The possibility of fitting love: irreplaceability and selectivity


The question whether there are reasons for loving particular individuals (and not others), and what such reasons might be, has been subject to scrutiny in recent years. On one view, reasons for loving particular individuals (or, alternatively, what makes loving them fitting) are some of their qualities. A problem with crude versions of this view, however, is that they both construe individuals as replaceable in a problematic way and fail to do justice to the selectivity of love. On another view, by contrast, reasons for loving particular individuals have to do with our relationship with them. Even if it might accommodate the selectivity of love, the view—like crude quality views—ultimately faces worries stemming from replaceability. I argue for a view which combines the two views in a way that accommodates both the irreplaceable aspect under which individuals are loved and the fact that love is a selective response to them. On my view, reasons for loving particular individuals are some of their qualities as manifested in the context of a relationship with one. After spelling out the view, I discuss an important challenge facing it: what’s so special about actually being in touch—via a relationship—with certain qualities of an individual that would explain why we have special reasons to love them in particular? I consider inadequate answers to this question before putting forward my own.

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  1. 1.

    Certainly, this may be relativized to individuals (or groups of individuals). It may turn out that, e.g., rocks are a fitting target of love for a certain kind of person. This would in turn enable us to include rocks among the class of lovable things (see below). In addition, I am not unsympathetic to the claim that some inanimate objects—e.g., works of art, the environment—are lovable in a non-relativized way. That said, the discussion in the text is mainly focused on what many take to be the most paradigmatic form of love, namely love for individuals (in particular humans and some non-human animals), leaving it open how precisely it might be adapted to apply to other cases. Thanks to a reviewer for prompting me to reflect on the scope of my discussion.

  2. 2.

    Of course, there might be reasons to be afraid of cliffs in general, but this might simply mean that, if one were facing a cliff, one would have a reason to be afraid.

  3. 3.

    As observed in Ft.1, there is room for claiming that some inanimate objects are lovable in a general, ‘type’ sense, where their lovable character might in turn be relativized to certain kinds of individuals.

  4. 4.

    To be sure, it shouldn’t be assumed from the outset that some sort of proximity will be the decisive factor in turning a lovable individual into someone it is fitting for one to love. The point in the text is simply that there should be a story about how one’s normative situation must change in order for one to come to fittingly love an independently lovable individual (just like one’s normative situation must change in order for one to come to fittingly fear an independently dangerous place). This is quite compatible with the claim that no physical interaction is in fact required for fitting love. It will be clear however that mere knowledge of an individual’s qualities is insufficient for one’s love for them to be fitting (and in this respect might be unlike some emotions, like sadness in response to human catastrophes in far-away places, that may be fittingly felt as a result of a simple realization of the existence of their object).

  5. 5.

    One might wonder what sort of scenario is being considered here. Surely, it is typically not impossible to love two individuals at once. Kolodny (2003, p. 141) provides two possible situations of the sort that get the puzzle about replaceability off the ground: (1) some kinds of love (e.g., romantic love) might by their nature be exclusive; (2) one fails to have the emotional resources to love both the original individual and the new rival. In any case, given that the so-called trading up problem is often proposed in the context of defending the view that there are no reasons for love (of the relevant kind), I am happy to grant its force to my opponent. Its usefulness, I think, consists in the fact that it brings out an important constraint on an adequate account of reasons for love (see below).

  6. 6.

    Thanks to a reviewer for pointing this out, and for prompting me to take more seriously issues relating to irreplaceability.

  7. 7.

    What is involved precisely in treating something or someone as irreplaceable is a matter of debate on which I would like to remain neutral. For my purposes, it is enough to say that love involves this kind of treatment. The question I will be concerned with is what properties of the beloved could make it fitting to treat someone in this way (whatever that precisely involves).

  8. 8.

    Jollimore calls this the ‘promiscuity’ problem (Jollimore 2011, p. 16). I should say that I am not suggesting that any mental state that is formed in a non-selective way is promiscuous or shallow. Respect, for instance, may be formed like this, but it is not thereby shallow. I am simply suggesting that love is the sort of thing that, when formed in a way that is not reasonably selective, is objectionably shallow. That said, I am open to the possibility of a non-selective form of love—such as agapic love or Platonic love—that might be fittingly felt towards mere strangers. This form of love, however, is crucially different from the form of love at issue in the text. Another possibility is that agapic love is an ideal aiming at achieving a deep form of love of the sort we have with intimates, i.e. of a particuliaristic or personal kind. Thanks to a reviewer for drawing my attention to the possibility of alternative forms of love.

