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Aug 28, 2023

How the Law of Love Could Govern Our Hatreds

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Diana Fritz Cates

University of Iowa

Diana Fritz Cates is professor of religious ethics at the University of Iowa.

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How the Law of Love Could Govern Our Hatreds

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot  The Solitude  Recollection Of Vigen Limousin  Google Art Project

The Solitude. Recollection of Vigen, Limousin, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1886

Traditions come alive and can remain resilient when we regularly examine and discuss their content. Our task is to think critically and creatively, from one generation to the next, about how this content bears on our personal lives and communities. Ideally, as adherents of traditions, we do more than recite what we have been taught; we understand and mean what we say. We do more than follow rules; we have the wherewithal to make context-sensitive decisions for which we can give good accounts. By fostering active engagement, our traditions can be sites of genuine meaning making and character building.

In this spirit, I engage the Christian ethical tradition on the idea of human dignity and the moral requirement to love and respect humans because of their dignity. Here, dignity refers to a moral status that attaches to our embodied human form—more specifically, to our built-in potential to be subjects of moral experience. Love and respect refer to modes of registering what our shared nature makes it possible for us to be and to do. The notion that humans are equal in this dignity, even though they actualize their potential to different extents, appears to be a modern one shaped by secularization. Yet Christians can find good reasons and resources in their tradition for advancing a religious ethic of equal human dignity. I encourage readers who are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and followers of other religions to discover resources in their traditions for articulating such an ethic, even if they favor other ethical approaches. 

Why an ethic of dignity and why now? Our world is burdened with much hatred, including racial, gender-based, ethnic, political, and religious hatred. It harbors undisguised callousness, cruelty, and neglect. It finds amusement in displays of human denigration and humiliation. Such evils reveal a growing obliviousness to the inherent value of human existence—the spread of a kind of moral and spiritual deadness. It does not suffice that our traditions call on us to love and respect one another. Many of us have only a vague understanding of what love and respect are and what they require of us and we have not yet acquired an experiential knowledge of their proper expression. Where our moral understanding is limited, we tend to conceive of love and respect in ways that accommodate, rather than interrupt and displace, existing patterns of hatred.


When articulating an ethic of equal human dignity, it is common to begin with the concept of respect. I begin, instead, with the principle of love—the religious-moral requirement to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. In the context of this requirement, love refers to benevolence (goodwill) that generally motivates beneficence (beneficial action). Moreover, it refers to a cultivated habit of genuinely wishing others well and reliably acting in ways that protect or enhance their well-being. In the Christian tradition, this habit is often characterized as a virtue.

Loving others does not entail giving them what they mistakenly think will make them happy, wishing that they could do well without also being good, tolerating their hurtful behavior, or otherwise catering to their moral weaknesses. To the contrary, it is a matter of wanting, on principle and as a chosen way of life, that persons actualize a satisfying range of their potential in the direction of their greater moral perfection. Love involves working with passion and patience to create relationships and social structures in which human flourishing, in tandem with ecospheric health, is possible.

In addition to benevolence and beneficence, love includes an appreciation of the human potential for moral subjectivity. We can think of it as a disposition to acknowledge and consent, by the power of our will, to the value of this potential where consent is ideally accompanied by a pleasing emotional resonance. There are, to be sure, circumstances in which it can be difficult for us to recognize the dignity of another’s humanity. Sometimes it appears that a person has so abused their potential that they cannot possibly have any left. Perhaps we know someone, for example, who relishes demeaning or denigrating others and making them feel miserable. When we encounter such a person, we are likely to experience a painful dissonance that can overwhelm any resonance we might otherwise be able to experience in their regard. A limited dissonance can be helpful; it can alert us to danger. Yet it ought to operate in the service of our love for what is good. The experience of being attuned to goodness is foundational for the development of the rest of our moral sensibilities. Past experiences of this ethical-emotional connection serve as touchstones—as indications of where we want always to be able to return.

As Søren Kierkegaard expresses in his extraordinary book, Works of Love, the love command implies a duty to believe in the possibility of goodness for others even when we see no evidence of it in a person’s character or actions, or we see evidence to the contrary. When we choose to believe in another’s potential, we do not ignore its current lack of expression or the harm that the person causes; we are not naive or complacent in evil; we protect ourselves and others. Yet we also do not presume the worst, as if we had sure knowledge of the other’s heart. We refuse to believe that the other is irredeemable because we trust that for God all things are possible. We might struggle with feelings of hatred or anger, but our deeper and best inclination is to lean into the recovery of a conscious sense of the other’s dignity.


