The Value and Danger of Loving Your Enemies

Have you ever experienced a conversion? Have you gone from hating something to loving it—but then had to listen to critics who just don’t get it? You used to be in their shoes, of course, so you see exactly what they mean. But you also see how their problems aren’t real problems, are peripheral, or can be resolved.

What is going on here?

The obvious answer is that you used to be blind and the critics are still unenlightened. But how did you get enlightened yourself?

In many cases, there was no reasoning process or step-by-step argument. When you were a kid, you hated whole wheat bread, girls, and angry music. But then a chemical switch got flipped in your brain (or something) and you fell in love.

But isn’t love blind? If so, conversion would be the opposite of enlightenment. It would be the critic who is awake, and the convert who is dreaming.

And yet, I think we ought to take the experience of conversion seriously. It feels like waking up and seeing things you didn’t see before. If conversion is like falling in love, then, perhaps love has epistemic advantages.

Aquinas to the Rescue

When speaking of love, everyone thinks first of Aquinas.1 So, allow me to quote from his discussion of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—in the Summa Theologica.

First, from question 62 of the “Prima Secundae”:2

Hence it was necessary with respect to both intellect and will that something be added supernaturally to direct man to a supernatural end. . . . [T]he will is directed to this end both with respect to the movement of intention, . . . and also with respect to a certain spiritual union, through which the will is transformed in a certain way into that end, which is effected by charity.3

The word “charity” here—caritas—simply means “love.” In this context, more specifically, it means the love humans have for God.4 What Aquinas is saying is that to love God naturally involves becoming more like God.

Then, in question 64, Aquinas says:

But the love of charity is about what is already possessed, for what is loved is in a certain way in the one who loves, and also the one who loves is drawn by affection to a union with what is loved. Hence, ‘He who abides in love abides in God, and God in him’ (I John 4:16).5

Here once again, Aquinas is talking about loving God. But I think the principle applies broadly. You become what you love, or at least become like it. Admiration naturally flows into emulation, and this has consequences for what we can and cannot see.

William James with the Assist

Quotations are annoying, but can you bear with me through one more? Here is one of my favorite passages from my first philosophical love, William James:

Every Jack sees in his own particular Jill charms and perfections to the enchantment of which we stolid onlookers are stone-cold. And which has the superior view of the absolute truth, he or we? Which has the more vital insight into the nature of Jill’s existence, as a fact? Is he in excess, being in this matter a maniac? Or are we in defect, being victims of a pathological anæsthesia as regards Jill’s magical importance? Surely the latter; surely to Jack are the profounder truths revealed; surely poor Jill’s palpitating little life-throbs are among the wonders of creation, are worthy of this sympathetic interest; and it is to our shame that the rest of us cannot feel like Jack. For Jack realizes Jill concretely, and we do not.6

But why should this be? Why should the person who loves someone be able to understand her better than the person who doesn’t?

Words Are Windows

When I talk about “understanding another person,” I usually am concerned with understanding what the other person has said. That surely has to do with my training as a philosopher. But understanding what other people say is not simply a concern for philosophers. We all need to understand what “black lives matter,” “salvation is a matter of grace, not works,” “you only live once,” “you’re wasting your vote,” etc. mean if we’re going to genuinely engage with each other.

So, here’s a metaphor. Words are like windows. They are tools for revealing the world.7 You show me the way things are “out there” when you tell me, “It’s raining; better take an umbrella.” I don’t need to look out the physical window because your words have acted as a window onto the world for me.

Now, imagine there are three of us looking through the same window. I stand to the window’s right, looking out. You stand to the window’s left, also looking out. Do you see the same things from your angle as I do? What about our friend who stands directly in front of the window, but on the outside looking in?

Three people using the same window may see three different things because they stand in different positions. So, how do we get into the same position as someone else, so that we can see what they are seeing through their words? How do we position ourselves so as to understand their words and world as they do?

Aquinas has already told us: love. In emulating what we love—in being “transformed in a certain way into” it and having it “in a certain way in” us—we take up its position. We see the world from its perspective. And that means we understand it much more deeply than people standing outside it, observing it from a detached point of view.8

The Danger of Love

I got into the discussion of love above by considering conversion. The particular kind of conversion I introduced is falling in love with something you used to despise. It is coming to identify with, and experience from within, something you used to find repulsive.

But what about those things we still despise and find repulsive? Don’t they count as our enemies? And didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44)?

If so, we are in trouble. If loving someone means identifying with them and taking up their perspective on the world, does this mean we have to become our enemies (at least intellectually and emotionally)? Must we become nihilists through loving them, or hedonist libertines through loving them, or racists through loving them, because such people are our enemies?

Surely Jesus doesn’t call people to become nihilist, libertine racists.

The Danger of Love for Anyone

You might think it is only Christians who are obligated to love their enemies, and thus it is only Christians who have to deal with the conundrum above. But the problem applies to anyone who wants to engage in responsible debate. If we want to critique people who are wrong, we should make sure we understand them first. And the experience of conversion teaches us that too much criticism is based on a lack of understanding.

