The terms and conditions for caring.

Between love and freedom is something called conditionality. Conditionality means doing something, but only on some conditions, some criteria to be fulfilled.

I can think of two types of events – incidents one sometimes reads about – that illustrate this relationship between loving and freedom.

The first – the practice of ‘honour’ killing. It’s the archetype of ‘conditional love’. You would presume a parent loves their kid. How then does one come to kill her (it’s usually a her)? It’s because they’ll love their kid under certain conditions – love her conditionally, so long as she fulfils certain conditions. One of those conditions being to refrain from loving someone they don’t want her to.

Any conditionality is a loss of a certain freedom – thus the conflict between love and freedom. You’re loved as long as you do X, or refrain from doing Y. Basically, as long as you live within a prescribed circle and don’t step out of it.

Is that love, or control? A way to control a person, telling them they ought to do what you want if they love you. And since you supposedly love them, they should love you (lest they be ungrateful), and thus they ought to do what you want. Ignoring that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – by the same logic, if you loved someone you would do what they wanted, which is presumably not coercing them into doing something they wouldn’t want.

The conditionality is particularly insidious if the affection is genuine. This is when a person does everything they can for someone, but expects that person, in return for this unasked for gift, to live by their conditions. The price of such affection is freedom. A conditional love is one that suffocates the loved one.

It’s easy to ignore or defy a stranger, easier still an ill-wisher, but someone who ostensibly loves you, whom you wouldn’t want to hurt, is much more difficult. You need to live with – or at least overcome – the guilt of spurning one who claims to have your best interests at heart. And they in turn always have the impenetrable defence of merely wanting what is best for you, never mind that one might prefer being wrong one’s own way to being right someone else’s way. It’s simple to know what to make of an enemy; its much harder to know what to feel towards one who stifles you with their conditional love.


But does that mean genuine love is about unconditionality, about absolute freedom? I think not.

There’s another type of incident you sometimes read about – the archetype of near unconditional love. Someone who commits a heinous crime – a terrorist, a rapist, a murderer – even after their deed, their parents and spouses and children still love them. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one sin needn’t make a sinner (though one murder does make a murderer, one terror attack a terrorist, one rape a rapist), so perhaps one deed might not wipe out everything a person has done before, but that’s not my point here.

The point is unconditionality, that you still love someone despite what they’ve done, and probably will continue to love them regardless of what they do in future. It seems admirable, that you care about someone so much you want them to be free, unchained by the burden of your expectations from them.

But is such unconditionality possible? I think not; even a parent’s love is conditioned by the presence of their genes. How many would love a kid identical to theirs but born to someone else? And one can’t possibly foresee every eventuality. To bind yourself to unconditional commitment, in the face of what you might never have imagined, is no different from the fanaticism of dogmatists. Both sacrifice their innate wisdom to respond to circumstances in favour of blind adherence to a preconceived notion.

Even were such unconditionality possible, I doubt it’s actually desirable. Approaching unconditionality is the path to abuse, degradation, exploitation and violence; it’s most common manifestation perhaps a woman remaining and putting up with an abusive husband (though no alternative options is a factor).

To take an extreme example (at the risk of validating Godwin’s law), I wonder whether Hitler or Pol Pot’s parents, were they alive, would feel the same towards their progeny even after their infamous deeds. Such an extreme instance perhaps shows that in reality love isn’t absolutely unconditional. There’s probably a breaking point much before this extreme is reached, which goes to show that you wouldn’t condone absolutely anything. So there are some ‘conditions’ – even if not explicit – because there does exist a point after which love is extinguished.

The other extreme, that of completely conditional love, is that of a kindly master to a slave or plow animal. You might take care of it, feed it, look after it, perhaps even think you like it, but it all hinges on the condition that it performs its tasks efficiently; failing that, nothing else matters. Or a domesticated pet, that wins shelter and love and meals, but pays for it with the price of freedom.

Both extremes are, I think, untenable, and the optimum is somewhere between the endpoints.

Conditionality and Caring

Simplistically, it seems that the relationship between love and conditionality is one-way. That if you care about someone, you would wish to provide them a degree of unconditionality. Which means not encroaching on their freedom – by refraining from coercing them. And also trusting them, by believing they’re capable of exercising that freedom without your kindly, well-meaning interference. So one might think that someone who cares about you would want you to be free, unburdened by feeling that you need to live up to their expectations. In that sense, the two appear diametrically opposed.

But it cuts another way; it’s not simply that conditionality implies selfishness and real caring requires unconditionality. Love and conditionality are also complementary, in that conditionality often indicates caring. Only someone who cares about you would burden themselves with expectations from you; the rest literally wouldn’t care what you did. Perhaps the reason they want something of you – to do or refrain from doing something – is because they care about you, and think that’s best for you (of course, some don’t, and just want control).

This isn’t to say that conditionality is ‘good’, that people who try to pin conditions on you always want the best for you, or even know what’s best for you. Nor do you have an obligation to live up to their conditions. Only that someone who bothers to expect something from you is not indifferent to you.

Absolute conditionality is despotism, either a severe, oppressive one or a cloying, suffocating well-meaning one. Absolute unconditionality is either utter indifference or deep affection, caring about someone without wanting anything at all from them. You don’t find either in their pure isolated form, but you do find different proportions in any association.

Each of the two absolutes has two differing explanations – exactly opposite ones, either too much affection or too little. Excessive conditionality, burdensome as it is, might be a form of affection, and excessive unconditionality, rather than liberalism, could be indifference – or the exact opposite in both cases. It’s the underlying causes that tell you what’s beneath them.