The Motivation to Love
The word “love” has abundant meanings and the power to drive humanity. It is used to refer to a variety of emotions and actions directed towards individuals and objects of every kind. Yet, despite society’s widespread use of the term, there is often little thought given towards the source of one’s drive to love others. In other words, where does the motivation to love others come from? It is not enough to state that love provides individuals with a sense of self-worth and purpose. Such a claim still begs the question of why love is so uniquely validating and important to many people. Similarly, it is not enough to claim that loving others is innately pleasing (as some explanations from neurobiology and psychology may posit); there is still the question of why human beings would have this characteristic.
It also ought to be noted that the question of why one is motivated to love is distinct from the question of why it is good for individuals to love one another. As professor and philosopher Bennett Helm explains, reasons for why it is good to love “are a part of the overall reasons we have for acting, and it is up to us in exercising our capacity for agency to decide what on balance we have reason to do or even whether we shall act contrary to our reasons” [I]. In other words, having reasons to love others does not automatically compel one to practice love. While it certainly is interesting to consider justifications for why it is good to love others, such a topic is beyond the scope of this piece.
Ultimately, this paper will defend the following claim: one’s motivation to practice unselfish and unconditional love can be linked back to the character of God himself. For the sake of this piece, this viewpoint will henceforth be referred to as the “Christian position,” though it is certainly possible for members of other faiths to hold this stance as well. Section II defines love and presents the claim that the motivation to love arises from a knowledge of and a desire to reflect God’s character. Section III presents and addresses an understandable criticism of the Christian position. Section IV presents and critiques arguments from evolutionary psychology that are commonly used to undercut the Christian position. Section V presents and critiques the argument that the drive to love arises from the knowledge that individuals are intrinsically valuable. Section VI concludes.
Love as unselfish, unconditional, and arising from God
Before discussing the source of one’s motivation to love, it is important to clarify exactly what “love” is (or, at the least, how the term will be used in this piece). In his essay “On Caring,” philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt uses “love” to refer to a “concern for the well-being or flourishing of a beloved object…for its own sake rather than for the sake of promoting any other interests” [II]. According to Frankfurt, love is different from a general liking, wanting, or desiring of one’s beloved. Genuine love is “disinterested” [III]: the well-being of one’s beloved is desirable for its own sake rather than for the sake of some other desired end. For example, I cannot “love” someone solely because my beloved “cares about me” or “makes me happy.” Such caring is contingent on the satisfaction of my own well-being, while true love is unconditionally other-oriented. Genuine love, if strong enough, could presumably drive one to give up one’s own well-being (and sacrifice one’s own life) for the sake of his or her beloved.
Believers in the authority of Scripture understand love in a similar fashion, although for them, love goes beyond mere concern by necessarily manifesting itself as action and a way of life. Christian love (termed agape by the Greeks), per Scripture, “is not self-seeking” and “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5. NIV). Additionally, it is written that “this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16, NIV). By bearing the punishment for all of humanity’s sins – past, present, and future – during his crucifixion, Jesus became the ultimate example of self-sacrificial and unconditional love. For this reason, “Christians are called to live as Christ lived—love of God is love of the other” [IV].
For believers, the source of love is in the character of God (and by extension Jesus) himself: in the First Epistle of John, there is a call to “love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8, NIV). By equating God’s character to the quality of infinite love, John claims that the desire to understand, glorify, and reflect the character of God is synonymous with the desire to love others: he writes, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12, NIV). Thus, the Bible characterizes God as the driving force behind a perfect form of the unselfish, unconditional love described by Frankfurt.
Granted, this conception of love does not fully capture the way in which society uses the term. For instance, the Greeks used the term eros to reference love that is rooted in sexual attraction and self-satisfaction. Nevertheless, this piece will henceforth focus on unselfish love for a couple reasons. First, many see this sort of love as an ideal for all important personal relationships to live up to. Researcher and professor Stephen G. Post points out that “most of us have encountered memorably unselfish, genuinely kind, and deeply generous individuals” and have – at some point – been “struck by the emotional tone, intensity, and helping behavior of good parents, good neighbors, good friends, and good servants” [V]. Second, to critically interrogate the claim that love arises from knowledge of God’s character, one must naturally investigate the sort of love claimed to come from God in Scripture.
