Aristotle said genuine friendship is only possible between people who love each other for what they are in themselves, not for what they get out of each other. In other words, true love is altruistic and selfless. For Aristotle, relationships that are ultimately driven by selfish goals are not altruistic and therefore not real love.
A little honest self-reflection reveals that altruism is the kind of love that our hearts long for, as well as our highest standard of virtue. Not only do we long to be loved simply for who we are (as opposed to what people get from us), we also long to be the kind of person who loves others that way. Our collective admiration for people like Mother Teresa and suffering heroes is evidence of this very human fact. We long for altruistic, self-sacrificial love -- both to receive it and to give it. If materialism is true, however, then altruism is merely an illusion of our evolutionary programming. To put it another way, if God does not exist, then there is no such thing as love.
The Materialist View of Love
The most popular materialist explanation for altruism is called "inclusive fitness theory." According to this view, altruistic behavior evolved in certain organisms through natural selection, because such behavior happened to perpetuate that organism's genes. For example, if giving your life to save a relative (someone who shares your genes) would help to perpetuate those genes in your relative's future offspring, then altruistic behavior could be preserved through natural selection. Thus, the more closely related you are to someone (i.e. the more their genes resemble yours) the stronger your altruistic impulse. This, according to the theory, helps to explain why altruistic instincts tend to be the strongest between immediate kin (e.g. from parents to children, or between siblings).
Writer and humanist Robert Wright thinks this theory can also explain romantic love between two people who are not biologically related. In his book The Moral Animal, he says:
[N]atural selection appears to have taken this cost-benefit calculus [of inclusive fitness] and transmuted it into feeling -- in particular, the sensation of love. And not just love for the child; the first step toward becoming a solid parental unit is for the man and woman to develop a strong mutual attraction. The genetic payoff of having two parents devoted to a child's welfare is the reason men and women can fall into swoons over one another, including swoons of great duration.
So, according to the materialist view that Wright describes, you only "love" your spouse, child, sibling, etc. because doing so can help perpetuate your genes; you do not care for them merely for their own sake. Genetic self-interest is the ultimate driving force behind "love."
Problems With the Materialist View
1. Materialism is unlivable. If altruistic actions are ultimately motivated by genetic self-interest, then how could they actually be altruistic? The most logical answer is: They aren't -- altruism is merely an illusion.
We automatically recognize that self-interest disqualifies actions from being altruistic when we say things like, "He only gives to charity for the tax deductions," or, "She only offered her help to get on his good side." Moreover, we intuitively acknowledge that any friendship that is ultimately motivated by self-preserving impulses is not genuine love. When we say things like, "She only married him for his money," or, "He only remains friends with her because he's afraid of being alone," for example, we are implicitly acknowledging (like Aristotle) that relationships that lack genuine altruism lack genuine love, and thus fall short of authentic friendship.
Materialism entails a bleak and depressing view of reality: If materialism is true, then it appears altruism and, by extension, love itself, are merely illusions of our genetic programming. They happened to evolve for no other reason than they allowed some of our ancestors to survive and perpetuate their genes. This is a problem because materialism requires us to deny our first-hand experiences of love as something transcendentally meaningful. That alone doesn't mean materialism is false, mind you. Just because a conclusion is depressing does not mean it isn't true. However, it does mean that materialism is unlivable from a human perspective. We long for altruistic love. If materialism is true, however, then one of the key things that makes us human -- our longing for selfless love -- is nothing more than a cruel joke played on us by evolution.
2. The science is inconclusive. Over the last 10 years or so, there has been some controversy over altruism within the scientific community. The man most responsible for the wide-spread acceptance of inclusive fitness theory, E.O. Wilson, now thinks inclusive fitness theory is wrong. He claims the theory doesn't work mathematically and therefore doesn't explain what it's supposed to. According to Wilson, whether we are talking about an ant colony or a human tribe, the biological relatedness of any cooperative society is the effect of altruistic behavior, not its cause; which is the opposite of what inclusive fitness would claim. If Wilson and his colleagues are correct, it means that the scientific explanation for altruism remains mysterious. However, most scientists still hold to inclusive fitness theory by default.
