Assailed by love’s slings and arrows? Try the philosophical approach

Students want to understand the complexities of their own relationships, and the philosophy of love has set its heart on doing so, says Luke Brunning

In this article Dr Luke Brunning explains why contemporary philosophy of love, sex, and relationships is doing much more to attend to the everyday difficulties of romantic life. Recent work is now focusing on the diversity of relationships, desires, and identities; looks beyond consent and objectification when considering ethical sex; makes space for pleasure and the body; charts the range of intimate emotions; and is considering the impact of technology and artificial intelligence on love.

Valentine’s Day is upon us and our thoughts turn to love. Traditional philosophers have had many theories about love, which offer us no shortage of puzzles. If we love people for their qualities, for example, should we love anyone with the same qualities, or stop loving someone if their qualities change? If, instead, we value our lover’s quirks because we love them then why can’t we extend our loving eye to more people?

Philosophers have also grappled with sex. A classic 1990s textbook is full of chapter headings such as “sex and procreation”, “sexual perversion” and “homosexuality”. Liberal in its time, this text feels dated. Sex looms as something in need of moral domestication. The permissibility of desire and pleasure seems fragile; granted only by argument.

Until recently, the complexities of modern relationships were missing from these discussions. Students considered only the austere and institutionalised forms of relationship, such as marriage, and the participants in these relationships resembled the philosophers pondering them: middle-aged, middle-class, white, able-bodied.

Absent was nascent affection, flirting, dating, casual flings, messy cohabitations, long-distance relationships, love triangles, gender transition, remarriage. The emotional dimensions of intimacy were not there. Philosophy also gave us no sense that women might share a bed, that three people might have a relationship, or that sexual attraction does not always accompany the desire for romance.

In recent years, philosophers have started exploring the complex realities of human love and relationships in several important ways.

Diversity is now recognised as we consider love beyond heterosexuality. The experiences and frustrations of gay, lesbian and bisexual people have animated debate about the value and form of marriage. Discussion of non-monogamy has allowed us to see that romantic love can take more than one object, prompting us to re-examine our vision of commitment. Engagement with people on the asexual spectrum yields a richer account of the connections between sexual attraction, desire and activity: realisations that also have implications for our thinking about sex work, objectification and the nature of intimacy. The experiences of racial minorities, fat and disabled people on dating apps have generated new theories of fetishisation and are changing how we think about our responsibility for our romantic and sexual preferences.

Consent is also a philosophical growth industry. Slowly we are learning what consent is, why it matters and how it can be undermined. The connections between consent, deception, understanding and autonomy are becoming clearer. Perhaps more interestingly, however, is our increasing grasp of the limitations of consent talk and traditional sexual ethics. Consensual sex can still be bad sex and our intimate agency is moulded by practices of negotiation and forms of vulnerability that have long been neglected. Talk of promise, consent and agreement presuppose that the lovers involved have equal standing, but we see now how most of our lives are marked by disparities inherited from our social world. To make sense of it all, philosophers have been following trails of power and privilege into the bedroom.  

We are becoming more comfortable with pleasure, too. Although worries remain about the force and pervasiveness of objectification, especially as carried through modern media, the significance of being a sexual subject – someone desired, someone with a body – is not being ignored. In part, this is due to an emerging grasp of how strange sexual desire can be and the connections between patterns of pleasure, pain and power and our flourishing. But we are also recognising that some groups, such as the elderly or disabled, are romantically disenfranchised and that intimacies are tolerated, not affirmed.

Intimacy grips the body. New work on the emotions is more exciting than old puzzles about love. What is jealousy, for example? How does it differ from envy and is it something to be managed or embraced? What space should lovers make for anger, or blame? Might shame be constructive? Recent research about grief has transformed how we understand love. Like chemists, philosophers also learn about the nature of our intimate bonds by watching them react and dissolve. Nor is the focus just on negative emotions. We are building a richer picture of how intimacy can become less competitive and rivalrous, shorn of anxiety, and how our attention can be more generous.

The future of love is also under scrutiny. Technology has always transformed intimacy, from the telegraph to Tinder, and the rise of algorithmically mediated dating has prompted important questions about the nature and value of these interactions. The ethical promises and pitfalls of digital matches and compatibility scores are coming into focus. As are the ways robots, artificial intelligence and even love drugs might incur into romantic life.

So much of this promising work is being catalysed from below. My students, for example, are seeking to understand the complexities they face in their own relationships and want to build on the growing work in this area. Consent matters to them because they have all too often had theirs violated. Agency matters to them because the intimate lives of young people are often overlooked or constrained.

In a time when caricatures of wokeness or fragility are commonly levelled at younger people, and academic researchers more widely, it is inspiring to see philosophers from different backgrounds starting to challenge old assumptions and offer new visions of flourishing intimacy. We all stand to benefit.

Dr Luke Brunning is lecturer in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, where he is establishing a research centre for the study of love, sex, and relationships with Natasha McKeever. He is also writing a book on romantic life for Polity Press.