The Fifth Life Principle: Be Loving

Treating ourselves with respect is one of the most important ways we can express love and compassion in our lives

Thus far in our exploration of the five fundamental ethical or "life" principles, we have looked at Do No Harm, Make Things Better, and Respect Others, and one aspect of the fourth principle, Be Fair. We now turn to the fifth and final principle: Be Loving.

The fifth and final Life Principle is rarely found in traditional books on ethics. In those, you will see plenty of discussion of rights and responsibilities, of justice and fairness, of duties to keep one's promises and avoiding harming others. Indeed, the Life Principles of Do No Harm, Make Things Better, Respect Others, and Be Fair are the foundation of any and all moral systems, and they are found in every religion and culture that has ever existed or is likely to exist. We cannot imagine a society that did not place these notions front and center, whether codified in the law or taught by parents and in Sunday school. But if the moral life were made up only of allegiance to these principles, it would be a pretty barren one indeed.

Where Life Principles 1-4 are obligatory, Life Principle No. 5, Be Loving, might best be considered "above and beyond the call of duty." To be loving to one's neighbor is an ideal to which we should aspire, yet if we fail to act lovingly to those with whom we come into contact, we can hardly be considered unethical (unless your job is to love people, which raises ethical and legal questions of its own, at least outside of the state of Nevada).

Can we be faulted by failing to prevent harm to others when doing so would take little effort? Yes; Life Principle No. 1 requires this of us. If a friend of yours has just lost her mother, Life Principle No. 2 asks that you console your friend, even if it is uncomfortable for you to do so. If you pass along a rumor you have heard about a neighbor, you have violated Life Principle No. 3. If you fire an employee for not doing her job well but give another employee a pass for the same behavior just because the second employee happens to be the daughter of a close friend, you are compromising Life Principle No. 4.

But it seems a stretch to suggest that we err by not loving the annoying co-worker, the crazy driver who cuts us off on the highway, or the lazy clerk at the grocery store. That is, we might choose to take the high road here, but can we rightly say that it is our ethical obligation to do so? Whether it is our duty to be loving to all with whom we come into contact, or whether love is above and beyond the call of duty, I will hereby make a case for a fifth Life Principle that asks us to treat others with kindness, care, and compassion—that is, with love.

What's Love Got to Do with It?

Popular songs largely concern love, but that's love of a very specific kind: that between romantic partners. We see a similar obsession in popular movies, magazines, books, and television shows. What's more, American popular culture has become one of our most widely exported commodities. Travel anywhere in the world and you will hear many of the same songs, see many of the same movies and TV programs, and read many of the same romance novels that you find at home. It is difficult to grow up anywhere in the world and not believe that "love" means "a burning desire to be linked forever with another person."

It was not always this way.

There were four words for "love" in ancient Greek:

1) Eros, from which we get "erotic," and which gives rise to most of what pop songs are about

2) Storge, or love between parent and child

3) Agape, or Godly love

4) Philos, the love of, well, everything else

"Philos" is the root of such words as philosophy (the love of wisdom), philology (the love of words), and philanthropy (literally, the love of people). Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, takes its name from this Greek root, and the great philharmonic orchestras are so named because they are "lovers of harmony." Bibliophiles love books, cinephiles love movies, and audiophiles are passionately devoted to the best reproductions of music. There are as many different kinds of love as there are things to be loved.

Love and Respect: A Deep Connection

In my view, the most perceptive analysis of love is that offered by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving. For Fromm, love involves not sacrificing ourselves for someone else or demanding that the other gives selflessly to us. Rather, the goal is to create an environment in which each person in the relationship can be the best he or she can be:

Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere equals to look at), the ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me. If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use.

It is no accident that this description of love draws on Life Principle No. 3, for it is impossible to imagine a loving relationship that is not based on mutual respect. Thus, a full account of Life Principle No. 5 will show that treating ourselves with respect is one of the most important ways we can express love and compassion in our lives.

Love Yourself First

In discussing how she has learned to manage her fluctuating weight, Oprah Winfrey said, "I wasn't able to get my weight under control until I began to treat myself the way I treat others." Ethics, as we have noted, is about taking the rights and well-being of others as least as seriously as we take our own interests. Oprah's statement, however, reveals that many of us, perhaps women in particular, often value other people more than we value ourselves. The love of others must begin with the love of self. And look at all the ways in which we show a lack of love for ourselves:

•We choose food for ourselves that we know isn't good for us.

•We choose boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives, lovers or "soul mates" we wouldn't wish on our worst enemy.

•We allow clutter to accumulate in our living or work space.

•We fail to exercise, in spite of knowing that exercise is essential for maintaining physical and mental health (or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we push ourselves to the extreme).

•We engage in negative self-talk throughout the day, when we never talk to our friends or family this way.

•We obsess over what we should have done or fantasize about what we'd like to achieve while doubting we could ever get there.

In short, we fail to love ourselves. And that's not just unfortunate. It's unethical. Ethics is not solely about our relationships with lovers, bosses, assistants, and the community at large. It is also about our relationship to ourselves, not just because we cannot benefit others if we don't take care of ourselves, but because we owe it to ourselves to treat ourselves with respect.

The best way to apply Life Principle No. 5 is to keep Life Principles Nos. 1-4 in mind at all times and apply them to our own life. When we play in our minds that endless tape loop of negative self-talk, we violate Life Principle No. 1: Do No Harm. It harms our soul to speak poorly of ourselves. When we choose a steady diet of junk food over healthful meals, we violate Life Principle No. 2, Make Things Better. The scope of "things" should not be limited to those persons, places, and inanimate objects outside of us. When we dishonor our conscience, say by keeping quiet when we know we should speak out, we violate Life Principle No. 3: Respect Others.

Since we have the same intrinsic value that others do, it is unfair, and thus a violation of Life Principle No. 4, to deny ourselves that to which we are entitled. Consider the ways in which you can apply Life Principle No. 5 more consistently in your professional and personal life. How might doing so enrich the lives of others…and your own life as well?

For his analysis of the first four life principles, the author is indebted to Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress's Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).