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Love, addiction, crime of passion, relationships

Earp et al. (2017) offer a very interesting summary of, and ethical commentary on, recent multidisciplinary research suggesting that at least some cases of what we call ‘romantic love’ involve phenomena that physically and/or psychologically resemble cases of what we call ‘addiction.’ They draw a conceptual distinction between what they call ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ concepts of addiction. On the narrow conception, only extreme, harmful, or abnormal cases of love would count as addiction. On the broad conception, even ordinary or normal cases of love could qualify.

After distinguishing the two conceptions over the course of the first half of their paper, the authors argue that for labelling and treatment purposes it does not actually matter which we settle on, because:

regardless of whether we understand the love-related phenomenon to be the result of abnormal brain processes, or simply the manifestation of a strong appetitive desire, the key determinant for labelling and treatment should be the degree to which the individual is harmed by the love through its deleterious impact on her well-being.

It is difficult to disagree with the conclusion that treatment decisions, in particular, should be grounded in considerations of harm and well-being. Earp et al. are clearly right to focus ethical attention in that direction.

In this commentary, I will provide some additional perspective on the question of how to define ‘addiction,’ and consider how this relates to another definitional question: how to define ‘love.’ My aim will be to show how both these matters of definition point towards substantive philosophical issues, which reveal some challenges to the way the debate around ‘love addiction’ is currently being framed.

Assuming Earp et al. (2017) are right that conceptual analysis and the semantics of ‘addiction’ are not where the action is when it comes to intervention or treatment, why does so much ink get spilled in the literature over what is an ‘addiction’ and what is not? Plausibly, the answer has something to do with the ideological power of the word ‘addiction’: the rhetorical cocktail of cognitive connotations and emotive associations that a word like this brings to any conversation in which it is deployed.

If that is right, then it is salutary to think carefully and critically about what role these cognitive and emotive factors should have in any scientific, ethical, or pragmatic investigation of addiction in general, and of ‘love addiction’ in particular. The power of the word ‘addiction’ to influence perceptions of certain behaviours—and consequently to influence the likelihood of people engaging in those behaviours—floats at least somewhat free [End Page 93] of questions about how treatment decisions are (and should be) made, and how practitioners label cases.

To pick up on just one aspect of this broader significance that language has, let’s consider the idea of a ‘crime of passion,’ about which Earp et al. say the following:

If addictive love is nothing more than a symptom of abnormal brain processes (i.e., the narrow view), then the choices and behaviors it elicits might be considered to be inauthentic or in some sense non-autonomous reflexes of those deviant processes. Hence, proponents of the narrow view of substance addiction have frequently argued that addicts lack control over their actions and are not fully autonomous. … This idea is also reflected in the common concept of “crimes of passion”— and indeed the law has traditionally taken such passion into account in sentencing decisions.

In fact, I do not think this effect is limited to those who cleave to the narrow view. The word ‘addiction’ can trigger connotations of reduced autonomy quite generally, regardless of whether it is used and/or heard by people who are philosophically rigorous or conceptually sophisticated enough for it to make sense to interpret them as having a narrow view of addiction. And in legal contexts, connotations of reduced autonomy can have life-changing significance.

For a bit of perspective on this, we might note that legal defenses based on the idea of a ‘crime of passion’—formalized in some jurisdictions, such as the UK before 2009, as ‘provocation’—have historically been used disproportionately to secure lenience for men who had violently killed their adulterous wives and/or violently killed the men their wives were adulterous with. And some of the original justifications for this kind of defense in UK law had to do with the view that women were valuable property concerning which extremes of possessive emotion would be only natural. In England in the early 18th century, the then Lord Chief Justice called sex with another man’s wife ‘the highest invasion of property’ and said that ‘jealousy is the rage of man,’ concluding that the violent killing of someone caught in the act of committing adultery with one’s wife should not count, legally, as murder.1 Romantic relationships are still a significant site of deadly violence, and still disproportionately deadly for women. In 2013, 245 male and 992 female victims of murder in the United States were recorded as having being killed by their romantic partners.2 But in some contexts, the law has changed, and since 2009, there is no longer a defense of provocation in UK law. The aim of this update was to ‘end the injustice of women being killed by their husband and then being blamed,’ according to Harriet Harman (women’s minister at the time of the change).3

Beyond questions about treatment, then, we need to consider the wider significance of thinking about loss of control in assessments of responsibility, especially in connection with romantic relationships. The word ‘addiction’ matters in these contexts because (rightly or wrongly) it carries connotations of autonomy loss and all it entails. And in this connection it is important to bear in mind that the conversation about ‘love addiction’ is taking place within a broader cultural context of ongoing conversations about how harmful behaviours that occur within the context of a romantic or dating relationship can be downplayed or excused on the grounds that they were not (fully) under the agent’s control. From a philosophical perspective, then, these debates about ‘love addiction’ are best addressed with an eye to the more general issue of how we as a society apportion responsibility for things like date rape and intimate partner violence.