The problem, then, can be framed like this: To critique someone properly, you must first understand them. To understand someone fully, you must identify with them and see the world from their point of view. Thus, to critique someone properly, you must first identify with them and see the world from their point of view. But the idea that you would have to see the world from a racist’s point of view in order to properly critique racism is horrifying.

So, what are we to do?

Why the Problem Won’t Go Away

For Christians, one solution might be to say something like this: the love of which Aquinas and James speaks is not the same as the love of which Jesus speaks. Jesus’s love is about caring for someone; that is, it’s about taking care of them. He’s talking about the love of Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (NRSV). And to do that, you don’t have to identify with the person you’re loving.9 Aquinas and James, in contrast, are talking about something more like romantic love.

However, this will not answer the question of whether we can properly critique someone without understanding them fully, and thus without loving them. We could say, of course, that if the price of not becoming a racist is to fail to understand racists, then it is a price worth paying. And I think that’s true. But have you ever been the enemy?

I remember getting into an argument one day with a guy at Starbucks about whether it was legitimate for women to be pastors. I don’t even remember how it came up. But by the end of our conversation, my interlocutor had come to the conclusion that Satan had sent me to lure him into heresy and iniquity. He couldn’t let himself see the scriptures from my point of view because he was convinced that to do so would be to entertain evil.

In fact, of course, it was I who was on the side of truth, goodness, and justice. But my opponent’s need to protect himself from identifying with wickedness kept him from seeing that. He couldn’t experience the conversion he needed because he was playing things spiritually and morally safe. Or, rather, he thought he was playing things safe.

Now, what if there are issues on which we are in the same position? What if we think our enemies on a given issue are the evil ones, but it is in fact we who are in the wrong? How will we ever come to see the error of our ways if we are not willing to see things from their point of view?

When You’re on Safe Ground

It would seem that being able to answer that question would require us to know ahead of time when it is morally safe to consider the other side’s point of view, and when it is not. If I’m arguing with you about the value of a particular musical genre, then perhaps it’s okay to for me to take your point of view (even if I think your music is ruining the world). But if I’m arguing with a racist about the value of human persons, then it would not be okay for me to take their perspective.

But what principle ought to guide us in distinguishing between those debates during which we ought to be trying to take our opponent’s point of view (so as to better understand and critique them) and those during which we ought not?

In philosophy we have something called the Principle of Charity,10 which tells us to interpret what others say in the best possible light. Inspired by that principle, but borrowing from Aquinas’ Latin, I would say we are currently struggling with the Principle of Caritas. This new principle says that to fully understand (and hence to properly critique) someone, you must love them. Our problem is knowing when to apply the Principle or Caritas, if at all.

In discussing the Categorical Imperative, Kant points out that a principle which contradicts itself in practice is no principle at all.11 Now, if a principle based on love required us to see the world from the point of view of people who hate—and thereby required us to identify with them in their hate—it would contradict itself. So, Kant would surely tell is it is no principle at all, at least not one we ought to follow in that particular situation.

We might say, then, that the Principle of Caritas contains its own application instructions. Where it can be applied in such a way that we end up loving and understanding more, we ought to follow it. Where applying it would require us to take up a hateful perspective, we ought not to follow it. Or, rather, we ought to love in Proverb’s effective way, not Aquinas and James’ affective way.

How to Love Those Who Hate

Does this mean we must give up on trying to convert our worst enemies because we cannot critique them appropriately without lovingly identifying with them in their hate? Perhaps not.

Hatred, being a kind of settled anger, is a response to fear. We become angry at what we feel threatened by. Anger is the “fight” in the “fight or flight response,” and hatred is simply that response become solidified and intransigent.

When dealing with a person who hates, therefore, we are first and foremost dealing with someone who feels threatened and afraid. Their anger and hatred are secondary symptoms of the deeper reality of fear.

In loving a person who hates, in other words, our focus ought to be on trying to understand why they feel threatened and on what we can do to help them see that there is no threat (or nothing so threatening as to require hate as a defense). With their fear mitigated or eliminated, their anger and hatred will begin to collapse.

You may worry, of course, that even if we can escape the hate of those we are trying to love, we may nevertheless have to identify with them in their fears. What is to keep us from becoming stuck in the unreasonable fears of those whom we are trying to convert?

In the end, we may have to make do with some distance, rather than complete identification. Instead of adopting their fears in our attempt to understand them, we might simply see their fears on analogy with our own. And surely we ought always to remember that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NRSV).


In this essay I have identified something I’ve labeled the Principle of Caritas and argued that it makes sense as a principle for both Christians and non-Christians. However, I have also pointed out how dangerous its application would seem to be and tried to show how I think the danger might be avoided.

Have I analyzed the issues correctly? Have I misread my sources, and thus gotten myself into a muddle? Or is the problem real? If so, have I found a way to get us out of it?

If Christianity teaches us anything, it is that we often we cannot save ourselves, and thus need to be rescued. So, I welcome your assistance.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

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