The Christian View of Love
For me, the Christian scriptures present a view of love that is much more satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally. According to the Bible, God is not merely loving; God is love, literally (1 John 4:8). What Christians mean by that is that God's nature is the standard by which we define and measure love. In other words, that which conforms to or reflects God's nature is loving, and that which opposes God's nature is not. So, what is God's nature according to the Christian scriptures?
Christians view God as a Trinity -- as three persons in one divine being or substance. Each person of the Trinity selflessly pours himself out for the other two, and is likewise filled by the outpouring of the other two. In short, each person of the Trinity is other-centered (as opposed to self-centered). Thus, the Christian view of God is a being who's very nature is a community of altruism -- a community of perfect, intimate union; that is what love is. Pastor and writer Tim Keller put it succinctly when he tweeted, "If this world was made by a triune God, a being of community, then relationships of love are what life is really all about." His point is that Christianity provides a transcendent grounding for altruistic love to not only be real, but for it to be part of our ultimate purpose as human beings.
Here is a summary of the argument:
- If materialism is true, then genuine altruism does not exist.
- If altruism does not exist, then true love is not possible.
- But true love is possible.
- Therefore altruism does exist.
- Therefore, materialism is false.
Like all the posts in this series, this argument does not prove God exists. But it does make his existence more plausible by showing that materialism is inadequate. Although, if someone really wanted to, they could hold onto materialism by denying premise 3 and accepting that true love is not possible. However, I think they would run into a similar problem as with beauty, which is this: when we experience true love we know it's real. That means materialism requires us to deny our first-hand experiences of love. But why do that? Why accept the bleak view that love is an illusion? With all the other independent reasons to believe God exists, why not genuinely think that love is real and transcendent? If God exists (especially the Christian God), we can take our experiences of love seriously, and see that they point us to the Divine.
1. Altruism feels good. So, there really is no such thing as a selfless action. It is true that many altruistic actions -- such as giving to someone in need -- result in a feeling of joy and satisfaction. But it does not logically follow that those actions were not altruistic. For an action to be genuinely altruistic simply means it was done out of a selfless motivation. It does not mean that the person acting received no pleasure from their action. If the person were acting solely for the purpose of the resulting pleasure, then, yes, that action would not be genuinely altruistic. The difference is that true altruism chooses to be selfless even when it doesn't feel good -- as when a person chooses to give knowing all they will receive in return is ingratitude and spite, for instance. Such altruism is rare, but it does exist.
2. Love can exist without God. Not likely, for a couple of reasons: (1) We already established that if materialism is true, then altruism is merely an illusion. It follows that love (in the altruistic sense) is also an illusion. (2) If materialism is not an option, then the atheist is only left with some form of theism or Platonism to try to ground love as an objectively existent reality. I think Christian theism provides a better framework for love than Platonism does. On the view of Platonism, love would have to be an abstract idea of some kind that exists in a transcendent realm. But our experiences of love, if we take them seriously, seem to tell us that love is a lot more than an abstract idea. Rather, love is relational and personal. That makes much more sense in the Christian view, where love is grounded in the nature of a personal being.
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*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the Introduction, if you haven't already. Thanks!
1. In The Nicomachean Ethics (Book VIII, iv, 2), Aristotle says:
A friendship based on utility dissolves as soon as its profit ceases; for the friends did not love each other, but what they got out of each other. Friendships therefore based on pleasure and on utility can exist between two bad men, [or] between one bad man and one good…But clearly only good men can be friends for what they are in themselves; since bad men do not take pleasure in each other, save as they get some advantage from each other.
2. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 59.
3. Some readers might be wondering how inclusive fitness theory would explain altruism toward non-relatives, or complete strangers. Here's what Wright has to say about that:
Within a small, closely related population, an indiscriminate altruism could indeed evolve. And that's true even though some of the altruism would get spent on people who weren't relatives. After all, even if you channel your altruism precisely toward siblings, some of it is wasted, in evolutionary terms, since siblings don't share all your genes... What matters, in both cases, is that the altruism gene tends to improve prospects for vehicles [organisms] that will tend to carry copies of itself; what matters is that the gene does more good than harm, in the long run, to its own proliferation. (The Moral Animal, p. 159)