An analysis and defense of an ethics of love

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Jonathan Bennett


Love, Ethics

Subject Categories



What kind of love does the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself" enjoin? On the basis of textual and analogical evidence, I argue that in enjoins love not unlike the natural loves we have for our family and lovers. If this is right, we can use our experience of those loves as models for how we should feel and act towards other human beings. I argue that the love this commandment advocates is emotional love, rather than practical love. I respond to a number of objections to this, and in the process, present some support for the view that we ought to love our neighbors.

This leads to the question: "If the love commanded by the commandment is psychological love, what does it have to say about how I should act? And if it has nothing to say about action, isn't it a pretty poor sort of morality?" I argue that, since love involves desires for the well-being of the beloved, one couldn't genuinely love without pursuing that well-being. I concede, however, that it cannot provide a complete guide to action: there are many morally significant choice situations where it would not tell us what to do because it doesn't say what people's interests consist in. The commandment needs to be supplemented with some other moral facts. An objector might complain that these extra facts do all the work, that the commandment is a mere moral tautology, "Try to do what is right by others." This is a false impression. The commandment entails several controversial moral claims.

The rest of the dissertation discusses the more interesting of these, and tries to argue that where the commandment entails a controversial ethical position, it is correct in doing so. For example, in chapter 4, I argue that it would not attach moral significance to the distinction between killing and letting die. In chapter 5, I argue that it would allow very little room for supererogation. These two conclusions raise the question of whether it is equivalent to utilitarianism. This is not the case. There are several respects in which the commandment is inconsistent with utilitarianism. Among other differences, I point to the fact that the commandment rejects claims which are central to the very essence of consequentialism. I argue that the commandment includes (what Samuel Scheffler calls) agent-centered restrictions (it tells us to love rather than to maximize the occurrence of love) and agent-centered prerogatives (in certain situations, the commandment allows one some freedom to pursue one's own projects).


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