  9. 9.

    This might have to be qualified if we allow for degrees of love, plausibly characterized in terms of varying depths or strengths. Maybe the selectivity of love is a matter of the inappropriate extension of one’s deep love for one’s beloved to a stranger one knows to be wonderful. And it seems plausible that loving a stranger the exact same way you love your best friend would be inappropriate. This is compatible however with claiming that forming a loving attitude of a less deep sort would be fitting. It may indeed be the case that, if I come to know that someone is a perfect replica of my beloved, coming to feel something for her—which would fall short of the depth of the love I have for my beloved—would be justified (though there might be considerations independent of fit—e.g., having to do with loyalty to the original—that might militate against expansion even in this limited sense). Whether or not this qualification is accepted should not affect the gist of the view I will be developing in later sections. Thanks to a reviewer for discussion on this issue.

  10. 10.

    At least intrinsic qualities. A quality theorist might allow certain relational qualities to make a normative difference, but this possibility should be spelled out in such a way that avoids the problem facing the relationship view below. My own view—to be explained below—might be seen as a quality view that incorporates relational properties in its story, though it does not claim that such properties are justifying.

  11. 11.

    One might worry that Kolodny’s suggestion that only good relationships make love fitting does not do justice to the love we feel for family members—such as a parent or a sibling—with whom we may not have a particularly good relationship. In such cases, it might seem like a stretch to say that one’s love for one’s brother is ‘inappropriate’ even if one’s relationship with him is relatively nasty. There is indeed something quite intelligible about loving our family members unconditionally. In light of this, one might resist the restriction on good relationships to accommodate such cases. The resulting picture would be that relationships make love fitting regardless of their value. This, however, is something Kolodny is unlikely to accept in the case of romantic love, as he goes at pains to accommodate intuitions regarding instances of it whose inappropriate stems from bad features of the relevant relationship. If we no longer appeal to the value of relationships, furthermore, we seem to lose our grip on why it might be fitting to love certain individuals and unfitting to love others; why should a very bad relationship with X gives me a reason to love X as opposed to loving Y, with whom I am not in a relationship at all? In fact, appealing to the apparent unconditional nature of the love felt towards family members is a central way to defend skepticism about reasons for love in the first place (Frankfurt 2004). If there is nothing valuable about my relationship with X, then it isn’t clear how we could reasonably claim that my love is justified by it as opposed to a mere condition outside the purview of reasons. Dealing with such a problem case is outside the purview of this paper—as it is a problem for everyone who takes love to have conditions of appropriateness or fittingness—but one concessive possibility would be to restrict the discussion to romantic and other forms of love (such as friendship) that are ‘optional’ in the sense that family bonds aren’t (for a similar move, see Abramson and Leite 2011). My suspicion, however, is that relationships per se may sometimes give (non-derivative) reasons of partiality—such as mere care giving—other than love, and that if love is a necessary means to—or background condition of—such partiality, then relationships may provide reasons for love derivatively. But since these reasons have nothing to do with the prior lovability of the relevant individual, they seem independent of reasons of fit. For a thorough discussion of cases of love—such as love of family—whose fittingness does not seem to stem from the value of relationships, see Kolodny (2010a, b).

  12. 12.

    For the distinction between facts that favor an action or attitude and facts that enable other facts to favor an action or attitude, see Dancy (2004, Ch. 3). See also Keller (2013). For a similar distinction, in terms of background conditions, see Schroeder (2007, Ch. 2).

  13. 13.

    In particular, see pp. 154–157 (Kolodny 2003).

  14. 14.

    Or simply a relationship in cases where its value might not matter. At this stage, Kolodny might decide to reject as wrong-headed the project of identifying the nature of what makes individuals lovable apart from their being engaged in actual relationships, insisting in turn that only relationships can make individuals lovable. This move, however, would conflict with the independently plausible claim that at least certain individuals are worthy of love in and of themselves, prior to their being related to any of us.

  15. 15.