An initial criticism
Thus, what ought one to make of the claim that love arises from God? Proponents of the Christian position need to address the following concern: given the position that love comes from knowledge of God’s character, can only Christians exhibit real, genuine love? To put this criticism in other terms, if the Christian position is true, shouldn’t non-Christians inherently lack a desire to reflect God’s character, and thus lack an ability to love? This claim – that solely Christians can practice unselfish love – certainly seems unintuitive and ignorant, as selfless acts are quite clearly practiced by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Accordingly, the Bible reveals the assumption upon which this criticism rests: namely, that a knowledge of God and a desire to reflect his character are attributes only acquired over time. Instead, Scripture indicates that humans possess at least some innate knowledge of God’s character. In the Book of Romans, the apostle Paul observes that Gentiles, who do not live under Jewish law (i.e., laws prescribed by God), nevertheless sometimes find themselves driven by nature to act in accordance with the law. He writes, “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law…They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Romans 2:14-15, NIV). In other words, Christians believe that God places – at least to some degree – knowledge of himself and his laws within all humans upon creation. Even though all are imperfect and doubtful, all individuals – Christians and non-Christians alike – are still graced with an innate drive to be more like God in character.
And yet, how can one be certain that the “law” referred to by Paul includes a commandment to practice unselfish love? In this regard, later on in Romans, Paul writes, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Per his writings, all other Biblical commandments can be “summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9). The meaning of these passages is clear: humans are born with innate knowledge of God’s law, and much of God’s laws can be boiled down to loving God and others. It is natural to love as God has loved us.
In examining these two Biblical passages, one also gains a better understanding of the Christian account of the motivation to love others. For them, there seems to be two components to one’s desire to love as God loves: 1) the innate knowledge of God’s character and the corresponding desire to reflect that character (and thus love others) that is placed within all individuals, and 2) the desire to love that develops in tandem with one’s own shifting personal relationship with God. Thus, under the Christian position, both non-Christians and Christians alike have the capacity to exhibit genuine, unselfish love.
The argument from evolutionary psychology
There is still a need to address alternative accounts of the source of one’s motivation to love. The argument that God is the source of unselfish love can seemingly be undermined by developments in evolutionary psychology from the last few decades. The evolutionary explanation for one’s motivation to love stems from the puzzle of biological altruism; i.e., the phenomenon whereby animals exhibit self-sacrificial behavior somewhat resembling that of other–oriented love. As Samir Okasha explains, at first glance, by “reduc[ing] its own fitness,” animals who exhibit altruistic behavior should presumably “be at a selective disadvantage vis-à-vis one which behaves selfishly” [VI] and die off via the principles of natural selection. Therefore, one is led to ask why such altruism exists.
Over the years, scientists have provided theories explaining the source of altruistic behavior from an evolutionary perspective. First, kinship altruism imagines a gene that results in a higher chance of altruistic behavior in each organism. The gene should, strictly speaking, result in altruists being disadvantaged when it comes to survivability. However, the kin selection model purports that the altruistic gene can be spread via natural selection for altruists who are selective in whom they choose to assist. Specifically, altruists who are more likely to come to the aid of their relatives are in turn more likely to ensure the replication of the altruistic gene due to the close genetic relationship between relatives. For example, if a child is in risk of dying, the parent may in turn risk his or her own life to save the child. The altruistic organism “behave[s] in a way which reduces its own fitness but boosts the fitness of its relatives—who have a greater than average chance of carrying the gene themselves” [VII]. The result: self-sacrificial behavior can spread through natural selection when such behavior is more likely to be directed towards one’s own kin.
