A readiness to trade up looking for someone with better characteristics does not fit with an attitude of love. An illuminating view should explain why not, yet why nevertheless the attitude of love is not irrational.’ (Nozick, ‘Love’s Bond’: 234)

In this essay I will outline Nozick’s views on love and explain using my own analogies and the thoughts of other philosophers why Nozick is wrong. I will explain how Nozick’s view makes sense initially from a modern western perspective but does not hold true Universally.

Nozick summarizes his arguments about love: “The intention in love is to form a we and to identify with it as an extended self to identify one’s fortunes in large part with its fortunes. A willingness to trade up to destroy the very we you largely identify with would then be a willingness to destroy your self”.

Nozick’s core arguments are based on love forming a new identity, an extension and alteration of the self. In order to address this, the question of what an identity is exactly must be addressed.


Identity is whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_(philosophy)). It is what a person thinks of another, or what they recognize themselves as being. It is not necessarily what they really are. An identity may contain truth as well as other aspects that are strictly imaginary. Identities are intangible and so are difficult to define. Identities exist in the temporary present realm of thoughts, meaning, free will and illusion.

Merino (2004) writes, “An individual tree is not obviously changed by becoming a member of a forest.” The inaccuracy of this analogy encapsulates an important point. An individual tree that has become a member of a forest may appear to be much the same as it was before. However, there are actually significant changes. For example, it is now competing for sunlight, the soil is different, there are vines growing up it and animals living in its canopy. It is covered in life. Much the same could be said about individuals forming a we. Like a tree in a forest their identity appears to remain physically the same, but upon a close inspection it is found to be profoundly different to what it was before the we was formed.

Different people will notice different things about this newly forested tree. The tree will have a different identity in everyone’s minds. Some may view the animals it gives a home to as its most important part. Others will see only the value of its timbre.

What a couple imagines their ‘we’ to be, is different to each other’s and everyone else’s. Everyone’s love is made up of different imaginary parts. Nozick thinks that falling in love is like growing an extra limb or internal organ that we come to depend on and think of our own. That may be true, but people treat their own body differently. Take the chain smoking, obese alcoholic. Nozick thinks he can tell someone how he or she should behave; where in his ‘we’ each person represents both. They are the same person in Nozick’s view. Therefore it is none of his business and Nozick is in no position to dictate what is fitting in an attitude of love.

Facebook analogy

Nozick says the, “two individual identities are joined so that the individual identities are different than they were before joining”. This can be analogized with a facebook profile, where couples now commonly proclaim their new identity to the World. Immediately upon announcement of the relationship the individual’s profile page changes, with a link with a heart next to it going directly to ‘their other half’. The overall appearance of the two individual’s pages is almost the same as before, only with the small spatial difference of a hyperlink. However, that hyperlink is of symbolic importance. Anyone viewing the page will make assumptions about the person. For example, they are likely to have some attractive qualities if they have managed to become in a relationship, and perhaps they are less likely to come to a party you just invited them too. These assumptions form the identity of the person/couple in the mind of the observer and every observer will notice different things.

Again in this way it can be seen that Nozick’s idea of forming a we is subtle and subjective, with only tenuous links to the real world. It brings into question how we can know if a new identity has even been formed. Two people could pretend to the outside world that they are now a we and deceive everyone. There would be no love involved. In the same way there is a scale of the intensity of love in a relationship. How can Nozick draw a line where, once crossed, it becomes ‘unfitting’ to look for a better partner?

The Dualistic Divide

Nozick writes, “In a we, the people share an identity and do not simply each have identities that are enlarged.” Both facebook profiles (see the above analogy) are one in a way, like two pools of water connected by a very thin channel. The overall shape remains almost exactly the same, but by definition they are now one pool. People in a ‘we’ may appear physically as separate pools, but in the metaphysical realm of thoughts, meaning and energy they are one being. However, which perspective is ‘more’ true? An example of this problem of identity can be seen in nature. The Mediterranean and the Red Sea are connected by the Suez Canal, but are regarded by most as separate entities. Physically the canal is tiny compared to the vast seas it unites, but it has massive ramifications on the global economy.

Trying to define love is like that canal. Sometimes the connection of love may be like a narrow canal, other times the connection between lovers might be more like a dam breaking and a nearly complete mixing of selves. Who can say if a physical change is more important than the change in meaning? The two Seas have not moved at all, the canal is an addition. It is simply a matter of perspective, which is entirely subjective and so Nozick has no domain of authority to say what is or isn’t fitting in an attitude of love.

Solomon (2001) (as cited in Merino 2004, 128) explains with this metaphor: “The atoms retain their identity as atoms of a certain element but, at the same time, they together form a new substance with quite different properties.”

Continuing Solomon’s metaphor, if there is enough energy in a chemical reaction, molecules can be split apart again and their atoms reconnected with different atoms. Much is the same with people. As Nozick describes it, love is a bond, but that bond is not indestructible.

Cultural bias

In “What kind of sex makes people happy?” Rival (2007, 168) describes the sexual practices of an Amazonian tribe. Her account makes the idea of ‘trading up for a better partner’ and monogamous love to seem westernized and construed to be biased based on our modern living arrangements.

