The "Art of Loving" in an age of global poverty and global warming

Richard Parncutt
3 June 2014


Abstract. Based on Erich Fromm's classic book, we can generally say that love is active, directed both inwards and outwards, involves knowledge and wisdom, is caring, responsible, courageous, and important. All of these aspects of love can be applied to the world's biggest problems. Those problems are global poverty and global warming, because they are causing, or will cause, more deaths than any other problem. Most people, even those whom others would unanimously describe as "loving people", are ignoring these issues as if they did not exist. Wake up, world.

A lot of people know Erich Fromm's theory of love, as explained in his 1956 book The Art of Loving. The ideas in this book are commonly upheld by people who want to to maintain a sexual relationship (partnership, marriage) for a long time, ideally until "death us do part" -- although for that purpose, incidentally, I can think of an even better book, "Passionate Marriage" by David Schnarch. But Fromm's
book has much broader significance than as a kind of manual for a happy marriage, and Fromm himself made clear that his book was not intended as some kind of self-help book.

Fromm's ideas, which I will summarize below, seem remarkably close to universal and timeless knowledge - the kind of knowledge that philosophers have traditionally strived for. He started to explain the broad significance of his approach at the start of the book, but he was perhaps too modest to spell out the many political implications in detail, which could have made the book a lot longer. In any case, the political implications in 1956 were rather different from 2014.

Those who already know this book may be interested in the following bit of criticism. The book contains some disappointingly homophobic and sexist sentiments, which are evidently related to Fromm's Christian background and his interpretation of Christian texts and beliefs. I don't want to go into detail about these problems here, nor do I wish to criticize Christianity, which like other major religions from a moral perspective has probably done much more good than harm in the past two millenia. But I do feel that main ideas of Fromm's book contradict all forms of prejudice and discrimination, including homophobia and sexism - as do the main ideas in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other major religion, and I guess that if Fromm were alive today he would simply correct or omit the offending passages.

Here, I want to talk about the considerable implications of Fromm's book for global poverty and global warming in the 21st century. But first allow me to summarize what I think are some of the book's most important points. I will number them so that I can refer to each point again from the perspective of global poverty and global warming.

(1) Love is active, not passive. "Falling in love" is not love, and it is certainly not "true love". Love happens when you DO things to promote the health and happiness of others. True love according to Fromm is always a combination of loving feelings and loving action. It follows that if you practice the art of loving, you get better at doing it.

(2) Love is directed both inwards and outwards. Love between two people or among a group of people (such as a family or group of friends) is also directed outwards, toward other people. This is true for all kinds of love: sexual love, love between parents and children, love between sisters and brothers, and even love of god (if you believe in god). Love for your cat includes love for other cats, and love for your country includes love for other countries. It follows in addition that you cannot love people without also loving yourself. (That is hard to explain in two lines; please read Fromm's text.)

(3) Love involves knowledge and wisdom.To love someone, you have to know them. You have to be curious about them (within the limits of respect), listen to them, find out about them, search for the truth about them. But that does not mean you have to agree with the person you love. Differences of opinion are an important part of any loving relationship. Love is a constant and never-ending process; so too is the process of learning about the people we love, in order to love them better.

(4) Love is caring and responsible. If we love someone, we care genuinely about them, which makes love a kind of emotional investment. We feel responsible for them, without which we would not really care. If their health or happiness suffers, we feel a sense of accountability, as if our love had failed. Responsibility means that we are obliged to contribute actively to solving the problem.

(5) Love is respectful. The people we love often have different opinions from our own and they often do things we would not do. Love includes accepting differences of opinion, within reason. This is related to the concept of human rights: by respecting people, we respect their rights. It follows from the active nature of love that we must also actively promote their rights. Our love stops only when others' actions seriously violate human rights. It follows from this that love can never be completely unconditional, and commitment can never be total. If someone whom I love "unconditionally" or to whom I am "committed forever" in the everyday sense commits a terrible crime that seriously violates the rights of other people (e.g. domestic violence), I may listen to them and support their process of coming to terms with what happened, but I will not condone their crime or fight against a fair system of justice that seeks to punish my loved one in a reasonable fashion. That would not be a loving thing to do. I may have the love to be there for my loved one in her or his descent from grace, but I will also defend other people whose rights were violated. But this is an unlikely scenario for most people. If we are sure that something like this will never happen, we can still strive for unconditional love or complete commitment.