The love command requires that we practice benevolence, beneficence, and appreciation toward our neighbor. Normally, neighbor connotes affinity; it refers to someone who lives near us or to members of our cultural or religious group. In the New Testament, however, the neighbor is said also to include strangers and even enemies. One might immediately object: Isn’t it impossible in any meaningful sense to love individuals whom we do not even know and especially individuals or members of groups who have been inhumane to us and our loved ones? Even if it is possible, isn’t it wrong to love what is hateful?

The matter is addressed in Luke 10:25–37, which depicts an expert of Jewish law asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus prompts him to state what is written in the law. The man recites the requirement to love God above all things and his neighbor as himself, and Jesus counsels him to behave accordingly. The man then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” He appears to be looking for reasonable limits or exceptions so that he can justify the fact that he loves some people but not others. By way of an answer, Jesus does what he often did; he tells a parable—a form of indirect communication that has the power to dislodge mental and emotional obstacles that cloud people’s perceptions and limit their ability to grasp moral truths.

Jesus narrates that a man on a journey has been robbed and beaten nearly to death. Three travelers encounter him. The first two, both officials of Jewish law, avoid him and continue on their way. They don’t see the man as a neighbor whom they are obligated to acknowledge, wish well, or assist. The third traveler is a Samaritan—a member of an ethno-religious group that claimed, like the Jews of Jesus’s time, to be descendants of the ancient Israelites. Many Jews—probably including the law expert to whom Jesus tells the story—regarded Samaritans as enemies who were morally inferior. The Samaritan notices the injured man and, moved by his suffering, seeks to alleviate it at considerable cost to himself. Jesus then asks his interlocutor not whether the beaten man was the neighbor of the passersby, such that they were obligated to love him, but rather who among the passersby proved to be a neighbor to the man. The law expert answers correctly that it was the Samaritan, and he is trapped by his answer. As interpreted by Jesus, the moral law demands that we be neighbors to everyone we encounter on our path—that we love all human beings, without exceptions, in the specific sense outlined above and with regard to the essential dignity of their humanity.


Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn 033

The Good Samaritan, Rembrandt, ca. 1633

We live in a world where there is often disagreement, not only about who counts as our neighbor but also about who counts as human. Throughout history, people have rationalized the exclusion of others from the human family. For example, military leaders often persuade their troops to dehumanize their opponents, fearing that otherwise they will lack a sufficiently strong will to kill on command. For many people, it is not hard to call for an exterminator when they believe that vermin have invaded their turf, but it would be hard to snuff out the life of a fellow human being who has a concerned mother, a distant sweetheart, and a story to tell—at least, unless and until they directly threaten our life. Likewise, it is common for people to demonize their political adversaries, characterizing them as lunatics or monsters who are unworthy of anything but fear and disdain.

Whom then do we properly regard as human, and what is the basis of their humanness? Often, human purports to refer to a matter of empirical fact, yet it almost always has a normative dimension. That is, human not only references a set of traits but attaches special value to them. Human refers to a class of beings whose identifying characteristics entitle them to serious moral consideration. The question of who counts as human is thus inseparable from the question of which sorts of beings have preeminent moral value or dignity. 

Traditionally, Christians have said that humans, as a group, are beings created in the image of God. Jesus instructed his followers to look for his face reflected in the face of all who are in need. Christian thinkers have often said more specifically that it is certain intellectual and spiritual powers that make an entity human; it is the presence of a rational soul. A soul is an inner principle that animates a being (causes it to be alive), determines its nature (causes it to be an entity of a particular kind), and thereby potentiates it for a characteristic form of activity. One could say that in this sense all living things have souls. But only humans are said to have rational souls. We have the potential to engage in a range of valuable activities that are not possible for most other forms of life.

In broader cultural contexts, many people have associated that which is human with a certain bodily form, represented in textbooks as a figure with a head, torso, arms, and legs, usually rendered in a standing position. Some people associate what is human with being born of humans, without indicating what makes the biological parents human. Today, there is a tendency to identify human with a particular genetic makeup or genome. Humans are genetically quite similar to other living organisms, as we should expect, given that DNA is the common molecular foundation of all life processes, but humans have a unique genetic signature.

Taken together, bodily shape and function, biological parentage, and genetic composition roughly align with some classical understandings of the rational soul. In the Thomistic tradition, the soul is always part of a soul-body composite. It exists only in potentiality until it animates a material body. Thus, we could say that what makes an entity human is that it has a specific form (a formal cause) that determines its end (its final cause), which is its full actualization or flourishing. Together, form and what becomes informed matter allow for the development of an organism with the sort of mind that makes advanced rational and spiritual operations possible. Note that humans exist and operate only by virtue of the coexistence and cooperation of countless other material forms, including other humans who care for us and teach us a language in which to think, express ourselves, understand the world, and (ideally) pursue knowledge and love of God. We are all embedded in dense webs of causal interaction. We are profoundly interdependent.


