What Frankfurt means when he says that we ought to prioritize “What we care about” as opposed to “What we should care about” is that what makes something important to us isn’t the reasons for why we care about it; caring about something makes something important in itself. Living a meaningful and happy life on his account is not to decide on the right things to care about, but to understand by using practical reason what is important to us. For Frankfort, taking care of things that are important to us is a necessary condition of living well, and again, things are important to us because we care about it, and for no other reasons. There may be reasons that we care about it, for instance in the case of a college roommate, one will spend a large portion of his time with his roommate, and after going through a year of school and parties, one will start to care about his or her roommate. As he goes through more and more with the roommate, his care for him will continue to grow (assuming that these experiences are positive, for the most part). These things that one cares about aren’t considerations of self-interest or morality; they are simply what one wants to want in their life. Often times there can be no rhyme or reason to why someone wants to want something, it is just what one wants. “The fact that people ordinarily do not hesitate in their commitments to the continuation of their lives, and to the well-being of their children, does not derive from any actual consideration by them of reasons; nor does it depend even upon an assumption that good reasons could be found. These commitments are innate in us. They are not based upon deliberation.” (Frankfurt, 28)
Committing one’s self to certain things, people, and activities will lead them to love them. This love, not to be confused with an erotic sort of love felt between two adults, is an extreme care about a person or thing; this care is as an end, not as a mean to another end. It can be concrete or abstract; the former referring to a certain thing like a person or a nation, and the latter referring to something like an idea or discipline. The love creates importance in the thing that is loved for the person, and the love is endorsed by the lover. In other words, it is not a feeling that is unwelcomed, but encouraged and wanted. While it is endorsed by the lover, it loving the thing, just like caring about something, is not a decision by an act of the will. We do not choose what we love, and there are certain things that we cannot help but to love. While reason is not used decide what to love, practical reason is used to find out what any individual loves. This practical reasoning is very important to the happiness of the individual; loving and taking care of what one loves makes us happy because it gives life meaning, and according to Frankfurt having meaning occupies most of what it is to live well. This meaningful activity is not determined by what one loves, but strictly by the act of loving itself. For Frankfurt, one can love anything wholeheartedly. By wholehearted, Frankfurt means that the it is a rewarding love, as the love is a result of being committed to the thing. It means that the lover has a clear sense about what they want, and actually act on their desires. It means that the love unifies the lover and the loved. It is liberating – the lover does not feel obliged or forced to do what they are doing, and they could have committed to something else. Wholehearted love allows the lover to be at peace with himself, and the lover can be authentic and true to one’s self. Taking care of what one loves is a necessary condition to living well, no matter what the thing is that is loved.
Again, there is no restriction, according to Frankfurt, to what one can love wholeheartedly. So, according to Frankfurt, one can wholeheartedly love something horrible. For instance, he would have to concede that Hitler lived a meaningful life because he loved, and acted on his love for, eradicating the Jewish people and creating an entirely Aryan human race until the day he died. However unethical, self-destructive, or heinous the thing is, Frankfurt claims that it can be loved, and if taken care of, it will add meaning to the lovers life. Some will see this as a problem with his view. Critics of this view would ask how acting on such horrible desires lead to a more meaningful and happy life? There is no way that Hitler’s love for Anti-Semitism and his implementation of such love in the form of the Holocaust actually made his life better and more meaningful. Admittedly, at first glance I was inclined to agree with such a criticism. However, these critics are missing the point of Frankfurt’s account of love. First, it is not an account of how to live well, or how to live; it is strictly an account of what love is and how it makes one’s life better. Secondly, it has nothing to do with whether or not taking care of one’s love is the right or ethical thing to do. Clearly, Frankfurt would say, in reference to Hitler, that he should ignore his love, and try to commit himself to something else. However, he would also say that Hitler’s acting on his love did make his own life more meaningful even though his actions resulted in one of the biggest moral evils in the history of the world.
A further examination of a person who loves these horrible things would offer reason to agree with Frankfurt’s view. If one were to interview horrible men like Adolf Hitler or Ted Bundy, one would more than likely learn that these sick individuals lived a life full of meaning, at least while they were at-large. These two men wholeheartedly loved causing harm to others, and while it is under no circumstances morally defensible, acting on their love gave their own lives meaning and that meaning made them happier than they would have been had they not taken care of the things that they love. Importantly, this is not an account of well-being; taking care of what one loves is a necessary, and one of the biggest, conditions for well-being for Frankfurt, but not the only condition. About Hitler and Bundy, Frankfurt would argue that while they could not choose what they love, they could try to commit themselves to other activities or people to try to steer their love in another direction. For example, Hitler was an artist from Austria before he moved to Germany and came to power. He could have committed himself to art, and while there would have been no guarantee, he could have fallen in love with painting or art instead of genocide or creating an Aryan human race. The same goes for Ted Bundy (assuming he was not just sick in the head, which very well may have been the case). He could have found some other thing or activity to commit himself to. For, according to Frankfurt, love is rewarding because it is a result of commitment; these men who loved these horrible activities could have committed themselves to something else to find rewarding and meaningful activity, and in turn would have lived happy lives – and much more morally permissible ones too. Frankfurt would say that these men, while they lived meaningful lives, did not live as well as they could have; committing themselves to something morally permissible would have allowed them to live both meaningful and ethical lives. They would have lived much better in that scenario.
Frankfurt is not mistaken here. While some can argue that if Hitler or Bundy were to have committed themselves to something else, and then look back on their love for horrible activities, they would have realized how meaningless their lives were up until their change of heart. However, this attitude would only exist because they would no longer love the horrible things that they did in the past. Obviously, acting on something that they don’t love any more would not give their lives meaning. Only taking care of things that are currently loved by the individual can result in rewarding and meaningful activity that will lead to a happy life. One can fall out of love with things, and fall into love with new things; Frankfurt has no problem with that, and it seems to be commonplace in everyday life. People grow apart from friends, get over certain activities that used to dominate their lives, and in turn usually find new friends and new activities. People can have a meaningful life while wholeheartedly loving horrible activities, but they would experience a much higher level of well-being if they committed themselves to better and more beneficial activities .