Unconditional Love

07 May 2015


This week, we  discuss love.  Now we’ve talked about love a number of times before on the show.  We ‘ve done shows on the varieties of love,  on the nature of romantic love, a show called “Love, Poetry and Philosophy”  in which we compared philosophical approaches to love with poetic approaches to love.   All were great shows.   So why do we feel the need to do yet another show about love?  Well, partly because we’re such love obsessed  people, but mainly because it’s a philosophically inexhaustible topic.    Our focus this time will be less on romantic love, than on unconditional love, in all its manifestations – whether between romantic partners, between parents and their children, or between humanitarians and all humankind. 

I should start out by admitting that unconditional love is rare and difficult thing.  Parents may profess to love their children unconditionally.  But how often do children test the limits of parental love?  Couples in the first blush of new love may make dewy-eyed promises to love each other for better or for worse.  But how often do such promises give way to betrayal and recrimination?   Still,  it’s an amazing gift when it does happen.   And  it’s  one that we  all want.  We all want someone who will love us forever, through thick and thin, no matter what we do or become.

Part of me thinks that unconditional love is the highest form of love.  Most religions certainly seem to believe that.  That’s why they attribute unconditional love for all mankind to God.  It’s why Christ commands Christians to love thy neighbor as thyself.     But, of course,  unconditional love is easy for God  -- with his infinite patience and boundless capacity to forgive.   You can’t hurt God – not really.  But humans are vulnerable.  In us, too much hurt, betrayal or disappointment kills even the deepest, most enduring love.

Of course, it’s one thing to focus on the work it takes for us to give or sustain unconditional love.  That’s hard, I admit.  But think about what it’s like to be the recipient of such love.  That seems, at first blush,  to be a really good thing to the recipient of.  Who wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally,  despite all your flaws and failings?

On the other hand, part of me thinks that maybe unconditional love isn’t all its cracked up to be.   Don’t people want to be loved and appreciated for who and what they are?  When somebody loves me unconditionally, doesn’t that mean they don’t care who I am or what I do and they are blind to my particularity?   But isn’t love about delighting in the particularity of the other?

But maybe that’s being too quick to dismiss.    I mean just because you love somebody unconditionally, doesn’t mean you don’t care about what they are or what they do.  Presumably, if you love them,  you want them to be their best self.   You might even hope and believe that your love will help them become that.   The “unconditional” part of unconditional love just means that you won’t withdraw love when things go badly.

Still it seems to me that bad behavior on the part of the beloved  has to have consequences or else the lover becomes a mere patsy.   Think of battered women who won’t give up on their abusive partners.  That is not a model of “unconditional” love, that’s a model of person with a damaged sense of self-worth who is, perhaps, in a state denial,  Even when it is unconditional,  genuine love doesn’t just involve passive acceptance and blind forgiveness.  Unconditional love can be tough and demanding.  When our children do bad things, we punish them.  We give them stern messages.  But we still love them.   In fact, we punish them because we love them.  Unconditional love may be selfless,  but it isn't self destructive. 

What does selfless mean though?   Selfless love is love that never asks what’s in it for me/  Rather,  it  is always asking what’s in it for the beloved.  What do I need to do to make the life of the beloved better, no matter the cost to myself?   Paradoxically, perhaps,  when you love somebody unconditionally, it actually puts you  in a unique position to hold them to  high standards.   That’s because when you love them unconditionally, there is no threat involved in your holding them to such standards – since the very holding is itself rooted in an act of love.  You can think of unconditional love as an offer to the beloved for a precious resource that is used for the good and betterment of the beloved.    

Are  most human beings really capable of the kind of this kind of relentlessly other-directed  selflessness?   For most of us, doesn't the self just get in the way?   Even when we think we’re acting out of selfless devotion, we often have hidden selfish motives.  We sometimes tell ourselves that romantic love is selfless.  But romantic love wants to be reciprocated.   That makes it’s almost the opposite of selfless.   

Still,  I wouldn’t be too quick to underestimate people.  Some people really seem to have an amazing capacity for selfless love.  It is also important to stress, though,  that  unconditional love is a gift, not an entitlement.  Nobody  really deserves our unconditional love.  Nobody has the right to demand that you love them selflessly.   That would be, well,  pretty selfish of them, wouldn't it?   Christ commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves not out of a sense of duty and obligation,  but out of a sense of selfless generosity and charity.