    One might suspect that the worry at issue here implicitly relies on an interpretation of Kolodny’s view as claiming that lovers in fact treat their beloved as replaceable since their reason for coming to love them (on that interpretation of the view) is precisely that they might bring about a good relationship. If that’s the way Kolodny’s view is interpreted, then it is hard to see how the beloved could be valued noninstrumentally on his account. In response, I’d like to press that this is not the way I interpret his view, and that the problem I raise here does not rely on that interpretation. The worry fails to appreciate the distinction between FKQ and FIQ, as it seems to presuppose that whatever answer to FKQ we give with respect to a given individual (i.e., whatever makes that very individual belong to the class of lovable individuals) will be the reason we have in mind when we justifiably come to love someone. This doesn’t follow, however. For, as emphasized earlier, the mere fact that X is lovable does not yet provide you with a reason (at least a reason of ‘fit’) to love X, and so would be a bad reason to have in mind in coming to love someone. An account of reasons for you to love X will therefore differ from an account of what makes X lovable (i.e., eligible for being a fitting target of love). Kolodny’s view, therefore, should be interpreted as simply claiming that the presence of an actual (good) relationship provides a reason for you to love a given individual, and so the fact that someone might bring about a good relationship is not going to count as a reason for loving them on his account. Thanks to a reviewer for raising this worry.

  16. 16.

    For a similar worry, see Smuts (2014). One might worry that the analogy with respect here is misleading, as it neglects the possibility that the ground of respect is a relationship—a moral relationship, perhaps—in which we stand with all individuals. On this conception of respect, I have a reason to respect individuals from faraway places that I have never met and will never know in virtue of the fact that I stand in the relevant sort of relationship. To put my cards on the table, I don’t find this conception of respect plausible unless it places the ultimate reason why we should treat individuals with respect in the individuals themselves. The point in the text is that respect is precisely a kind of attitude that is ultimately justified by the intrinsic value of individuals rather than our connection with them. Of course, being properly situated with respect to certain individuals (by having a ‘moral relationship’ with them, say) will provide reasons for further attitudes and actions, but it is implausible that this will provide the ultimate reason for respecting them in the first place; in other words, relationships will be enabling rather than justifying when it comes to respect. So, if one held what might be called a ‘pure’ relationship theory with respect to fitting respect—claiming that a bare connection of a certain kind justifies respect—one would be hard pressed to say why the relevant relationship should have such normative significance. This is where it might become tempting to appeal to the value of the relationship, a value that is in part made possible by its relata. It seems that an account of what makes individuals respectable—i.e. eligible targets of respect—would in turn have to appeal to their contribution—potential or actual—to a valuable relationship of a certain kind; and the example in the text is a version of this account. I take it, however, that accounts like this will inevitably clash with the plausible thought that (to put it in a slogan) individuals should come first in an adequate account of respectability. The point in the text is that it is highly plausible that an individuals-first approach to lovability is true. Thanks to a reviewer for discussion.

  17. 17.

    Another possibility is that the kind of love at issue is necessarily exclusive (Kolodny 2003, p. 141).

  18. 18.

    Thanks to a reviewer for bringing this problem to my attention, and for helping me with its formulation.

  19. 19.

    Again, one might resist the appeal to the value of a relationship in an account of fitting love. One might indeed insist that, in loving someone, our end is not to have a good relationship with her. Rather, our ends are going to have to do with the beloved herself, such as her wellbeing. This is just another way of saying that, in loving someone, one takes her as noninstrumentally valuable. But then we might still ask why relationships make the adoption of ends characteristic of love justified or fitting in the first place. And, as we have seen, the bare appeal to relationships (regardless of their value) is something even Kolodny should be uncomfortable with, at least for certain kinds of love (see ft. 11). (In addition, it is unclear that bare relationships would provide (non-derivative) reasons for love as opposed to reasons for other forms of partiality).

  20. 20.

    Perhaps one may benefit so significantly from a person that this would justify treating her as irreplaceable (see Naar forthcoming, for the claim that gratitude is a species of caring—arguably an irreplaceability-treatment-entailing attitude—that is made fitting by acts of benefit). An appeal to benefits, however, is a bad idea for the relationship theorist who wishes (to my mind, rightly) to secure the claim that reasons for love are not ultimately reasons of self-interest.

  21. 21.

    Smuts (2014) makes a similar point. In response, one might insist that if actual relationships make love fitting, and merely possible relationships don’t, then we have a simple if boring explanation of why merely possible relationships are not justifying: they are not actual. Surely, in order for a relationship to provide a reason, it must exist. And merely possible relationships don’t. Answering the actuality challenge is not going to be as easy as this response suggests, however. What the challenge enjoins us to do is to provide a story as to why the mere prospect of a valuable relationship with someone does not justify coming to love them. The thought motivating this challenge is that it is not a brute fact that actually existing relationships change one’s normative situation, just as it is not a brute fact that being near a cliff changes what one has reason to feel. There should be something special about relationships that explain this change, and it’s not clear why appealing to the value of a current relationship can explain why the prospect of a future valuable—and potentially better—relationship should prevent the latter from being a source of reasons. A ‘transfer-blocker’ seems needed, but as we will see in the next section, seemingly plausible candidates (such as the fact that one benefits from actual relationships but not from merely possible, and perhaps future, relationships) turn out to be nonstarters. Thanks to a reviewer for discussion.