(6) Love is courageous. This point follows from the active nature of love, combined with caring and respect. We must have the courage to defend the rights of the people we love, and we should do that because we genuinely and emotionally care about them. Courage means risking negative consequences for ourselves in order to promote the health and happiness of others, otherwise known as altruism.

(7) Love is important. It may seem obvious but it has to be said: Love is one of the most important things in our lives. Many would say it is THE most important thing. Without love, we are nothing, like the biblical metaphor of "dust to dust". Love is also what distinguishes humans from other animals. You can watch other animals behaving in ways similar to human sexual love, maternal and paternal love, filial love and so on, and you might even be impressed by their behavior and be tempted to suppose that non-human animals are sometimes more loving than humans. But only humans have the additional ability to develop long-term plans and intentions, and to implement those intentions, which is a central feature of Fromm's theory.

I am interested in the implications of these points for the current global situation. A billion people are living in poverty, and ten million are dying yearly from causes related to poverty. That in turn is a consequence of the greed of the rich, because the industrial countries could have solved most of this problem
remarkably easily by more actively and honestly promoting a fair global economic system, and by fulfilling their oft-repeated promise of spending 0.7% of GNP on official development assistance for the past two decades. The industrial countries could start solving this problem right now, if they wanted to - but they evidently do not want to. Our chronic failure to achieve this widely accepted economic goal is one of the greatest scandals of all time, when you consider the human consequences.

Global warming is in addition to the problem of global poverty. It is also inseparable from it, because it will increase the death rate from causes already associated with poverty (mainly hunger and disease). By exacerbating the effects of global poverty, global warming will gradually destroy this beautiful planet for our descendents. We are causing this future catastrophe right now with our greenhouse emissions. We know we are causing this problem, but we are continuing to do it, with full knowledge of the consequences. Most people are acting as if this is not happening or they are not responsible, which according to Fromm's theory is a clear case of failure to love.

The implications are clear. If we regard ourselves as loving people, we have some work to do. It's time to roll up our sleeves and get started.

Love is active, not passive. We must actively contribute to the solution of the world's main problems, which are global poverty and global warming. Just thinking and talking about it is not enough. Excuses not to act are generally lame.

Love is directed both inwards and outwards. We must find an appropriate balance between our love for our friends and family on the one side and our love for the entire human species on the other. Most loving people who would describe themselves as "loving" (or whom others would describe as "loving") are a long way from an appropriate point of balance.

Love involves knowledge and wisdom. We must inform ourselves about the causes and solutions of global poverty and global warming, and participate actively in the global struggle for truth and against climate denial.

Love is caring and responsible. We must genuinely and emotionally care about people who suffer or will suffer most from global poverty and global warming, mainly in developing countries and in the future. We must feel a sense of responsibility toward them as members of a single global human family.

Love is respectful. We must respect the rights of all human beings, including the right to different ways of life, different beliefs, or different responses to global poverty and global warming. We must generally promote human rights.

Love is courageous. We must have the courage to defend human rights in the global struggle against poverty and climate change - as well as the struggle against armed conflict, environmental destruction and so on. In the process, we must be prepared to give up some of our high standard of living to help others.

Love is important. We must treat these things as central parts of our lives and human identity -  not as fair-weather occupations that we do occasionally, and give up when the going gets tough.

I have written the word "must" many times, and I would like to emphasize that I really mean "must". If we see someone drowning and we are capable of rescuing them, we must rescue them. If we see someone dying of thirst and we have water, we must give it to them. This is the level of "must" that I am talking about. Global poverty and global warming are a matter of life and death for a billion people. We must do our best to solve this problem. If we accept the general direction of Fromm's theory and we do not do the things I have listed, we cannot honestly claim to be loving people.

Given these arguments, which seem rather clear and uncontroversial to me (after all, they are simply a matter of "if A and B are true, then C is also true"), I am deeply shocked by the thought that I am surrounded by good, well-meaning people who obviously do not care about these things. I know that people do not care when they are fully informed about what is happening and are not DOING anything about it. As Fromm repeatedly emphasized, love is active. Actions speak louder than words. Action is the final test of whether we are loving people, or indeed if we are human at all. This is not a trivial problem, because the end result of all this not-caring and not-doing will be the gradual destruction of this unique and beautiful planet for future generations.

What will it take to wake people up? How hard do we have to be kicked up the bum before we realize that this is about us, who we really are, what makes our lives meaningful?

I respectfully ask the readers of this text to reread what Fromm said about the above points (or just read the wikipedia page) and compare his approach with the modern implications that I have listed. Then DO something about global poverty and global warming.

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