Is this anything more than a nice sounding ideal, that fails to apply to most people, most of the time?  I sure hope so.   I would much rather live in a world in which unconditional love is a concrete reality in many people’s lives than in a world in which it is absent.  When I think about where to locate concrete examples of unconditional love,  I think about  parents and their children.  If we’re going to find real live examples of unconditional love anywhere, parents are a good place to start looking.   Children can put their parents through an awful lot.  But I’d like to think that through it all parental love typically remains entirely undiminished.   Some philosophers have actually argued that parental love is the pureest form of love.  That's because in its healthiest form,  parent love is selfless in the sense I articulated above.  And though parents may love in the hope that their love will one day be reciprocated,  such love begins without even the expectation of the possibility of reciprocation and it will  happily persist undiminished even in the absence of eventual reciprocation.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Comments (19)

Guest's picture


Saturday, September 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The Doctor is correct. And,

The Doctor is correct. And, as a parent, and grandparent, I can honestly say that while we are able to forgive the less than perfect and still love, that it is not unconditional. And Brettjor is also correct, there must be a definition for love...the problem is, that everyone defines it differently. Why? Because everyone has a different Need and a different Perspective. The very need itself, in any definition, defines a condition. When the need is absent, the condition is not met. Also, thank you for posting, Doctor, what I have stated many times with regards to pets. Remove the food, water and shelter and one will find the animal returning to its natural predatory state; therefore, the "love" and the "loyalty" disappear - the conditions not being met. The same applies to mankind. Remove trust, loyalty, honesty, respect, charity or any other of these from the equation or definition and love dies - the conditions are not met.

mirugai's picture


Saturday, May 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM


Early every morning, in the wealthy neighborhood where I rent a house, moms come jogging by with their dog tethered along side as they run. They can often be heard speaking to the dog lovingly.  In the late afternoon, these same moms jog by after work, with the same happy dog in tow, mom conversing in sweet tones, unanswered of course. Mom (usually) picks up the dog poop her friend deposits.
Late every morning, mom?s children are pushed in strollers on the same street, by happy Latinas, chattering away in Spanish. Mom could just as easily be pushing her kids for exercise, but she prefers the company of her dog apparently.
The power of love is felt by everyone, except almost by definition, the sociopath. How is it ?felt?? As an awareness of the wonderful-ness that we have the ability  - the blessed gift ? to give our love to another.  We can only bask in the warmth of another?s love of us because we know what love is as an awareness of something we possess to give. 
Mom loves her dog because she is desperate to have someone in her family love her. So she gives her love to ?her? dog. (Question whether anyone can ?own? an animal?)
Dogs are direct descendants of wolves.  Wolves are vicious hunting and attack animals that fear no other animal because they naturally hunt in a pack.  Wolves instinctively track prey, then run them down and claw and tear the prey apart.
Consider how much modification of a wolf?s instinctive behavior must be accomplished to make the domestic dog into a gentle, ?loving? family member, who we do not fear around tiny children?  Breeding away the instincts of the wolf leaves the dog entirely unable to survive without the help of its master. Dogs are entirely dependent on the master for food, shelter, care ? everything: the dog is completely disabled by the domestication process, and knows one thing for sure: do not displease the master in any way, or else care by the master might go away.
The ?look? in a dog?s face that the master takes to be ?loving,? is really the look of fear and terror over the possibility that the master might discontinue his/her support; but the master only sees ?love? in the dog?s face because that is what he/she wants the look to mean.

Guest's picture


Sunday, May 10, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I find the distinction

I find the distinction between unconditional love and selfless love to be of the most interest here.  It seems that selfless acts of love, and a general selfless disposition with regards to those closest to us is an amazing way to approach a relationship.  While completely unconditional love is not really ideal, as we will always have wants, needs and expectations, a general selfless disposition is.  Of course this can be tempered with straight forward conveyance of our expectations, and signal of disapproval and desire for change when necessary.  
It is very interesting how different unconditional and selfless love is, especially when selfless love can be expressed selectively (I wonder, if it IS selective, is it still selfless?), even though they seem to represent similar ideas.  It is also fascinating that there are so many subsets within the idea of "love".  Even more fascinating that love can be expressed selfishly/selflessly, conditionally/unconditionally...sort of a yin/yang dynamic...hmm

MJA's picture


Tuesday, May 12, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Truth leads to the

utube : "I know something about love"
Truth leads to the unconditional love of One. Oneself, One Universe, One is All. 
Be true, Be One.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I wonder about the potential

I wonder about the potential of unconditional love going too far. At what point does common respect for other human beings override love? Is it right to love someone unconditionally if they are causing the suffering of others? I can imagine this issue arising on a small or large scale: what if your lover is a great partner to you, but is also guilty of despicable crimes? What about the case of fanatical nationalism? I recall seeing trials of murderers where the killers' parents still stand behind them in support. In situations like this, how appropriate is unconditional love? At what point do we draw the line between our loved ones, and humanity as a whole?