  22. 22.

    For an earlier defense of a view along these lines (though I would now disagree with some of the details), see Naar (2017). Similar, but in some respects different, views are provided by Abramson and Leite (2011), Jollimore (2011), and Keller (2013).

  23. 23.

    A third line of inquiry is to look for a property that is unique to each particular individual. If X has a property that nobody else has, then maybe this could justify treating her as irreplaceable. I doubt that this is the case, however. Being the only person in the universe who has a shoe size of a particular magnitude does not appear to justify treating someone as irreplaceable. In any case, for dialectical reasons I don’t think that appealing to a claim as strong as the claim that particular individuals have I-properties that nobody else has would be a good idea in the context of a debate with the reasons-for-love skeptic. Thanks to a reviewer for discussion.

  24. 24.

    It should be noted that not everyone is this list intends to provide an account of reasons for the sort of selective love that I have been concerned with. Setiya, for instance, appears to provide a view of love as striving to extend to everyone, including strangers (though I suspect that his discussion neglects the distinction between FKQ and FIQ in a way that might turn out to be problematic). Perhaps, therefore, they should not therefore be read as engaged in the same project as mine, and at least some of them would disagree with various aspects of the view defended here. Thanks to a reviewer for discussion.

  25. 25.

    Features (5) and (8) might allow us to provide an account of fitting love directed towards non-human animals (a reason why I have framed the discussion mostly in terms of reasons for ‘individuals’ rather than ‘persons’). Also, as said earlier, I leave open the possibility that inanimate objects may legitimately be treated as irreplaceable. If this is the case, then the list in the text may be extended to cover such cases. Thanks to Chris Grau for discussion.

  26. 26.

    Although I think nothing bars idiosyncratic properties from being I-properties in an obvious way, this claim would need to be properly defended to do the work I-properties are put to in this section.

  27. 27.

    See for instance Keller (2013, Ch. 5). For an overview of philosophical work on incommensurable values, see Hsieh (2016).

  28. 28.

    And even to be a genuine view about love. See Sect. 2.

  29. 29.

    If reasons for gratitude are self-interested reasons, then if the benefit account were to be interpreted as an account of reasons for love, it would face the problem that it blurs the distinction between reasons for love and reasons for gratitude.

  30. 30.

    Unless we distinguish between different kinds of knowledge. Although this is not the route I will take in the following, I have some sympathy for a sophisticated form of the knowledge account of a sort that satisfies the selectivity constraint. Pursuing this view in detail, however, is work for another time. Thanks to Michele Palmira for discussion.

  31. 31.

    Or, if we decide to allow to restrict our account, reasons for certain kinds of love (e.g., romantic love).

  32. 32.

    In fact, a very detailed piece of testimony may make that possible too.

  33. 33.

    Of course, we could imagine a generic kind of love—such as agapic love—directed at all humans (or perhaps all sentient creatures) and made fitting by some of their qualities. It should be clear however that this sort of love is not of the selective and personal sort we have been talking about (unless it aims at being selective and personal, see Ft. 8).

  34. 34.

    Again (see Ft. 9), we might decide to qualify this claim to allow love to be fittingly felt towards strangers, albeit less strongly or deeply. One might also wonder at this stage whether a full-blown relationship is necessary for the relevant relation to obtain (see below).

  35. 35.

    The notion of appreciation I have been discussing has some affinity to Jollimore’s account of love—drawing on Iris Murdoch—as involving ‘really looking’ (Jollimore 2011), though it is doubtful he would agree with the work I attribute to it. In any case, the account I outline here is congenial to a certain tradition of thought in the philosophy of love—one drawing on Murdoch—which should give us another reason to take it seriously.

  36. 36.