The other dominant explanation for the existence of biological altruism is present in the reciprocal model of altruistic behavior. Reciprocal altruism understands self-sacrificial behavior as “a short-term strategy aimed at long-term gain” [VIII]. In other words, an animal may be willing to sacrifice its well-being for the sake of another animal “if there is an expectation of the favour being returned in the future” [IX]. For example, a bird may be willing to protect its neighbor’s nest if there is an expectation that said neighbor would return the favor at some later point in time. Therefore, under both the and kin selection and reciprocal models, what one perceives as unconditional, unselfish love is just natural, evolutionarily-driven behavior present in many different types of species.
Do such claims undercut the Christian position? Arguments from reciprocal and kinship altruism go a long way towards proving that caring about others is to some degree natural and rooted in our development as a species (e.g., kin altruism could explain the uniquely large investment that parents have in their children). However, even the Bible – which was written more than a thousand years before these models of biological altruism were even articulated [X] – acknowledges that individuals are naturally driven to aid their own kin and those who can reciprocate. The Bible is also clear on the fact that these forms of caring do not qualify as love. When Jesus teaches on the topic of love in the Book of Matthew, he asks his disciples, “If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:47, NIV). In the book of Luke, he states that there is no credit given to those who “lend to those from whom you expect repayment…even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full” (Luke 6:34, NIV).
How does real, genuine love differ from the sort of altruistic behavior driven by biological altruism? Ultimately, Christianity represents “a call to love the unlovable devoid of any cost-benefit calculation” [XI]. While one may be naturally motivated to care for those who can reciprocate and those in his or her own community, Christian love widens the circle of caring to those who are unable to repay and even one’s own enemies. In the Bible, Jesus prescribes the following command: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:27-35, NIV). For Jesus, true love involves acting in kindness and expecting nothing in return.
It is for this reason that Jesus is “the clue to the whole evolutionary process” with regards to love [XII]. While there is a natural drive to help family members and those who can return the favor, for many, there is also a conflicting urge to unselfishly love those who do not fit into those two categories. In this regard, Burns provides the example of how during the Holocaust, rescuers routinely housed Jewish refugees for extended periods of time. These Jewish refugees were generally strangers to the rescuers; in fact, helping the Jews often meant extending “the danger of imprisonment, torture, and execution” to the rescuers’ own families [XIII]. These rescuers had every reason to refuse to help those in need, and yet they were motivated to extend that helping hand anyway.
Why is this the case? Ultimately, it is Jesus who “taught that we can and must reverse the biological genetic drag toward in-group preference…by insisting that family ties be broken if they interfere with the doing of God’s will” [XIV]. Simply put, the Christian position explains why individuals can be motivated to go against and beyond their evolutionarily–driven impulses: namely, through the knowledge that all others are reflections of God, made by God, and loved by God.
V. The argument from intrinsic value
One may concede the point that evolutionary psychology fails to capture the essence of unselfish, self-sacrificial love and yet still hold that such love does not necessarily arise from God. The most likely way in which one would make this argument is by stating that the motivation to love others likely stems from the knowledge that other human beings (or at least certain human beings) have intrinsic value. For instance, political philosopher Jean Hampton posits that the most genuine form of love “connects us to our fellow human beings by virtue of our common humanity, such that we will naturally recoil at others’ suffering and desire (authentically) to stop it.” [XV] In other words, love may need no motivation outside of this recognition that every person is bestowed with normative worth by simply being an individual. Thus, one may say that there is no need for love to stem from God at all.
While this argument is certainly intuitive, Frankfurt handedly points out a major flaw in its chain of reasoning. He writes that while associating intrinsic value to something would “perhaps imply that it would make sense for someone to desire it for its own sake…our belief that having a certain desire would not be unreasonable does not imply that we ourselves actually have the desire” [XVI]. Thus, if one recognizes that all humans have inherent worth, then it would likely (but not necessarily) follow that loving others is also good. However, it does not follow that one is motivated to love others upon recognizing their intrinsic value. For example, one can believe that running or yoga has intrinsic value and yet feel completely unmotivated to partake in such activities.