Dorje_jeff's picture


Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Love Must be unconditional

Love Must be unconditional otherwise it is desire, attachment, and craving. The discussion demonstrates the relative ignorance of our western philosophy views. Authentic love = I want you to be happy. It is impossible for such an emotion to be conditional. 

John LaMuth's picture

John LaMuth

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Latin translations of the New

Latin translations of the New Testament translate the original Greek agape as caritas, equivalent to the English theme of charity in the King James Edition. Agape originally referred to the Greek word for brotherly love, as opposed to eros (or passionate love): a distinction faithfully preserved in later scriptural contexts.
The New Testament account of charity occurs in Chapter 13 of St. Paul?s First Letter to the Corinthians. Many modern versions of the New Testament prefer to substitute the related theme of love for charity, although this generalization fails to preserve the original distinctions in terms. Semantics aside, St. Paul extols charity as the greatest of the theological virtues, surpassing faith and hope in terms of moral excellence.

Marc Bellario's picture

Marc Bellario

Saturday, May 16, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

" What the world needs, now..

" What the world needs, now.. ". ( Love and concrete ).  As bewildering as the reality
of physical light is to the mind, love is one step ahead of that.  Anyway, it is my
opinion that the oneness which is inherent in the reality of all things is a strong
motivation for love and or compassion.  But it also reflects this issue of the nature
of love, which is enigmatic.  Certainly an anchor point on the journey of life and
can be viewed also as the motive power in creation.  Yet we can also speak
pragmatically of it.  But, does the world need it, now?  I can not deny that.  
Great topic!
From Wikipedia: "In March 1965, DeShannon recorded Burt Bacharach and 
Hal David's "What the World Needs Now Is Love"," ?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Are we gonna next be asking

Are we gonna next be asking what color is our aura? (the answer depends on what kind of LSD you're on)
What is philosophical in the question? Love is a fascination with the conditional. The unconditional version is catechismal. The role of the idea in the historical dialectic is a weird confabulation between Christian faith and the devotion between fighting men in the feudal age. Both forms of "unconditional love" are pathological. The helicopter parent is not devoted, but paranoid, and guilt ridden for the inadequacy of their of understanding, let alone affection, for their child. But of course we put conditions on love, because conditionality is what love is. This is not the end of the story, but until these discussions become philosophical in a fuller sense nothing serious can even get started.

Charles Osborne's picture

Charles Osborne

Sunday, May 24, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think there is only one

I think there is only one kind of love that can be unconditional (and it applies to friends, family, lovers)--Augustine described it as the way God loves, which we are here to learn, and that is to wish for any person that they become righteous. I cannot learn to like horrible people, any more than I can learn to like the smell of rotten meat, but I can wish them to become good (and for Christians this means to be redeemed in joy forever). There could be no greater love than this, even though we might not like the person (and it applies to ourselves as well as to others). In this way I can love terrorists, child molesters, and mass murderers. But I could never enjoy the company of death camp guards, knowing what they did, unless both of us were seriously transformed.
And I think it is all right to apply this to a child or anyone close to us who might turn against us. I am not sure it works without the highest (and eternal) joy attached, though.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, May 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

What the world needs now is..

What the world needs now is......., anonymous devotion?

SarahStewart732's picture


Thursday, May 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Need to focus the right place

Need to focus the right place! usleatherfirm

Or's picture


Monday, June 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

To me, this so-called

To me, this so-called ?unconditional love? is simply an easy way to elude any share of responsibility in the way we shape our world. For example, in speaking about parental unconditional love, there is one example situation where a mother forgives her child, who has just killed an elderly person, and justifies her forgiveness as: ?he is my son and I love him.? Well, yes, he is your son and you love him, and he also killed an innocent? do you love that too? Why should love play any role in this situation in first place? This is not about love. Some see in this mom?s attitude the real thing, the true ?unconditional love,? and accept this mom?s behavior without criticism. My take on this is that unconditional love is a façade that conveniently allows unconditional lovers to not take any sensitive stands, to not face responsibility, to not act or intervene in certain situations. It allows unconditional lovers to become mere spectators and to push away problems or inconveniences. If I am an unconditional lover, why should I bother anyway about anything?
Wouldn?t society be in a better place if instead of rewarding the so-called unconditional love, which really doesn?t serve well lovers or loved ones, it rewarded accountability?