    The notion I am after bears a certain resemblance to the Russellian notion of acquaintance as well, which is presumably different from the notion of understanding. It might turn out, down the line, that acquaintance is better suited than understanding to help devise an account of the significance of relationships. (Another possibility is that acquaintance is the mechanism by which one comes to understand the goodness of others.) Alternatively, one might decide to distinguish between kinds of knowledge—e.g., inferential versus non-inferential, first-hand versus testimonial, direct versus indirect—rather than appeal to a sharp distinction between knowledge and understanding. One might also reduce understanding to some sort of special knowledge. For my purposes, however, what matters is that there is some theoretical footing for the intuitive distinction between forms of appreciation that I have been appealing to. And the more promising theoretical options there are, the better positioned, dialectically speaking, is the general quality view I am pursuing. Thanks to Michele Palmira for discussion.

  37. 37.

    This feature of understanding would thereby allow us to secure the claim that some degree of love might be justified outside the context of first-personal interactions.

  38. 38.

    At this stage, one might ask (1) what makes my proposal better than one that appeals to the mere fact that actual relationships are actual (see Ft. 21) and (2) why actual understanding changes our normative situation while merely knowing that a future relationship may provide it doesn’t. Let me briefly deal with these two worries. (1) The difference between the two stories is at bottom that I add an extra layer of explanation; there is a further link in the explanatory chain, namely the understanding (and more generally, the appreciation) that relationships typically afford. In this way, I avoid the charge that on my view it is a brute fact that relationships provide a context where love can be fitting, since I say what it is about that context that makes actual relationships normatively special. Actual relationships change our normative situation by placing us in a certain relation—appreciation (and understanding, if the more specific account I pursue here is on the right track)—that merely possible ones don’t give. (2) Since appreciation comes in forms that are not transferrable to situations (here merely possible ones) one does not in fact face, we seem to have the ‘transfer-blocker’ we were looking for. I take it that this explanation is better than a bare appeal to actuality in that it accounts for why actuality is normatively significant. In response to the question why actual understanding matters over and above merely possible understanding, then, I think that the fact that understanding is posited to have a nature that blocks transfer is exactly what we need, in turn putting an end to explanation. As a result, my proposal does not boil down to a flat-footed insistence that actuality matters. (In fact, I suspect that it never does matter in itself, but do not wish to argue for this further claim in the context of this paper.) Thanks to a reviewer for raising these issues.

  39. 39.

    At least of a deep or strong sort.

  40. 40.

    Thanks to a reviewer for raising this question.

  41. 41.

    Thanks to a reviewer for bringing this possibility to my attention.

  42. 42.

    One intriguing possibility is that loving itself may prompt us to direct our attention to the goodness of the beloved, such that one may start loving someone even if one has not reached the level of understanding that I claim is necessary for fittingly loving a particular individual. I don’t think this is cause for worry, however, as it is not clear what would be wrong with the claim that, sometimes, a given response starts off unfitting and becomes fitting over time, perhaps in part due to its directing our attention to evidence for its own fittingness (for a claim like this about emotions in general, see Brady 2013). In this respect, my view may be combined with elements of accounts of love that emphasize agential aspects of loving relationships. For instance, Cocking and Kennett (1998) place some significance on the fact that loving relationships, such as friendship, enable people to influence and shape each other’s interests, character, and self-conceptions. In a similar vein, Bagley (2015) construes loving relationships as involving the mutual creation—through what he calls ‘mutual improvisation’—of the identities of the beloved. If it turns out, down the line, that the I-properties I am committed to are qualities which can be created and sustained through relationships, then my account could incorporate certain elements of these views. Furthermore, as emphasized in the text, it might be the case that limited interaction is sufficient to give at least some understanding (I can even allow that third-personal observation may do that as well), thereby justifying some degree of love. But this is compatible with saying that love of a relatively weak sort would be justified in a case like this. In a slogan form: the more understanding there is, the deeper or stronger it is fitting to go. Thanks to two reviewers for discussion on these issues.

  43. 43.

    I say ‘often’ because some relationships may be too shallow to afford the relevant kind of understanding.


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I am grateful to Jerry Cederblom, Florian Cova, Julien Deonna, Rodrigo Diaz, Fritz-Anton Fritzson, David Furrer, Laura Grams, Lara Jost, William Melanson, Andrew Newman, Fabrice Teroni, Jona Vance, and audiences at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the THUMOS research group in Geneva for discussion, and to Antoine Taillard for a commentary, on a previous draft of this paper. Special thanks go to Chris Grau, Michele Palmira, and three anonymous reviewers for detailed and extremely helpful written comments.

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Naar, H. The possibility of fitting love: irreplaceability and selectivity. Synthese (2019).

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  • Love
  • Reasons
  • Appropriateness
  • Fittingness
  • Value
  • Emotions