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,
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"
Schnarch. But Fromm's
book has much broader significance than as a kind of manual
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
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.
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
"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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
(6) Love is courageous.
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
(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
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
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.
(1) 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
(2) 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
other. Most loving people who would describe themselves as
"loving" (or whom others would describe as "loving") are a
way from an appropriate
point of balance.
(3) Love involves knowledge and
We must inform ourselves
about the causes and solutions of global
poverty and global warming, and participate actively in the global
truth and against climate denial.
(4) 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.
(5) 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
(6) 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.
(7) 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
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
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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