Love and (the Lack of) Alienation for the Agent-Neutralist
by Preston Werner (Hebrew University)
‘Agent-Neutralism’ in ethics is the view that we have no moral reason to favor our family, friends, co-workers, or fellow nationals over strangers. Relationships, for the agent-neutralist, are not the kinds of things that can make it morally preferable to favor someone we care about over someone we don’t know or don’t care about.
The idea of agent neutralism, in my opinion, is really nothing more than taking the thought that every person deserves equal consideration seriously, without qualifications. But when I advocate for this idea to both philosophers and non-philosophers alike, it is often claimed that, clearly, something has gone wrong. Either it is not true that every person deserves equal consideration, or it is true in some way that allows for the idea that we should help those nearest and dearest to us first. For after all, being partial is an essential part of caring for someone or some group, a constitutive part of loving someone. If we can’t love without being partial, so much the worse for the idea that “every person deserves equal consideration” entails that any particular person needs to treat everyone equally.
There are many ways to try to accommodate both the idea that every person deserves equal consideration and the idea that love and care can ground reasons to favor some people over others. I know that this is by and large what the vast majority of people think, and I am not directly interested in defending myself and my radical agent-neutralism as the right moral view against common sense. Rather, here, my aim is to explain how the agent-neutralist can and should think about love and caring relationships.
How can the agent-neutralist have friends, family, and loved ones, without being deeply immoral? This question isn’t off base at all. I think (partial) love is a deeply puzzling and problematic thing from a moral point of view. Love, care, and empathy are the source of our purest and most beautiful moral actions, the foundations of virtuous character, and the wellspring of our deepest connections to other human beings and animals.
However, the awe and beauty that most of us feel and see in those that we love is like a blindingly bright evaluative spotlight on one person or a group of people, at the cost of casting shadows and darkness on the rest of our evaluative environment. I find this troubling. And yet, these relationships are too meaning and identity giving, too life-fulfilling, to give up. I am not sure a life without caring relationships (of some sort) is one that we could fairly expect anyone to live.
Philosophers often speak as though it is clearly morally significant that you are friends with someone, that you are in love with someone, that someone is your child. It strikes me that this gets the lived experience of love and care exactly wrong. Love is an overwhelming urge to see the thriving and happiness of our beloved; we don’t need to dress it up in the clothes of morality to make sense of our motivations to favor or assist our beloved. It is this same deep love and care that makes us want nothing more than to see our beloved to achieve their goals as it is that makes us want to seek unfair advantages for them (sending our children to private schools, exploiting nepotism to help a family friend get a job, helping them move a body, etc.). Better to think of a deep caring and loving relationship as one that involves so deeply integrating the interests of the beloved that, insofar as love generates reasons at all, it generates ‘personal reasons’, where these are just prudential reasons of an extended sort. Sometimes prudence is base and ugly, but sometimes it is an expression of deep care. But this doesn’t mean that (partial) love and care — or the motives that spring from them — are morally laudatory, even if, in some sense, love and care are an expression of prudence that often reflects something virtuous in someone’s character.
Loving relationships are clearly of great value, and part of a well lived life. I do not dispute this. But unlike those who reject Agent-Neutrality, I think there is a genuine conflict here, and it’s one we have to live with. For morality, for the Agent-Neutralist, is impartial. And we need loving and caring relationships in our lives, not merely in some basic psychological sense, but also in the normative sense that they are essential to a good life. And yet these relationships inevitably push us towards partiality.
The Agent-Neutralist accepts the conflict here rather than trying to explain it away. The very fact that love stretches beyond and motivates us out of something as or more fundamentally emotionally powerfulthan morality is not to philosophically diminish the value of love; it is to reinforce it. We can endorse an Agent-Neutralist view which does not require us to deprive ourselves of things that make life worth living, and loving relationships are an important one of those things. At the same time, it is a mistake to think that loving someone can morally justify being partial to them. At best, I think, loving someone can provide a moral excuse for partiality. Partiality is only acceptable when and because it is part of a relationship which morality can’t demand that we sacrifice.
One implication of this view is that when we are thinking about any revolutionary restructuring of interpersonal relationships, we have a standing consideration to reduce the partiality inherent in these relationships insofar as it is possible to do so without losing the value of such relationships. Agent-Neutralists should imagine relationships where all parties of the relationship are aware of this conflict between love and morality, and are able to think about considerations like this when they think about how best to express their love and care for their beloved. This is not an easy question. But it is a question that we should grapple with. The ways we express love, insofar as it is possible, should not conflict with our impartial goals to treat everyone as equal. This won’t be possible; that is the point. But there will be better and worse ways to do this.
If this is the right way to think about the relationship between love and morality, then the Agent-Neutralist has to accept and engage in a lifelong project to balance and manage the conflict that inevitably arises between our love for those nearest and dearest, and our obligation to care about the well-being of everyone equally. This is an interesting feature of the view, but it is not unique — it is nothing more than another instance of our lifelong challenge with balancing our own well-being with our duties to others. It just happens to be a very striking instance of this challenge.
 The vast majority of people who are agent-neutralists are traditional consequentialists. I am agnostic about consequentialism, but I think there are strong overlooked egalitarian reasons to be an agent-neutralist, which I won’t go into here.  Even most Agent-Neutralists endorse this view, by arguing that it is usually the case that the best way to maximize impartial value, and thus partiality is, at least usually, indirectly justified. I am inclined to think that these arguments work in less cases than they initially seem to, for reasons I can’t get into here.  This is a bit like Susan Wolf’s (1999) ‘personal reasons’, although unlike Wolf, the Agent-Neutralist favors the ‘view from nowhere’ conception of our authoritative reasons.