Rival describes how the Huaorani tribe lives in longhouses in large family groups. Enjoying physical contact is common between everyone regardless of age and sex. Levels of caressing and sensual pleasure are not ranked and are not sexual. They help to strengthen the bonds of the group and make them loyal to each other. Everyone in the long house is, “one flesh” and is very happy as a result. When they marry, the husband can have sex with the sisters of his wife and the wife can have sex with the brothers of the husband. As long as this is done discreetly there are no problems. Rivals’ detailed and fascinating account leads me to conclude that the western idea we have of ‘love’ with one person is a temporary cultural phenomenon. Therefore in some cases it may be rational to ‘upgrade’ and in other cases not. We, or rather the ancient Greeks, have invented love. It is ours to manipulate.

Another example of cultural bias is explained by Hume (1985) (as cited by Jordan, 2004, 44). Hume thinks that a woman’s fidelity in society is due to a combination of “convention and socialization”. Individuals come to believe that women really are naturally chaste and so grow up to be chaste themselves. This view now seems rather old fashioned, and was formulated by men in positions of power in the Church. However, it shows how culture influences how people think they should behave, even about important things like love and sex. It shows how Nozicks view of a perfect we is his own albeit, well reasoned, culturally biased, opinion.

Why lovers should stay together – for Nozick

To present a fair case I am obliged to display the rational thinking behind lovers staying together.

According to Foster (2008, 247) over time, “we gain a greater understanding of what the other person means by the words they use or the body language they employ. Sometimes the expressions and concepts used by the other become our own and allow us to articulate our own experience of selfhood in a new way.” I.e. A new person has new mannerisms. Communication is less efficient even if the new person shares many of the desirable characteristics. This is one reason it may be rational to stick with the first lover.

Other reasons for lovers to stick together include: Time has been invested, a new identity has been formed, the relationship has been tested and known to work, and both partners could be damaged emotionally in the break up, making the formation of a new one more difficult.

According to Ortiz-Millan (2007), “it is not desire that sets the goals that are going to determine our deliberation and conduct, but love. Love determines our desire, and not the other way round.”

Love is an emotion. The calculations are made by our subconscious to fall in love someone or not, our conscious selves get little choice in the matter. When in love we are less likely to go trying to looking for love with another (for the above reasons). Also, if someone is in love their subconscious may work to protect from opportunities to fall in love with another, as it knows the risk that involved.

Below is an extract from Boccaccio (as cited in Ortiz-Millan 2007) who tells us the story of Cymon, a stupid man who is turned into an intelligent one by love:

“Now that Cymon's heart, which no amount of schooling had been able to penetrate, was pierced by Love's arrow through the medium of Iphigenia's beauty, he suddenly began to display a lively interest in one thing after another, to the amazement of his father, his whole family, and everyone else who knew him. He first of all asked his father's permission to wear the same sort of clothes as his brothers, including all the frills with which they were in the habit of adorning themselves, and to this his father very readily agreed, he then began to associate with young men of excellence, observing the manners befitting a gentleman, more especially those of a gentleman in love, and within a very short space of time, to everyone's enormous stupefaction, he not only acquired the rudiments of letters but became most eminent among philosophic wits. (…) In short (without going into further detail about his various accomplishments), in the space of four years from the day he had fallen in love, he turned out to be the most graceful, refined, and versatile young man in the island of Cyprus.”

If this delightful story where to happen to someone, that person would be unlikely to throw away the lover that had brought about such a rapid and remarkable transformation, for rejection could result in the loss of the original lover and a return to idiocy.

Why lovers should break up – against Nozick

As stated by Sobel and Power (2008): “The metaphysical sexual optimists view human sexuality as just another and mostly innocuous dimension of our existence as embodied or animal-like creatures (like the impulse to eat and find shelter).”

If sexual desire can be compared to hunger, one rarely eats half a pudding to throw the rest away and start on a different, more desirable pudding. However, this can happen. Sometimes two (or more!) completely different puddings are put in the same bowl and ate together for the shear gluttony of the occasion. This can be rational because it can help the individual feel better, which has knock-on positive effects. The same can be said for sexual desire.

Sobel and Power (2008) continue to explain that, “when one person sexually desires another, the person’s body is primarily desired, distinct from the person.” This statement shows how love can be divided up. Someone could love their partner, but still not be satisfied sexually by them and seek satisfaction elsewhere and the sexual activity would act as a lever, forcing open a locked door allowing the person to fall in love with the new sexual partner. I have therefore explained how romantic love can be divided up and that there is no Universal ideal state of love available for all.

Why love is an illusion

Merino (2004) tells us: “It is false that what happens to lovers is that they pool their ends together without any distinction between what ends ultimately originated in the one and what ends ultimately originated in the other, as this claim denies the existence of real self-sacrifice that occurs within romantic love.”

Therefore two beings do not become one. That is an illusion placed there for biological purposes. One lover may care about the others goals and sacrifice their own, but they will be biased in deciding which of the lovers goals they care about depending on who they want their lover to become. For example, an authors’ wife may wish to start writing her own book. The author may not share this goal for his lover as it interferes with his own identity by ‘stealing his thunder’.

