Reposting, because I'm discussing this book in my class today. The title has become pleasantly fused in my mind with "The Hazards of Love" from The Decemberists--enjoy!
What a lovely book. The second chapter has a rather compelling objection to the sort of view of the good life that I defend in my book The Weight of Things. I defend what Parfit calls "the objective list view." There are intrinsically good ingredients, like happiness, autonomy, self-expression, morality, etc., that make a life good. Their goodness imbues a life with goodness.
Frankfurt points out that a person needn't care about those things, however intrinsically good they may be. Our lives don't go well unless we care about something, or (he goes further) in fact we love someone or something. It's not just for the pleasure that love is important, but because only with love do we view something as a "final end." That is, we view who and what we love as important for their own sake, and not just for the sake of something else.
Frankfurt takes loving children as the purest form of love. Parents love infants and young children (do my 12 year olds count? yes!) in this sort of ultimate way. Keeping your kids happy and healthy matters for itself, and for no other reason. Thus, it always seems unquestionably worth putting your energy into their well being. You're not pulled between that and other things, not uncertain of the worth of caring for your kids. In fact, he makes a surprising analogy between love and logic. Taking care of children is something we do "of necessity," like we draw a conclusion from a valid argument "of necessity." In both cases, there's an end of ambivalence. What must be thought, said, done, is completely clear.
I'm sticking to my guns and saying that a life cannot go well without the ingredients like happiness, autonomy, self-expression, morality, etc.--none of which are guaranteed just because we love someone or something. But I rather like the idea that love provides momentum.
It really does seem like love for children is in a class by itself. Frankfurt's analysis is required reading for parents who change their lives around to make more time for their children. I think women come under way too much fire for quitting or cutting back on jobs, to give their full attention to young kids. If the love we have for children has such a special quality and significance--and it does!--then why wouldn't it be perfectly rational to clear all the space you can to enjoy that period of your life? It makes sense when mothers do that, and when fathers do too.
Frankfurt only means to offer love for children as the paradigm case. There is also love for other people, things, and activities. That's what he says, anyway. I have a hard time coming up with other examples where love has that clarifying quality--giving unquestionable worth to efforts and activities. If you love playing the violin, or reading, or writing, or fighting for human rights...does any of that create the same feeling of unquestionable worth that caring for your own child does? Is loving the violin really anything like loving your child?
Maybe. I'm not sure. The second chapter of this book is a marvelous paean to the love of children. Whether it really succeeds in making the case that love is fundamental, the driving force in any good life, is something I'm going to have to think more about.