Granted, Scripture does acknowledge that the recognition of others’ intrinsic value plays a large part in one’s motivation to love. After all, the Bible states that all individuals are created wonderfully and in God’s image (Psalm 139:14, Genesis 1:26, NIV). It was God’s love for the entire world that motivated him to “give his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV). By loving others, we demonstrate an intrinsic attribute that parallels God’s eternal love. Furthermore, Don S. Browning, when writing on the metaphysics of love, explains that “regard for the other person—when that person is viewed as both a rational creature deserving respect and as a reflection of the image of God—is always the central motivating factor in Christian understandings of love” [XVII].
The Christian faith crucially builds on the argument from intrinsic value by bridging the gap between recognition and motivation. As previously stated, the desire to understand, glorify, and reflect the character of God necessitates, and thus always motivates, the desire to love others. By loving others as God loves, one necessarily views other individuals as intrinsically valuable. Thus, while the argument from intrinsic value is not altogether false, it is only by placing God as the source of love that the link between value and motivation becomes clear.
Most attempts to explain one’s motivation to love have at least some degree of truth to them. Nevertheless, thus so far, each of these explanations has failed to provide the entire picture of love’s origins. As this piece has demonstrated, when God is in the picture, it becomes clear how the motivation to love others came to be. It also becomes clear why all individuals have both a drive and a calling to love others.
In fact, the love that Jesus displayed for humanity goes beyond even Frankfurt’s own definition of the term. Frankfurt believes that love exists so long as there is some intrinsic concern for the well-being of another person. Be that as it may, humankind’s salvation was not just one concern of Jesus’ but rather the only concern driving his sacrifice on everyone’s behalf. For this reason, when Jesus was crucified on the cross, he was willing to bear the punishment of all of humanity’s sins so that humanity itself can in turn achieve salvation. Perhaps even more bafflingly, Jesus did so even after being betrayed, scorned, tortured, and rejected by those around him. That kind of sacrificial love is truly unconditional: it is a love whose immensity is ultimately beyond human comprehension.
At the same time, this perfect love has bled into and motivated every single loving action performed by anyone since. That is, God made his infinite love real and concrete (and thus something to strive towards) through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, every single action with a trace of genuine love provides the smallest inkling of what Jesus did for humanity by sacrificing himself. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10, NIV).
[I] Bennett Helm, “Love”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
[II] Harry G. Frankfurt, “On Caring”. In Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 165.
[IV] Charlene P. E. Burns, “Self-Sacrificial Love: Evolutionary Deception or Theological Reality?” CrossCurrents, Vol. 57, No. 1, Science, Religion, and the Future (Spring 2007), 111.
[V] Stephen G. Post. Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion, and Service. Radnor, PA: Templeton Press, 2003, 2.
[VI] Samir Okasha, “Biological Altruism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
[VIII] Burns, “Self-Sacrificial Love,” 104.
[IX] Okasha, “Biological Altruism”.
[XI] Jesse Peterson, “The Apologetics of Love: Considering Nietzche and Jesus of Nazareth,” Christian Union, 2015.
[XII] Burns, “Self-Sacrificial Love,” 113.
[XIII] Ibid., 112.
[XV] Jean Hampton. The Intrinsic Worth of Persons: Contractarianism in Moral and Political Philosophy. Daniel Farnham (ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 64.
[XVI]Frankfurt, “The Question: ‘How Should We Live?’” In The Reasons of Love. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004, 12-13.
[XVII] Don S. Browning, “Science and Religion on the Nature of Love”. In Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002,
Amos Jeng is a Junior from Armonk, New York. He is a nondenominational Christian. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, a figure who had the courage to write about God, skepticism, and deductive thinking, has gained his admiration. He also lifts. A lot.Tags: altriusm, Bennett Helm, Don Browning, evolution, Harry Frankfurt, Jean Hampton, love, natural law, Samir Okasha, Stephen Post