Being big on evolutionary psychology, you have to ask what is love designed to do? It is designed to take individuals and organize them into a ‘superself’ with the same agenda and goals. But much of it is limited to your genetic relatives and members of your social unit. For the most part, we love people who are related to us or useful to us (by doing nice things for us and/or being a constructive part of a social unit we are dependent on). We are indifferent to everyone else and we actively hate those who are threats to us.
If Steve has brotherly love for Michael, a superself of Steve-Michael is created. Michael’s pain becomes Steve’s pain (and Steve looks for ways to relieve the pain). Michael’s joy become’s Steve’s joy. The barriers of individuality and independence are broken down and superselfs (I made up the term superself, yeah I’m awesome like that) are created. Pain and Joy mesh. I felt pain on 9/11 because I am an American and member of the human race. I was happy when the monks marched on Myanmar and the green revolution voters marched in Iran. I have friends who I have seen their faces light up when I gave them good news about my life. The pain and pleasure I feel is felt by others, and their pain/pleasure is felt by me. And people celebrate together and help each other out.
Erich Fromm wrote a book called ‘the art of loving’ that is really good. He talks about how mature responsible love requires 4 factors.
Understanding - Knowing the other person’s feelings, needs, goals and motivations
Care - Caring about their feelings & goals.
Responsibility - Feeling obliged to help when they are down, and celebrate when they are up
Respect - Realizing they are their own individual, and not a tool for you to use to fulfill your own desires
He claims mature love is designed to help us fight the isolation that comes from being a solitary individual in a world that is dangerous and unpredictable.
However according to Fromm, you have to be whole and complete in yourself before you can have mature love. Anyone who approaches love with the assumption that they are missing something, and that someone else has the power to give it to them is bound to run into problems. So you really can’t (in my view) offer love to others that you have trouble giving to yourself. And I think you have trouble accepting love from others that you will not give to yourself.
I tend to think of unconditional love more as a form of love where your biggest concern is the psychological well being of another person. ie, if they lose status or become a nuisance, you may not like them as much but your big concern relative to them is their happiness and peace of mind (this ties into Fromm’s concept of respect). Another person is not a hot piece of ass or an individual with high social status if you have mature love for them. They are a person with feelings and needs. If you embarrass yourself and you have 2 friends, one may respond by caring that you feel ashamed and isolated. Another may lose interest since you’ve lost social status. Things like that are what I think of as unconditional love, just an awareness that another person has their own mind and feelings (respect and understanding), caring about those feelings (care), and feeling obliged to stick by them and help them out (responsibility).
If you take Fromm’s 4 factors, and subtract one but keep the others you have problems. I tend to think there are more factors than Fromm’s 4 (I think competence should be a factor. Love is virtually meaningless if you can’t find a constructive outlet for it).
Buddhists tend to prefer the term ‘compassion’ over ‘love’ since love has mostly evolved to describe co-dependent romantic relationships whereas from the perspective of Buddhists (I’m assuming) true love is a compassionate awareness directed at self and others. And Buddhists tend to think that having compassion for yourself is where you need to start. In fact I’ve heard more than 1 Buddhist thinker say the best way to be a positive influence in the world isn’t to go out and solve all the worlds problems, it is to have as much compassion for yourself as possible and focus on your own quality of life. Doing so subtly shifts how you relate to the world which has endless benefits to other people which may not be noticeable at first, but over time do add up. You naturally lift other people up more and tear them down less if you have compassion and love for yourself.
Oddly, that does sound somewhat similar to Objectivism (focus on your own wholeness, completeness and quality of life, and your personality will shift and make other people’s lives easier too).