Are There Moral Reasons to Love Those We Serve?

Utilitarianism and egalitarianism are theories of moral (and perhaps political) obligation. Generally framed, they invite people to redistribute things they own—such as dollars, clothes, and body parts—to those who need them more. But do these theories have anything to say about the spirit in which utility-increasing or equality-promoting donations are made? More precisely: are there distinctly moral reasons not only to help the needy but to open ourselves up to loving them in some way? 

At first blush, it may seem that (non-religious) moral doctrines are properly silent on givers’ feelings towards the beneficiaries of the givers’ prosocial efforts. If the size of our paychecks to a charity or the fervency of our advocacy for an important social cause is the same whether or not we feel some kinship with the recipients of our aid, then the kinship (or lack thereof) seems to have no moral significance. But I think we should reject this first impression. I see at least two sets of moral reasons—one recipient-centered, and another giver-centered—for givers to try to cultivate genuine good will towards those benefiting from their efforts. 

Suppose that Sally, a committed utilitarian and champion of the poor, works at a soup kitchen every week and regularly interacts with some of the kitchen’s patrons. When they ask her why she spends her time this way, she replies, “It’s my moral duty to help. Whenever I can increase happiness, I ought to.” For her part, Sue volunteers just as frequently at the soup kitchen but answers the patrons’ question differently: “I just love the people who come through here. You are a deeply caring, thoughtful, and goofy bunch, and it’s an honor to serve you.” 

According to one interpretation, the differences in their answers are morally irrelevant; all that matters is that Sally and Sue, whatever their stated motivations for helping, are providing equally valuable services through their labor. But this interpretation obscures the fact that Sue’s passionate, recipient-focused giving is likely to feel better for the recipient—and, oddly, to maximize utility more—than is Sally’s dispassionate, utility-obsessed giving. For the latter type of giving conveys to the beneficiaries that they are merely efficient means to a moral end—that the fact that they are the ones being helped matters not an iota to the helper. More dignifying (or, to put it in classical utilitarian terms, “pleasurable”) for the receivers is the impression fostered by Sue’s loving giving: that the recipients are receiving assistance because there is some quality they possess, other than their need, that makes them worthy beneficiaries of the giver’s efforts. 

The peculiarity of this position is that it gives us a moral reason to develop affections that sideline morality. That is, in order for those affections to serve their moral purpose, the recipient must feel that the affection is “freely” chosen and not forced by moral demands. For if we suppose that Sally returns to the soup kitchen the following week with an appreciation of the moral importance of love and says, “I am here because I love the beneficiaries of my action, and I love them because my moral doctrine requires me to love them,” the recipients are probably going to feel awkward and unseen again. In practice, this means that even if a moral doctrine is the impetus for our inviting ourselves to love the recipients of our aid, the process of coming to love our beneficiaries should make no further reference to morality. We should open ourselves up to loving the recipients of our aid through a non-moral appreciation for their positive attributes, and we should try to convey to our recipients that this appreciation is the ultimate basis for our helping them (even if our foray into this realm of love was originally inspired by moral ideas).

Granted, these reasons for opening ourselves up to loving those we help can get us only so far. They might not give a highly adept manipulator—who can effectively pretend in front of her beneficiaries that she loves them—any reason at all to cultivate her loving side. It is also possible that nothing here gives us a moral reason to develop affection for orphaned infants, nonhuman animals in distant slaughterhouses, and other recipients of assistance who are not in a position to appreciate our affection. To pick up the slack, we may need another set of arguments. 

The second set of arguments is giver-centered. These arguments hold that a giver’s love for her recipient can have both instrumental and intrinsic moral value because of the joy that helping a loved one brings the giver. According to the instrumentality argument, loving those we serve increases our enjoyment of the service, such that we are more likely to continue to serve our beneficiaries, and to serve them a lot, than we would otherwise be. Of course, there may exist some naturally emotionless or feverishly dutiful givers about whom this is untrue, whose levels of giving would not or could not at all be “boosted” by their developing affection for their recipients; however, most of us are likely to contribute more to overall happiness (by giving more and giving longer) if we feel that we are serving true friends.

Any moral system concerned with increasing overall human happiness must also recommend loving the ones we help for a more direct reason (that makes the aforementioned instrumental reason possible): loving the ones we help increases overall happiness by making the givers happier than they would be if they did not love the ones they help. That is, even if the givers’ developing affection for their recipients does not at all increase levels of giving, the givers’ developing affection for their recipients still increases overall happiness, as the givers more deeply enjoy the process of giving. This is true because it generally feels better to help loved ones than to help unloved ones. 

Surely there are readers who still have not been given a reason by any of the arguments stated to open themselves up to loving the ones they help. These are the readers who (1) are good at pretending that they love their beneficiaries, or (2) devote their prosocial energies to helping individuals who are in no position to interpret the givers’ feelings one way or another. These are also readers (1) sufficiently indifferent to the concept of love, and perhaps (2) already giving so much, that their developing affection for their recipients would not lead them to help the needy any more than they already do. Such readers are so unaffected by love, in fact, that their developing affection for the ones they serve would not even make them—the servants—happier to give than they already are. Perhaps no arguments for opening themselves up to loving those they serve can persuade such readers. Or perhaps I have simply overlooked such arguments. In any event, I hope that everyone else has been given a reason to open themselves up to loving those they serve. For beyond its widely recognized status as one of the most important non-moral goods, love may be a profound moral good as well.


These important articles inspired some of my thinking on these issues:

Selflessness and the Loss of Self” by Jean Hampton

Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality” by Peter Railton

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Posted in Distributive Justice
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