The Head versus the Heart – Is Love Rational?

In the words of Chris de Burgh, “it’s the classical dilemma, between the head and heart.” The head says one thing, the heart says another. The rational cold objective facts versus passion and senseless emotion. Is love irrational? Is there a necessary conflict between head and heart? I don’t think so.

Food and drink

But, there would seem to be. It’s quite obvious that love can make people do crazy things or act in irrational ways. In fact, on the face of it, there would seem to be an innate conflict in human nature between what we want and what’s best for us. A trivial example is one that I’m all too familiar with: a good curry. I could probably eat curry every day and never get bored with it; I love it. But my rational mind tells me that too much too often of the saturated-fat ridden delicacy is deleterious to my health, and waistline. Is this a conflict between head and heart, or mind and body? Well, instead of curry let’s say it’s something far more pernicious: heroin. In the words of one user it’s “as if you are kissing the creator.” I really can’t imagine how psychologically and physically pleasurable it must be but let’s say that, again in the words of the user: “you will NEVER feel that way again, although you will certainly try.” It’s certain that whilst the body might crave the pleasurable (a perfectly natural desire), not every desire is good for us. And just as we are beings of body and mind, so there are things which are bad for our bodies, our minds, and both. Heroin might feel amazing, but it’s not good for either, if “good” is taken to mean “that which is proper to the life of a rational being” which is how the philosopher Ayn Rand described it. Conversely the bad is “all that which destroys it.

So if we desired heroin, our rationality should win over and say “no”; we’d have to say that the desire is bad. Knowing that, we shouldn’t even want it. I’m not talking about addicts going through withdrawal here, as their rational judgement is indeed comprised, but it’s to illustrate that there’s a reason that the 99.99% of the planet who aren’t addicts aren’t smacking up every day, and it’s not just because the drug is illegal; it’s because most of us realise that it’s not in our selfish best interest to get high, despite any transitory euphoria. So the “conflict” isn’t really a conflict at all.

That might not sound very convincing so far. That might sound like word play, trying to define the contradiction away. ‘The conflict still exists’ some might say. That would be true, if human beings were slaves to emotions and had no way to control them. Fortunately, we do. Ayn Rand saidEmotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.” What this means essentially, and quite elegantly, is that our emotions are properly the results of our actions (or of events, of course). Just because it’s true on principle that pleasure feels good and human beings seek pleasure, it does not therefore follow that we should seek all forms of pleasure, as if the desire for pleasure was a primary. Otherwise we would think ‘I like to feel physical pleasure. Heroin gives physical pleasure. Therefore I should take heroin.’ Of course we want physical pleasure (or any pleasure) but we choose how to obtain it. How do we choose? By reference to our standard of “good” and “bad” of course, as described above: that which is proper to our lives.

To continue the heroin example just a bit longer: as rational beings we have identified this drug as not proper to our lives well-lived. We have programmed our emotions to react accordingly, just as I have programmed myself to not over-indulge on unhealthy food. One of the benefits of forming our value judgements so that they correspond to what is actually proper for us is that we don’t feel guilty when indulging in something we shouldn’t – and for the same reason we don’t indulge in that which will make us feel guilty. For example, we all know the “guilty” pleasure of having a double helping of ice-cream for example, or an extra curry, or another bag of crisps, or one-too-many drinks; we feel guilt, to ourselves, because we are (in an admittedly trivial sense) betraying our principles. We know it’s not good for us, but we’re doing it anyway – we are (again, in a rather trivial example of a much grander principle) acting contrary to our well-being and our lives. But whilst this is a conflict, it’s not a necessary one. Juxtaposed to the guilt, how much better does a “well earned” curry or glass of wine feel when it’s consonant with our life, when it takes its proper place as a treat, something to be savoured in our diet, and not us ‘pigging out’ because we can’t help ourselves? And why does it feel better? Because we’ve programmed (consciously and subconsciously) our emotional response to appreciate pleasure more when it serves our rational interests. That is, emotions should serve us, not the other way around. Or to put it in scientific terms: cause should precede effect.

I don’t think this is anything special or unusual. Most of us do this every day without thinking. For example: the alarm goes off and you’re in bed. It’s cold and dark outside, you’re nice and warm in bed. You’re tired. You’d love an extra hour of sleep. But you have work. The senseless pleasure-only creature would think “stuff work” and turn the alarm off. But no rational person, no matter how tired or comfortable, could possibly enjoy that lie-in knowing they were jeopardising their job (and therefore well-being). To flog this dead horse one more time: a conflict between mind and body, head and start, only exists if one is irrational to begin with. The rational person sees no conflict because his emotions serve him, not the other way around. In fact it’s quite easy to project what would happen to a person who served his or her emotions; living a proper life would be impossible.

