Do we have a right to love?

January 16, 2024 00:17

In the movie M3GAN, eight-year-old Cady is bestowed a ‘gift’ by her roboticist aunt Gemma. The gift was a Generative Android named M3GAN, which was a humanoid robot doll powered by advanced AI, designated the ideal companion for children. As the movie progresses, M3GAN, in seeking to protect what she terms to be the best interests of Cady, ends up killing Gemma’s neighbour’s dog, a pedestrian, and even Gemma herself, with whom M3GAN views itself as locked in a struggle over custodian rights.

The principle underlying an AI companion appears to be rather straightforward: we live in an era of increasing isolation and atomisation. Stress, anxiety, trauma arising from loneliness are all acute social problems meriting intervention from the state and attention from the public at large. There aren’t enough companions, there aren’t enough friends, and there definitely aren’t enough lovers to go around. The claim, or so it goes, is that human beings have a tentative right to love – to be loved by others, which is to be treated and viewed with love by others.

It is beyond the remit of this article to unpack in full the arguments for and against this purported right within practical ethics. For reference, I would recommend Matthew Liao’s excellent writings on “The Right to be Loved”, and Nussbaum’s “Love’s Knowledge” and her writings on love and respect, more generally, as a helpful set of introductory readings. I also see much value and merit in Wang Yangming’s approach to live, and his rebuking of the Mohist claim in favour of ‘jian ai’ (some would translate this into universal love, others would call it universalist concern/concern for everyone).

Yet here is a tentative stab at the above question. We usually see human beings as possessing claim rights – effectively, claims and entitlements – to core interests that render us living at least minimally decent lives. The right to life is the chief and foremost right, given that we need to have it upheld for us, in order to be alive, and enjoy the myriad of things that Planet Earth has to offer. The right to bodily integrity does not appear particularly far-fetched; nor, indeed, does the right to a minimally decent level of health – both physical and mental. The more we uncover different candidates of such rights, the more we may come to realise that what counts for ‘core interests’ varies from context to context, culture to culture.

However, the mere existence of variations between societies concerning what exactly is considered hyper-important, does not detract from the concurrent fact that there are certain things over which a vast majority of human societies and cultures tend to view as positive, and vital to the fundamental well-being (at a baseline level) of a human being. I would submit that love falls into this category, for two brief reasons. Firstly, love is vital in ensuring that we feel securely and more permanently cared for by others. The unconditionality of love – as well as its seeming ability to defy or bend rational choice frameworks of human action – gives us a safety net, a sort of willingness to sacrifice (see Agnes Callard’s work on Socrates and love), and a base on which we can always count on should we have to ‘fall back’. This applies not just to familial love or romantic love, but also the kind of love that exists amongst the tightest of friends – a deeply rooted form of affection that can transcend cost-benefit calculus.

Secondly, love is the language that grants us the lexicon and vocabulary of being human. To be human, is to be able to cultivate higher-order preferences, ideals, and passions that cannot be purely reduced into biological or genetic dispositions. This is why many would draw distinctions between sex and love. Sex could be loveless, just as love could be sexless. The ability to develop and possess Platonic relationships – of love without sex, without the perhaps carnal, or perhaps primordial craving for sex – is a uniquely human faculty. If we are indeed the kind of beings envisioned by Aristotle – fallible yet perfectible – then we should indeed be blessed and endowed with the opportunity of loving, and being loved.

Of course, love can ebb and flow in strength. Love can also be corrosive. Love can even induce us to behave in irrational ways that are fundamentally contrary to our interests. Yet love is also magical. At its best, it is ethereal and sublime. And this is why it is not unfair to say that we have a core interest in love. And per the interest theory of rights (Feinberg), we do have a right to being loved (though whether this extends to our right to love others, is another matter).

It is not good enough for such love to be imagined, or hallucinated over, or accessed through the consuming of drugs that distort one’s mind. That is because the value of the love lies not in its manifestation, but in its innate constitution. This is also why for individuals to be ‘conned’ into a romantic relationship – even if it is never revealed to them (till the very end of their lives) that they have been scammed, robbed, and cheated on, setting aside the problematic nature of deception, there is something inherently different about such episodes of ‘mendacious’ love-play, as compared with bona fide love.

What does this look like in terms of practical prescriptions? I have no substantive recommendations, but would like to flag one observation in preemption of some of my most cynical skeptics. Does the right to being loved therefore legitimise the insidious, nefarious actions of ‘Pick-up Artists’ (PUAs) or ‘Incels’ in any shape or form? To paraphrase an erstwhile British Prime Minister, the answer is, “No, No, No!”

To say that Bob has a right to be loved, does not mean that Bob is entitled to being loved by any particular individual – Susan. Nor does that imply, in any shape or form, that he is entitled to any form of labour performed by Susan. We may recognise the right to love, but also that the right has clear limits, and can be easily outweighed by more substantiated and weighty rights. There can be no justification to violations of the wishes of any independent third party or capable adult, even if in name of love. The right to love is modest, constrained, and hugely intriguing as a theoretical construct. As the Supemes once sang, “You can’t hurry love”.

Assistant Professor, HKU