Sara Jones's picture

Sara Jones

Tuesday, August 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

100% of love for your lover/

100% of love for your lover/ or maybe close member of your family or whatever but most used with a lover.
Regardless of how that person treats you, or what they do to you, you love them no matter what. Your love to them is unconditional. Them people who give Unconditional love are the true heroes in this world.
If you want to say "someone do my homework" from now it is easy and convenient

rhoward@assisisoft.com's picture


Wednesday, October 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think love is fundamentally

I think love is fundamentally based on the vulnerability of the giver.  For us to feel loved, the giver must offer a gift or themselves from a place of vulnerability.
Compare love and charity.  If someone offers something from a place of security, we call it charity.  When someone offers something while making themselves vulnerable, we call it love.  For example, feeding the homeless at a soup kitchen we think of charity because we are giving (time, money, clothing, food) but from a place of security (behind the counter, we go home after.  The one who sits down with the homeless, eats with them and gives them their own coat is considered loving.  It is second person's vulnerability that makes the difference to us.  What makes an act of giving and act of love is when the giver gives from a place of vulnerability.
I think this is the essential definition of love.  If a someone gives from a place of vulnerability, we perceive it as love.  The giver must be vulnerable to the receiver for their act to be felt as love.  Thought anyone?

Zeneth Culture's picture

Zeneth Culture

Thursday, December 10, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

In life the many decisions

In life the many decisions you make in simple terms is based on your depth of knowledge of a certain topic.

Guest's picture


Monday, December 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

It is interesting to me to

It is interesting to me to see that this blog continues to have such interesting comments. I am the main person who was interviewed in the original radio broadcast. I continue to explore compassionate love - academically, in books and articles, and personally. I am currently involved in a research project looking at how self-giving love is freely expressed in our ordinary days via a smartphone study...and how it interacts with other things such as stress in our lives, and am writing up the results together with others. More to come.
I also blog on this topic at http://www.lynnunderwood.com/category/compassionate-love/ and you may find some thoughts there of interest for this discussion. This kind of self-giving love is not easy to define, or easy to find.

MPTorres's picture


Tuesday, March 8, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Sir, 

Dear Sir, 
may I respectfully ask you to kindly consider "who' the Lord Christ was addressing when he mentioned the Law (which actually is Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.) That is very important because the Law was not given to make great lovers out of us. The purpose of the Law, including loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, is to show that we are terrible at it. Not only are we terrible at loving God and others, but we have a need to be loved and accepted. More even so, we are terrible at loving God and others, have a need to be love and accepted but only God himself can meet those needs in us.
According to the Word of God (Romans) the Law was given to condemn us, not to liberate us. Instead, it is both God's love and His Spirit that liberates us. If we seek to obey the Law of Sin and Death and try to do what the Law commands, we will find out that the Law actually produces more sin. That is, if the Law says love, we would not love. Therefore, when we live in the pursuit of the Law we are slaves to sin. Meaning, sin is our Master, and if sin is our Master, we wouldn't love because love is not a virtue of the sinful. 
I find it marvelous that you mention "it is important to stress, though,  that  unconditional love is a gift, not an entitlement.  Nobody  really deserves our unconditional love.  Nobody has the right to demand that you love them selflessly." -  That is so true. It is also true that God is not under any obligation to love us unconditionally. Yet, He is the only one capable of such, the only one capable to meet that need in us, and has given us the gift of His love; though we do not deserve it.
So, when Christ spoke about our need to obey the Law, it was not so that we should work harder to become obedient lovers, since that would be in vain. But it was so that we could recognize our need for His forgiveness, His love and His Life; because it is only through those (His forgiveness, His love and His Life) that His love can be manifested in us, both to love Him and others as ourselves.

MPTorres's picture


Tuesday, March 8, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

In my experience, if someone

In my experience, if someone is physically hungry, he/she is not likely attuned with the vulnerability of the giver love. If you are hungry you want to eat. 
I don't care much about about the excessive qualifying in giving. Granted, sometimes you should use wisdom... But, if someone needs and you can give; then, give and go on. If someone needs and you can't give; then, don't give and go on. If there is an opportunity and desire to sit and talk, then sit down and talk. If not, give and go; or, don't give and go. Just treat people with respect and dignity because the homeless person in the kitchen soup is just as vulnerable as the good Samaritan that comes to visit him, if not more.