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Credit: Jo Xiang

Are you part of the inglorious 60% of American adults who believe in soulmates? Or do you, perhaps, entertain the idea that what people call love is "just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed"? The electrified dance between mysticism and scientific materialist reductionism has left but one actor agonized in boredom: It’s time for a philosophy dance.

Approximating our intuition, Robert Nozick perceived love as a distinct conjunction of the lovers’ sense of well-being with one another. Through love, you create a shared and unique bond; you experience your partner’s flourishing and hurt as your own. Alexander Nehamas described friendship love as an experience that is a lot closer to our aesthetic experience of beauty. We love as a consequence of observing dissimilarity and express love through partial and differential treatment. Thinking of love within the framework of art also demonstrated the lack of agency that is characteristic of both love and art — when you see a beautiful painting you find yourself gravitating towards it without much of your own volition. 

I believe that love is fundamentally a perception of value. As Jacques Lacan wrote, “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you — the object petit a — I mutilate you.” Lacan was describing the process by which the declaration of love is indicative of the objectification of the lover — we love our partner because of attributes (honesty, beauty, etc.) that we perceive as valuable. This perception of value, however, is reductive because it does not capture the wholeness and complexity of our lover. Instead, our gravitation toward them is guided, in part, in a self-motivated way. Love initiates a process by which your lover’s personhood transforms into your object of desire. 

Lacan famously believed that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. In sex, as also Alain Badiou’s interpretation suggests, each individual is to a large extent on their own. Lacan considered that the other’s body must be mediated but the pleasure will always be your pleasure. Sex does not unite — it separates. He regarded the fact that you are naked and pressing against the other as an image, a representation. What is real, he asserted, is that pleasure takes you a long way and tremendously far from the other. What is real is narcissistic; what binds is imaginary. According to this view, the strictly sexual is narcissistic, and as such, there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Love, then, is that which binds and fills the absence of the sexual (and makes it a relationship). 

A task easier than explaining “What is love?” may consist in answering the question of “what love is not” or even, “What is untrue love?” Our experience may prepare us better for this kind of question, knowing the typical disappointments with all everyday imperfect instantiations of love. Here, I would like to be more radical and assert that most of your experiences with love in your life, and especially at Penn, can be described as relations of mutually beneficial consensual exploitation. If you have been lucky enough to find true love (and here I am arrogant enough to include myself), I congratulate you. The rest of this column, however, is not for you.

In the philosophical literature on coercion, there’s a lot of interest in relations that seem mutually beneficial and consensual but are exploitative. As an illustration, think of large corporations that outsource their production overseas to a distinctively poor country. The companies then proceed to pay their workers a wage that is below the living standard. The workers may prefer a suboptimal wage to the alternative of no pay, an even lower pay, or a comparatively riskier job. However, despite being arguably mutually beneficial and consensual, this is still an exploitative relationship. This is best indicated by the fact that had the workers had greater bargaining power in the international labor market, they would have never agreed to the current terms of the relationship. I believe that if we understand love as a relation (comprised of inner relations of power), we can easily see how love is a prime example of the above. 

We do not fall in love in a vacuum — that is to say, love flourishes through a set of unequal initial conditions. Those conditions may include socioeconomic status, attractiveness, social norms about romantic partnership, and willingness to walk away — all of which determine power relations. As such, oftentimes one finds themselves in a love relationship characterized by a great imbalance in the distribution of power. More often than not, one may be part of the relationship as a result of scarcity. They still prefer the outcome to the alternative of being alone, the risk associated with the prospect of pursuing another lover, or the social cost of a life in solitude. Despite being consensual and beneficial, had they had greater market power, they would not have agreed to the current terms of the relationship. This model encapsulates even relatively healthy expressions of love within relationships. However, a love of this kind fails to live up to the truer, completely satisfactory, understanding of love. For one, true love could not be exploitative. More particularly, true love is unconditional love and could not be contingent on the mere distribution of power within the relationship. 

Moreover, intimacy can be coercive in yet another way: It is a lot easier to refuse an undesirable offer from a stranger than from your lover. This effect is exacerbated by uneven power relations. In the context of intimate relationships, we may feel coerced by intimacy and thus become unable to give genuine consent (refusal) when sexually objectified.

With over 70% of its students in the top two quintiles of household income and 5% in the second-lowest quintiles, Penn severely lacks socioeconomic diversity. With such a strong economic discrepancy, a lot of students are significantly more economically vulnerable than others. As such, there is a non-negligible chance of (implicit) exploitation manifested through the intimacy of love. 

With the socioeconomic division in mind, the prominence of hookup culture (that separates and lacks the love that binds), and the fact that you are more likely to find a talking squirrel on campus than someone who can cite even a line from Socrates’ speech on love in Plato’s "Symposium," Penn may introduce its new slogan: “The place where true eros comes to die.”

ARTUR VLLAHIU is a College sophomore studying philosophy from Kosovo. His email is