Evolution and Biology

I will now examine a group of relevant quotes:

“In fact love is a struggle, albeit sometimes a delightful and always essential struggle, for mutual self-identity and a sense of independence at the same time.”’

The word ‘love’ in the above sentence from Solomon (2001) (as cited by Merino 2004) can be replaced by ‘in fact two adults trying to find reasons to stick together long enough to produce a group of offspring’ is a struggle.

“I may care as much about my beloved’s fulfilling his own ends as I care about the fulfillment of my own ends. Nonetheless, this kind of effect on identity is no different in kind than the effect on identity from numerous other personal relationships and social interactions, even if it usually tends to be greater in degree”

This succinct passage from Merino (2004) explains that here is no special fusion between lovers. There is simply lots of time spent together, and a pooling of thoughts and ideas and experiences. The same fusing would occur with same sex friend if enough time was spent, only without the physical side to make the love seem complete, which is a mere addition.

Foster (2008) tells us: “Real love, it is claimed, is prior to knowledge and is not motivated by it.” That is because real love only exists in the imagination.

Foster goes on to say: “Romantic love and eros have both been characterized as attempts to gain knowledge of the other person, or of truth and beauty, rather than freely bestowing love on another person or loving them for their own sake.”

Agape, on the other hand, is unconditional selfless love. However, ‘selfless’ looses it’s meaning when we examine closely. Genetically, everyone is 99.9% the same (http://www.genomicseducation.ca/) and we want more of things that are the same as or as similar to us as possible. So by giving so a random stranger in a seemingly selfless act, we are really recognizing ourselves in that person, empathizing with their suffering and hoping they will reproduce more successfully now, because after all, they are almost exactly the same as us. Therefore this idea of having a lover’s motives literally as ones own, or of their being one ‘magical’ mechanism that keeps lovers together, is nonsense. Lovers do break up, not all the time, but a lot of the time. We are simply trying to reproduce to continue existence in a form most similar to us as possible. Each case of ‘love’ should be critiqued individually, there is no single thing called ‘love’ that happens to us. There are only relationships, and pooling of thoughts, experiences, risks and resources in order to reproduce. If enough of those things occur for long enough it could be roughly labeled as ‘love’. Sometimes it is rational for lovers to stay together, sometimes it is rational for them to break up. Whatever the case, the brain is an extremely complex computer and whatever action a lover decides to take he or she will have a rational explanation for it, even if it remains buried deep in the subconscious.

Foster (2008) summarizes: “Unlike eros and romantic love, which are motivated by a desire for or toward something, agapé is a spontaneously creative act of God, emanating from his character and not motivated by the value of the objects of his love.” Therefore, if all life can be called ‘God’, then agape can be said to exist.

Foster goes on to say that, “love resembles the love of God which is unmotivated. It does not depend on objective qualities in the beloved for its motivation.” I.e All that matters is the DNA, not the phenotype. It doesn’t matter if a person is good or bad, murderer, thief or saint. It’s their genes that matter, because that is who they are and that is what survives.

Frankfurt (2004) agrees with me: “the explanation presumably lies in the evolutionary pressures of natural selection.”


From a ‘genes eye view’ love is a mechanism by which couples stay together long enough for multiple children to be raised, and raised well enough for them to have a high enough chance of surviving to reproduce themselves. After the children are grown up, the parent’s love for each other thins. The only purpose remaining is to narrowly increase chances of successful reproduction of their children by maintaining a supportive family group, and to keep their tired husks of being in a feeling of content.


Astuti, R. and Parry, J. and Stafford, C. (2007) Questions of Anthropology (New York: Berg Publishers).

Boccaccio (1972) The Decameron, fifth day, first story. Trans. G. H. McWilliam. (London: Penguin).

Foster, G. (2008) Romantic Love and Knowledge: Refuting the Claim of Egoism. Dialogue, 47: 235-251.

Frankfurt, H.G. (2004) The Reasons of Love (UK: Princeton University Press).

Hansen, B. and Anderson, C. (2004) Genomics and Race. Genomics Education. Consulted (23.02.10) <http://www.genomicseducation.ca/informationArticles/society/genomics_race.asp>.

Hume, D. (1985) A Treatise of Human Nature (London: Penguin Books).

Jordan, B. (2007) Sex, Money and Power: the transformation of collective life (Cambridge: Policy Press).

Morino, N. (2004) The Problem with “We”: Rethinking Joint Identity in Romantic Love, Wiley Periodicals, 35: 123-132.

Ortiz-Millan, G. (2007) Love and rationality: On some possible rational effects of love. Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, 48. Soble, A. and Power, N. (2008) The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings (UK: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).

Solomonm, R.C. (2001) About Love: Reinventing Romance for Our Times (New York: Madison). Sterelny, K. and Griffiths, P.E. (1999) Sex and Death, and introduction to Philosophy of Biology (London: The University of Chicago Press).

Wikipedia, (2010) Identity and Philosophy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. Consulted 24.02.10. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_(philosophy)>


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