Relatedly, it is worth asking what the word ‘love’ is doing in the debates with which Earp et al. engage in their paper. Just like the word ‘addiction,’ the word ‘love’ packs a powerful rhetorical punch, although its associated valence is typically positive rather than negative. In All About Love: New Visions (2000), bell hooks has argued that having a clear definition of ‘love’ is important for many reasons, not least of which is that if we do not know what love is then we can mistake abusive relationships for loving ones. By the lights of hooks’s definitions, love is inconsistent with abuse. Although she appreciates that it can be easy (and, for many, more comfortable) to assume otherwise, to her mind love requires—among other things—respect, honesty, and trust, and not merely feelings of affection or care. And although [End Page 94] abuse may be consistent with feelings of affection or care (which may be mistakenly called ‘love’), she does not consider it to be consistent with the other ingredients in genuine love.

Now, many of the cases Earp et al. consider as possible candidates for treatment or intervention on grounds of ‘love addiction’ involve people in toxic and abusive relationships. But if hooks is right, these relationships do not count as loving. In fact, if she is right, using the word ‘love’—with all its attendant positive connotations and associations—to describe these relationships can be a dangerously rhetorically effective way of concealing how bad they really are.

In a footnote to their paper, Earp et al. (2017, p.90) say (in response to a reviewer’s comments) that they ‘have deliberately kept [their] philosophical account of love “thin” because there is no authoritative definition,’ and because opinions differ as to what love is. Instead, they propose to ‘speak of “love-related” behaviors or feelings.’ But there is still a lot at stake in the decision to use the word ‘love’ in these contexts at all. We should be at least as careful about deploying the word ‘love’ as we are in deploying the word ‘addiction,’ and for similar reasons: both words are ideologically loaded and rhetorically powerful. They are heavy machinery, to be operated with caution and only when fully alert.

In many of the cases Earp et al. discuss, the putatively addiction-like phenomena might reasonably be identified as having foci other than love. For example, it might be variously more accurate to talk about addiction to a person, to sex, to physical contact, to affection, or to attachment in the different cases. These are distinctions worth making in any case, and there is some risk that Earp et al. may be misread as conflating important differences when, for example, they talk about ‘extreme forms of love-related phenomena—such as an insatiable appetite for sex,’ or ‘love-related experiences—such as sexual intercourse.’

Keeping these differences crystal clear is nowhere more important than when considering diminished responsibility. Earp et al. (2017, p. 84) say that “[w]e do not ordinarily choose to love someone (at least not consciously) and it would be a hard thesis to defend that we should be held responsible for falling in love” (emphases in the original). Although we may or may not normally be responsible for falling in love, we certainly are normally responsible for initiating sexual intercourse with another person, and it is important not to glide too casually over the kinds of distinctions that are needed to keep this fact clearly in view.

I finish with a brief thought on authenticity and autonomy. At one point in their discussion, Earp et al. say:

The broad view … argues that even the strongest, most negative forms of love are merely extremes of an authentic emotion. Hence it is possible to argue, from these grounds, that even those people who suffer from harmful extremes of love may be fully autonomous in their behavior. On this kind of view, any possible treatment modality would then differ along certain dimensions. The goal should not be to eliminate the feelings of love entirely, since those feelings are authentic aspects of the person’s mind and personality; but rather it should be to moderate them instead. Likewise, treatments should never violate the autonomy of the person in love, nor should they involve coercion or force of any kind.

They seem here to be envisaging an argument from the premise that some instance of love, although harmful, is nevertheless an authentic aspect of someone’s mind and personality to the conclusion that this love should not be eliminated entirely. Such argumentation would be consonant with one of their overall conclusions: that ‘respecting the lovers’ autonomy should be paramount in any treatment decision.’

But I am not seeing why being authentic and autonomous suffices to render a feeling worthy of preservation, or a person immune from coercion. Suppose X has an authentic and autonomous desire to abuse Y. Now consider the parallel claim: the goal should not be to eliminate the desire to abuse entirely, because that desire is an authentic aspect of the person’s mind and personality; but rather it should be to moderate it instead. Likewise, treatments should never violate the autonomy of the abuser, nor should they involve coercion or force of any kind.

To the extent that this parallel argument gives us pause, and directs us to reconsider the original, it can serve as a case study in why it matters to [End Page 95] use the right vocabulary in these conversations. In using the word ‘love’ we run the risk of cognitive or emotive interference from that word’s positive connotations, even when in reality there is nothing positive going on. These are discussions in which it’s very important to call a spade a spade.

C. S. I. Jenkins

C.S.I. Jenkins is Canada Research Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of research interest include metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics. Her monograph, Grounding Concepts: An Empirical Basis for Arithmetical Knowledge, was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press, and her new book, What Love Is, is forthcoming with Basic Books. Her recent publications on the metaphysics of love include articles in Journal of the American Philosophical Association and Ergo. She can be contacted at


1. See for example, Horder (1992) for more on this case, and on the history of provocation as a legal defense.

2. Source: FBI statistics ( In these statistics, the categories for “wife” and “husband” include common law spouses and ex-spouses.

3. Harman is quoted by the BBC at


Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Foddy, B., & Savulescu, J. (2017). Addicted to love: What is live addiction and when should it be treated? Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 24(1), 77–92.
hooks, b. (2000). All about love: New visions. New York: William Morrow and Company.
Horder, J. (1992). Provocation and Responsibility. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. [End Page 96]

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