Love to Overcome Hate |

8 min read

These past weeks and years, we have seen escalating conflict, violence, death, and war in Israel and Palestine, in Russia and Ukraine, in innumerable other conflicts around the world, and in increasing division and polarization within our own country. None of these struggles are easy or straightforward to resolve. The histories lying behind such conflict and violence, and the motivations for the actions taken, are complex and not infrequently dark, manifesting not only hurt but also hatred, sometimes mutual. We can and should mourn the loss, mourn those who have died, and mourn the evil that has taken place. We can and should hope and pray for resolution, support those who are suffering, and assist communities and leaders in working toward peace.

There are no easy steps to disentangle or prevent such conflict, and we will likely never be able to eradicate hatred from the human condition. But it is worthwhile nevertheless to ponder what is possible, what small steps we might take to counter and prevent hatred, and, whenever possible, to overcome hatred with love. While the form that love takes amidst conflict is complex, and while love itself may entail legitimate and just resistance and self-defense ultimately aimed at peace, an attitude of love and respect for the humanity of others has the potential to shape and limit and, perhaps also, help prevent violence. Even, and perhaps especially, in the midst of conflict and strife, it may be worthwhile to reflect upon how we can empower greater interpersonal love—a love to overcome hatred.

Siberian Art/adobe stock

Source: Siberian Art/adobe stock

The Study of Love

Although love shapes much of our life, motivation, and decision-making, and although it forms the foundation of ethics in many world religions, it is nevertheless relatively neglected within academic research and scholarship. Pockets of psychology might consider romantic love or parent-child love; philosophers have pondered love’s definition; but, by and large, love does not occupy the same place in academic discourse that it does in our daily lives. We have perhaps partially missed the potential that a fuller study and understanding of love might hold to allow love to overcome hatred and enable the fostering of love to promote human flourishing.

Part of the difficulty of studying love is the diversity of ways that the word “love” is used and the diverse array of things that are sometimes said to be loved: family, friends, food, pets, country, justice, beauty, God, etc. In every case, however, love arguably has either a unitive aspect (our wanting to be with or united to what we love) or a contributory aspect (our wanting to contribute to the good of what is loved). These often co-occur, though sometimes only one or the other aspect of love is present. These different aspects of love, and the diverse range of objects we might love, can make the study of love challenging.

At the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, we have recently released a paper arguing that whenever the verb “love” is used, one or both of these unitive or contributory aspects are in play. Or, more precisely, when the expression “He/she loves . . .” is employed, then “love” is used to indicate either “a disposition toward desiring a perceived good or desiring union with it, either as an end itself or with it being a source of delight in itself” (i.e., unitive love) or “a disposition towards desiring good for a particular object for its own sake” (i.e., contributory love). Love as a disposition is a relatively stable (even if not perfectly uniform) trait, which aims either at union with, or contributing to the good of, the beloved. Some of the complexity of studying love is that either unitive or contributory love may be present without the other. Often in human relationships, however, we expect, desire, and hope for both to be present. We are currently using this characterization of love to try to empower a fuller empirical study of love.

Empirical Assessments of Love

The study of love can and should draw upon the rich theological and philosophical traditions on this topic. However, our understanding of love and of how to promote love can also be advanced by empirical research, and, indeed, there can be a fruitful interchange between these various modes of conceptual and empirical inquiry. While there have been prior proposals to form an empirical epidemiology of love, at least some of the difficulty in implementing this vision has been a lack of coherent, conceptually grounded measures. Now, and in the years ahead, we are hoping to take on this challenge. We have in fact been recently awarded a grant from the John Templeton Foundation on the Construct and Assessment of Interpersonal Love to help carry out this work. We are, and will be, using the characterization of love above—as unitive and contributory love—to develop a series of interrelated measures of interpersonal love including parent-child love, romantic and spousal love, love within friendship, and also love of neighbor, love of stranger, love of enemy, and love of God.

Many of our most important loving relationships occur within the context of family and friendship, and these have and will form an important part of our work. However, we also are seeking to develop assessments for less commonly discussed aspects of love, such as love of neighbor and love of enemy. While these notions are important in various religious traditions, they have received yet less academic and empirical study. However, we believe that these more general forms of love are critical to promoting a more flourishing society.

We hope over time to study how to foster love of neighbor and love of enemy. Over the last couple of years, we have, in fact, completed initial drafts of our assessments for love of neighbor and love of enemy, and have carried out initial pilot data collection and cognitive testing. We are currently in the process of more extensive data collection to allow for fuller psychometric evaluation of these measures, and we would welcome feedback on the measures themselves. However, we are also looking for opportunities to embed these measures in various longitudinal cohort studies to better empower the empirical study of love. If you help manage a cohort study and this might be of interest, please do contact us! The long-term empirical study of human psychology and behavior takes a great deal of planning, and we would like to begin these efforts as soon as possible.

The Promotion of Love

While the empirical study of love may seem to some to be preposterous—an attempt to measure the unmeasurable—arguably more can be accomplished than might be immediately apparent. In fact, we have already been carrying out research in that regard. Our prior research, for example, has indicated that parent-child love powerfully shapes subsequent flourishing, and that parental love is effectively the most impactful among a variety of parenting practices. Our recent randomized trial of a forgiveness workbook intervention may be seen as a powerful approach to restoring love following some offense or hurt. And we currently have other randomized trials underway on promoting character skills for loving relationships within schools. We hope to continue to study how to promote various forms of interpersonal love, and how doing so might contribute to human flourishing.

Relationships Essential Reads

The fostering of love is important in our day-to-day life and relationships. But fostering love is important for our society as well. Families and friendships form the fabric of our social life together. But, additionally, it is also the case that more general forms of love are also needed—a desire to be with and contribute to the good of all people on account of their inherent dignity, value, and humanity. The Jewish Law, the Christian New Testament, and the Quran all allude to, or even command, “love of neighbor,” with the Jewish Law extending this to “stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19), and the New Testament even to “enemy” (Matthew 5:44).

It is not necessarily easy to have or to foster such universal forms of love, but it is worthwhile to consider how we might do so. The future of our society may in large part depend on the extent to which we are able to accomplish this. If we are to counter hatred, to work together across disagreement, and to try to prevent war and conflict, we need to understand and appreciate the inherent value and goodness of all people, including those with whom we are opposed. We need this love within our communities, within our leaders, and within ourselves. Even with such love, the path will not be easy, but understanding the value of each person and being disposed to contribute to their good has the potential to powerfully transform our own lives and our future.

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