There is another feature of the human that the parable of the Good Samaritan highlights. Part of what makes the Samaritan a neighbor is that he is moved by the beaten man’s suffering. He recognizes that he and this man are alike; both have remarkable potential to realize and both have the capacity to suffer greatly in distinctively human ways. He not only understands this point intellectually but also registers it emotionally. Now, the suffering of all sentient beings matters, as does the well-being of the planet and beyond. But humans have reasons to hold that their suffering has relatively greater moral significance than that of beings that do not have rational souls. Human suffering involves mental processes that few other animals are thought to undergo. We worry, for example, about the cause of our particular pain or dysfunction; whether it will get worse; whether our suffering will burden others; what treatments might be available for us; whether we can afford them; who will take care of our child, dog, or plants while we are ill; who will cover for us at work; and so forth. Human suffering is typically marked by existential anxieties about prolonged illness and death, social alienation, helplessness, and loss of meaning. Humans, in short, can suffer spiritual despair. We can also imagine the despair of others and seek to alleviate it for moral reasons. These potentialities set us apart from most other sentient beings.

One can think of compassion as a form of love that we direct toward beings whom we perceive to be suffering. Compassion includes benevolence in the form of wishing that another’s suffering be assuaged—specifically, suffering that is not conducive to their flourishing. Compassion includes choosing to act in ways that promise such assuagement when doing so is consistent with our other moral obligations. It also includes a recognition of the fact that there is disvalue associated with a failure to realize a notable amount of one’s potential and a failure on the part of societies to provide adequate supporting structures. This disvalue rightly evokes our dissent and causes an emotional dissonance. Like love, compassion can also be conceived as a virtue: a stable disposition to encounter other beings in such a way that we are consistently well-moved by their suffering.

Our potential for compassion, along with our related potential for rational thought and moral decision-making, is something we must work hard to actualize. Some people think that, inasmuch as compassion involves passively being moved, it is not subject to the power of our will. Hence, it cannot be required of moral subjects in response to suffering. If this is true, then all the Samaritan was obliged to do when he happened upon the injured stranger was to wish him well and provide reasonable help, perhaps out of a sense of duty. But the Samaritan did more than this, and the parable suggests that this “more” was not only suitable or admirable but also required to fulfill the law of love as conceived by Jesus.

Granted, the Samaritan’s emotional response was spontaneous; yet this very spontaneity reflects the fact that he possessed, as a result of his prior choices, some well-formed emotional habits that disposed him to be moved by the suffering of others. He was a compassionate person. For those of us who do not already possess the virtue of compassion, it can be very hard to cause ourselves through a simple act of will to be emotionally responsive to others’ pain. We can encounter special difficulties when it comes to people who despise us and thus strike us as morally bad. However, most of us can choose to examine our emotional reactions, such as our hatred and anger, as we experience them. We can assess whether these reactions interfere with our ability to experience compassion. We can make choices about whether and how to moderate our emotions in the interest of becoming better people. We can do this best if we are taught how to do it—if we have had the opportunity to engage strong moral traditions that encourage, among other things, the development of emotional self-awareness, intelligence, and resilience. When we repeatedly make use of our powers of thought and imagination to shape our responses to life situations, it becomes easier to engage the humanity of difficult people.


Finally, I want to draw a connection to the idea of respect. Much as love involves benevolence and beneficence, respect involves non-malevolence and non-maleficence—that is, refraining from intending, causing, or permitting wrongful injuries. It also involves securing people’s basic liberties, such as their freedom to enjoy life unburdened by arbitrary acts of violence. Moreover, respect involves encouraging people to make free and responsible decisions—including decisions that discern, express, and uphold the best of their moral traditions. For me, the experience of respect is partly one of feeling humbled in the presence of a remarkable kind of being—standing in awe of the human form and all that it makes possible. This sense of awe or reverence can be aligned with the appreciation that is integral to love of the neighbor and serves as a basis for benevolence and beneficence.

One of the most attractive possibilities of life is communal existence under social and cultural conditions that provide all rational souls with opportunities to think critically and imaginatively about what we believe to be true about the universe; what we take to be possible for ourselves, given our nature and the world in which we live; and what we regard as most worthy of our affirmation and pursuit. Ideally, we would all have the basic goods, wellness, safety, and moral support that would allow us to develop our rare potential for moral agency—whatever specific shape that development might take in a given social context and however limited the development might turn out to be. We ought to do our best to create such conditions for all humans simply because it is good that humans flourish.

In my experience, the consent, resonance, and awe that partly comprise the acknowledgment of human potentiality are of a piece with a general consent to being itself—to the fundamental and final cause of everything. To experience a deep, stirring awareness and appreciation of the unlimited goodness and dignity of the divine, as it is manifest partly in the human form and in the rest of creation, is to thrive as only humans can.


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