Love as a Public Virtue

Fairness, kindness and love seem like ethereal notions empty of force in a world of power politics and free wheeling capitalism. Those who seek to order public life by "the soft" private virtue of love are said to be naïve or downright foolish.
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Fairness, kindness and, above all, love seem like ethereal notions empty of force in a world of power politics and free wheeling capitalism. Realpolitik is for the sober-minded whereas love is best left to otherworldly preachers and slightly addled spiritual gurus. At a subtler level, some Americans have come to believe that values like kindness and love are to be cultivated in private life, in one-on-one interaction, whereas public life is unavoidably a free for all dog-eat-dog affair. Those who seek to order public life by "the soft" private virtue of love are said to be naïve at best and downright foolish or even dangerous at worst.

But watching the nightly news -- no grand appeal to the course of history is necessary -- demonstrates that we get what we deserve when we configure public life as a value-free realm in which the unfettered pursuit of profit, power and private interest are invited to reign without regulation. Investment banks speculate, oil companies pollute, pharmaceutical companies charge whatever the market will bear no matter the cost to our bodies, and the earth is set on a course for catastrophic climate change. The poor go hungry, children live on the streets or in our subway tunnels and the fabric of our common life is torn asunder. The very idea that the citizens of a country might owe each other anything at all, that there may be priceless public goods that cannot be rendered into marketable commodities, is regarded as tantamount to socialism.

Too many American ears have become unmusical to the language of mutual care and obligation. Talk about employing the government to regulate industry and our banking sector and to offer a minimum standard of living for the poor and the elderly is subject to suspicion. Dare to suggest that government should seek to insure that school lunches are actually healthful for our children, and the cry will go up that do-gooders desire a "nanny state" which will coddle citizens at the expense of liberty. At what price will we seek a liberty that does not liberate? Meanwhile, "public servants" seek without shame to dismantle the safety net even as they labor to expand a bloated Pentagon budget with funds that even the Pentagon has the decency not to request.

In such times, the demand that love must be put to work in the public sphere as a force that drives toward justice hardly seems quaint, naïve or Pollyannaish. On the contrary, what seems fanciful is the foolhardy notion that companies will serve the public good out of the kindness of their hearts or that markets will order themselves spontaneously without regulation. How has it come to pass that the ideal of love seeking justice is regarded as utopian, and the notion that the collective good will spontaneously arise when each pursues self-interest is counted as sober minded economic science?

We diminish love because of a failure of imagination that reduces it to kindly feeling. Love is far more: love is labor. It is the demanding work of living out in mind, heart and body the truth of our being bound together. Love is what follows from the clear-minded appreciation that our mutual interconnectedness means that my wellbeing cannot be purchased at the expense of yours. Love seeks to bind together what has been torn asunder by blind self-interest.

A sad truth is slowly becoming self-evident: When we privatize and domesticate love, it is endangered in every sphere, public and private. Our marriages, partnerships and families cannot endure, let alone flourish, when an unregulated financial industry crashes the economy, puts mothers and fathers out of work and renders families homeless. Love is gravely imperiled when we permit the structures that humanize our lives to fall apart.

Ethicists, philosophers and theologians do well to remind us that institutions and corporations cannot love, even when the latter are declared to be persons. Hence, the public philosopher and prophet Cornel West reminds us that "Justice is what love looks like in public." When the ideal of love is made flesh in equitable structures, when corporations are rendered accountable to the public good, love becomes a "hard" and exacting good.

Of course, what needs also to be shredded is the very dichotomy between the soft and the hard -- a deceptive duality that obscures from view that we are all vulnerable creatures whose purchase on life is exceedingly fragile, especially when the life that we build together has about it no humanity, no heart and no accountability. In the end, we are all soft and fleshy creatures who must invest collectively in the difficult work of love made into justice if we, our children, and generations to come are even to have an inhabitable planet.

But how is such transformation possible if our impoverished imaginations continue to treat love as an airy confection, a sweet private balm that can, at best, sooth the wounds that we must necessarily suffer in the brutal jungle of public life?

We shall live by love, rightly understood, or die without it.

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