

A couple of years ago, a philosopher named Brian Earp, visited UiO. He very recently published a book on this topic called Love is the Drug: The Chemical Future of Our Relationships. I had a talk with him back then, but I don’t really have any settled views on the topic myself yet. I know that the whole field of psychedelia is a very hot topic right now, as is transhumanism. So the question for transhumanism is that: If, for instance, we could take a pill that would make us better moral persons, should we take it? And then the transhumanist would say: “Yes, we should”. We are faced with the same question here. If we could take a pill that would make us better ‘lovers’, should we take it?

In real life, this is of course also very much an empirical question. How would these pills affect us? Would there be any severe side effects? But, let’s say that you are diagnosed as bipolar and are getting treatment. You are prescribed medicine. The pills you take are meant to allow you to have a better life. Most of us do not object to this kind of practice. We want people to have good lives. We want people to be well-functioning.

Now let’s say that you have a borderline personality disorder [BPD]. People with this sort of disorder often struggle with maintaining good, stable relationships with others, and can also be really harmful to the people around them. If they could take a love pill that made them more stable and not as hostile towards others, then maybe we would want that. It would be better for them, many of them want good relationships, but they just can’t seem to handle them very well. Furthermore, it would be better for others, those who are in close relationships with them.

But whether we should all take it, or whether we all need it, is a different question. I don’t really know what more to say about it yet. I do think that if you are a true transhumanist then you would just want to improve human kind and you would want us all to become better, faster, more intelligent and so on, and if we could take a pill to become more intelligent and more moral, whatever that would mean, and become better at loving relationships, then the transhumanist would say that we should take those pills. I am just not really sure about my stance on that question yet. 

There is also the question of what kind of love would be produced. Would it be love proper or something more akin to infatuation? As appears to be the case with MDMA, “the love drug.”

Yeah. It is just unclear to me what those love drugs are and what the effect would be.

Thank you very much for this lovely discussion. May we ask what is next for you as a scholar?

Oh, mostly writing articles. And teaching. That is my number one priority right now.