Friendship

We will get to love but before then it’s necessary to lay the groundwork for all the elements of it. Let’s take friendship, which also involves a form of love. Friendship is undoubtedly one of the most rational endeavours one could ever engage in. With platonic friendships this seems a no-brainer: no one is friends with someone they hate. Nobody wishes to not be friends with someone they deeply admire. Friendship is probably the best example of the head and heart working together (as they should) because all the psychological and physical benefits we get from friendship are a naturally and rational consequence of the objective and “cold” truth that another human being is a value in our lives. (Friendship is better than family in a sense since we cannot choose our family, which may or may not be a good thing – fortunately for me it is). Friendships don’t happen by accident. They happen because we encounter people who share values with us. The more our values align the easier it is to form bonds, and the more fundamental and life-affirming the values being shared the deeper the friendship. For example, one pair of friends might get on well because they support the same football team, but would their bond be as profound and deep as another pair who are passionate about individualism and human freedom, about life-affirming values as such whether they agree on any particular optional values (like football clubs)? In other words, which bond would be easier (or possible) to break, the former or the latter?

We simply don’t make friends with people we dislike. We don’t like to help them or support them or even associate with them. We get no pleasure from them and might even feel displeasure at the thought of them flourishing. Again, this is a perfectly rational response – the emotion logically flows from the objective value judgement in our head; the head and heart sing from the same hymn sheet. We love our friends and we hate our enemies.

Sex

Before we discuss romantic love, there’s another mind/body issue: sex. Like a good curry, sex is pleasurable. Of course, not everyone likes curry, and not everyone likes the same thing in sex. In the words of Phoebe Buffet “sometimes men love women, sometimes men love men”. It’s obvious that simply say “sex is good” is far too lacking in context: a gay person, although he or she likes sex, doesn’t want it with a member of the opposite sex; they have no desire for that and would gain no pleasure from it. I always find it laughable when people say that “sex is just sex” when even by the loosest of any standards it’s not: there is always a psychological and emotional factor at work, no matter how shallow. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t matter if you were gay or straight, it quite literally wouldn’t matter who the other person was – and obviously this is never the case. And if anyone says ‘I’ll sleep with anyone’ I’d reply ‘so you wouldn’t mind being raped?’ Crude, I know – but it does hammer the point home: sex, like every other ‘physical’ aspect of our emotions is still a programmed response to our values. On a lighter note, one might’ve had the experience to feel a gentle lady run their fingers through your hair only to turn around and realise it was your big hairy male best friend. “Ooh that’s nice that” turns into “get off me you fag!” All in good humour of course. But the point is: our bodies respond to pleasure automatically and naturally – but even then in context. Without giving this blog an adult-rating, I’m sure the reader can discern what I mean when I say that “a good feeling” is a good feeling is a good feeling, right? Well, not quite. We might like something sexual, but not when performed by say, a family member or, depending on your preference, the same sex – even though the physical action would be the same. To illustrate: if a genderless and sexless alien visited earth it might not be able to comprehend that if you enjoy some particular physical contact, why it matters who is causing it! To the alien it might be just as incomprehensible as a human not enjoying a curry just because it’s on a different coloured plate!

Of course, to us humans it does matter, which is the only point I wanted to make: our values are a factor in sex. Even if the values are shallow, poorly chosen, contradictory or ignored, they are present. We can question our motivating factors and values, often rightly so, but very rarely (if ever) will our sexual response be inharmonious with our values.

But this all seems rather tautological doesn’t it? Isn’t this just another way of saying: we don’t want what we don’t want; we don’t desire what we don’t desire; we don’t get turned on by that which doesn’t turn us on? We want what we want and we get turned on by that which turns us on? Hardly a ground-breaking philosophical discussion so far.

But actually, that is my whole point: if our emotional response is programmed by our rational values, if our heart is led by our head and not the other way around, that is indeed the case! It is logical and obvious, and even redundant to say, that we like what is good for us and don’t like what is bad for us (or in a broader ethical sense, that which furthers the life we want to life as we want to live it, or that which does the opposite).

