Is there a difference between love and duty? In a sense there is but it’s the same as asking is there a difference between being rational and emotional. We can be rational and make well reasoned choices (at least that’s what we believe) or we can be driven by passion and emotion merely listening to our heart. This is what conventional wisdom would have you believe anyway. In fact, the argument regarding whether or not the passions are served by the mind or the mind by the passions is as old as philosophy itself. Before we answer the question about love and duty I think it’s important to explore this latter question because the first is built upon the last.
The western tradition has always valued reason. Plato believed reason was the pinnacle of human expression and thought it best to rid oneself of the passions as much as possible. In fact in his great work The Republic he demonstrates a philosopher king is the most effective ruler of a nation because the philosopher king rules with pure reason, the very gift of the gods allowing human beings to be most like the divine. The less we’re driven by the passions the more we’re driven by pure reason and able to do what’s best for ourselves and others. Not all philosophers have felt that way. David Hume believed the mind (reason) actually exists to serve the passions. He writes the following, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume believed reason merely discovers ways to achieve whatever ends the passions (today we might say emotions or intuitions) desire. So we find in philosophy these two extreme positions. Platonic thought (as well as other Greek thought) valuing reason at the cost of the emotions and Hume who values emotions much more than reason, at least in regards to primacy of direction. Which is it?
Interestingly, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist wrote a wonderful book called “The Righteous Mind” in which he presents a great number of psychological studies demonstrating we’re more driven by our passions and emotions than reason. In fact he demonstrates we’re awful at reasoning when left to do it alone. We’re better at coming to the truth when we reason in a group but when merely reasoning by ourselves we fall into a number of cognitive traps (I talk about this a great deal when discussing spiritual discernment. You can watch that webinar if you like here). So from a psychological perspective evidence seems to imply we tend to move toward our passions, intuitions, and emotions first and then use reason to justify that movement.
Here’s an even more interesting aspect of the connection between passions and reason. While Plato believed disconnecting your emotions from your reasoning mind would benefit you and the world tremendously most research says otherwise. Mr. Spock was way off base when he tried to ignore the human emotions bubbling up inside him. One key factor connecting almost all sociopaths is that they can reason exceptionally well but have little to no emotional experience around the decisions they make. Their sense of empathy or emotional connection to their life experiences is almost completely gone. Haidt goes through a number of psychological studies demonstrating how ineffective we become (and actually quite immoral) when we disconnect the heart from the head.
How does this relate to duty and love? Well, love impacts the affective element of who we are. It’s our passions, our drives, it’s a human act drawing us toward what is loved. Duty, is a cognitive act in which we decide to fulfill obligations and requirements toward something other than ourselves. It’s our duty to defend our country. We have a duty to give worship to God. These are our obligations brought about by cognitive decisions we make. Yet, if we’re merely fulfilling our duty we might perform acts that in the end are not productive or fruitful. If we disconnect duty from love it can be merely acts of obedience. Acts of obedience can then become unfulfilling and in the end used against us to do immoral things or hurt others. Stanley Milgram did experiments showing that people will administer lethal shocks to others merely because someone in authority convinced them to do so. It was a type of duty (You can see a reproduction of that experiment here if you like) that removed a person’s sense of responsibility for what was happening. They indicated they were “Merely following orders.” Duty without love is a dangerous disposition to maintain just as cognition without emotion can be detrimental for how we act in the world. I once counseled a couple and the wife felt completely emotionally disconnected from her husband. However, he believed it was her duty to make love to him and because she would not do so he believed he had the right to get a divorce. He wanted duty without love, a terrible thing to ask of another person.
If we’re to be dutiful we must foster love for that which we are to serve. Love your God first and then be dutiful to your religious practices. This is how we avoid legalism in religion. Love your neighbor first and then serve his or her needs. That’s the virtue of charity and avoids turning acts of love into acts of condescension toward someone in need. Love your country first and then serve it as a good citizen, that’s true patriotism. Likewise, love your spouse and your children and then dutifully care for them for that’s nothing more than love in action, a wonderful expression of duty done in love.
Duty and love are good when they exist together with love driving us first toward that which we desire and duty guiding the actions we perform in response to that love. If we separate these we take the heart from the mind and become distorted legalistic creatures instead of the wonderful human beings God created us to be.