Love

So then why the popular notion that romantic love causes a split between the head and the heart – a conflict between what we want and what is good for us, between the sensible and the crazy? Reflecting on this article so far, assuming we accept the conclusions reached, this notion doesn’t seem to make much sense anymore: this is where the three elements covered so far all come together in harmony: pleasure (psychological and emotional), friendship and sex. If all three are present with romantic love (incidentally when I say sex I don’t necessarily mean the physical act, just as long as there is sexual attraction, otherwise the relationship is indistinguishable from friendship), and we’ve seen that all three as emotional responses are logical results of our rational values, why should it be any different when they’re all together with someone you’re in love with? In other words, is there a necessary conflict between the head and heart where being in love is concerned? Clearly, no.

Why then does it seem this way a lot of time? The answer, or at least my answer, goes back to what I said above and is based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand: if there is a conflict it’s because one is putting the heart above the head; trying to serve emotions or chase consequences instead of acting rationally to achieve values. To be sure, achieving values (like love) gives emotional pleasure, our body’s “success” response. But it doesn’t mean that one can “shortcut” their way to success without going through the rational steps. Actually, this is precisely what “whim worshipping” and emotion-chasing is: trying to cheat your way to the finish line without running the race; pretending that if one can only feel good it doesn’t matter how or why. As we saw above, of course these conflicts exist, but are they necessary – does it have to be this way? Definitely not.

There are physical factors at work with love. It’s well documented that being in love produces hormones and endorphins that cause a “high”. These feelings can be profound and can cloud judgement, especially in the young who might be overcome for the first time and have a ‘brain overload’. Only recently I heard the story of a friend of a friend who killed herself because her boyfriend finished her. I don’t think we can totally blame love for this but it does show how crazy it can make people act. Like an addict chasing a high, someone in love might act rather odd or lose inhibitions or their sense of judgement. As the Merovingian from the Matrix says: “it is curious how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.” Whether this is true or not is open to opinion and it depends on the context: as I’ve said if one listens to the ‘senseless’ heart and ignores the rational, that is almost by definition insane. But not every apparently “crazy” act might really be crazy: someone in love might be acting very logically and rationally to pursue that value: their actions are consistent with their rational objectives; to them it does make sense. For example, throwing oneself in front of a train would be considered mad, but we might not think so if that action saved a lover’s life. And to those who suggest that giving up one’s life for a lover is an act of emotion, not reason, well that person has very sadly missed the point. Pursuing love is totally a rational course of action: it’s the attempt to gain or keep a value – and who in their right mind would suggest it’s rational to NOT pursue values?! (By extension: who would throw themselves in front of a vehicle to save a stranger but NOT to save their lover?) (Incidentally, in that scene from the Matrix Trinity is prepared to die killing all her enemies because of her love for Neo. That sounds perfectly rational to me.)

So if our emotions and psychological measures of “success” or “failure” are the result of the values we hold and if our values are harmonious with our life then our emotions will respond accordingly. As I said above, we already do this most of the time anyway. This proves that a conflict between our head and our hearts doesn’t have to be; it is not fate, bad luck or some unavoidable incomprehensible existential labyrinth which manifests itself with that “lost” feeling I’m sure all of us experience at one point in life.

So is love rational? Yes. If one defines what love is, why it is, and how we respond to it – it is almost rational by definition. In fact, it is frankly ludicrous to suggest otherwise. Show me someone to whom, in Ayn Rand’s wordsit makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut.” The person you want to fall in love with should be your ideal of what a human being should be. Who on earth would seek out the most despicable dishonest cruel careless lazy cowardly thug and fall in love with them? And what could we say about the values of the person who wanted to find such a person? Would we call them life-affirming?

The emotions of love are so powerful because they are the highest possible response to the deepest and most fundamental values in life. Just as one feels more heartache when one loses a spouse or parent to death than say, a dog – so the emotional “success” rating in our souls (a term to nicely encapsulate the human essence as a being of body and mind, not one or the other), is at its highest or lowest when the core of our being is at stake – and since with love it is that very thing we expose and invest in another person, the intense emotions in play are perfectly natural and understandable. In fact, it would be irrational if they weren’t! It would be crazy to not expect them to be as strong and compelling given the values involved. It would be like shrugging off the death of a parent but having your heart smashed over discovering a dead goldfish. Surely that would be a disparity between value and response!

To love that much means to invest that much and feel as much. So again, is this a conflict between reason and emotion, between the head and the heart? It can’t be. I’ll let Ayn Rand have the last word:

“Love is a response to values. It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love—with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul—the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness. It is one’s own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one’s own basic values in the person of another. It is not a matter of professed convictions (though these are not irrelevant); it is a matter of much more profound, conscious and subconscious harmony.”

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