A collage of a medical lung diagram, with marigold flowers and a magnolia flower growing out of it.
Image credit: “Oxygen” by Martine Mooijenkind / www.knutselfabriek.com

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s winter 2023 issue, “Love as Social Order: How Do We Build a World Based in Love?”

How do we build a world based in love? This is a critical question for social change agents. If we do not consider what drives our work, we may inadvertently be driven by fear or rage.

bell hooks may have been the first theorist to popularize the concept of a love ethic. However, she was influenced by Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving.1 In it, Fromm defines love as an orientation that shifts us from a focus on “being loved” to a practice of “creating love.”2 He writes,

Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love.3

Fromm explains that in Western civilization, love is a “rare phenomenon,” and argues that in its place what we have is “pseudo-love,” which he defines as the “disintegration of love,” love that focuses on attachment, the quest to be loved.4 He calls this “neurotic love.”5

Love as orientation inspires us to move beyond thought and dogma.6 It is paradoxical, able to hold seemingly contradictory thoughts, which facilitates tolerance and sometimes leads to transformation.7 It is about overcoming separateness—the root of all human suffering.8

For Fromm, love as orientation is developmental. He writes,

It is hardly necessary to stress the fact that the ability to love as an act of giving depends on the character development of the person. It presupposes the attainment of a predominantly productive orientation; in this orientation the person has overcome dependency, narcissistic omnipotence, the wish to exploit others, or to hoard, and has acquired faith in his [sic] own human powers, courage to rely on his [sic] powers in the attainment of his [sic] goals. To the degree that these qualities are lacking, he [sic] is afraid of giving himself [sic]—hence of loving.

Beyond the element of giving, the active character of love becomes evident in the fact that it always implies certain basic elements, common to all forms of love. These are care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.9

Fromm then defines these four core elements in the context of love as an ethic:

  • Care is “the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love.”10
  • Responsibility is the ability and readiness to respond.11
  • Respect is “the ability to see a person as he [sic] is, to be aware of his [sic] unique individuality.”12
  • Knowledge is transcending one’s concern for the self to “see the other person in his [sic] own terms.”13 One “does not stay at the periphery, but penetrates to the core.”14

For Fromm, this kind of love “is not a resting place.”15 Rather, it “is a constant challenge”16 that requires faith. He observes, “Only the person who has faith in himself [sic] is able to be faithful to others.”17

The practice of love as an ethic requires three things.

The first is discipline.18 Like anything else, in order to become good at something, to become masterful, we must orient toward it repeatedly, not just when we’re in the mood.

“Those who are seriously concerned with love as the only rational answer to the problem of human existence must, then, arrive at the conclusion that important and radical changes in our social structure are necessary.”

Secondly, love requires concentration.19 We must guard ourselves from distraction. When we do become distracted, we must gently guide our mind back to an ethic and a practice of love. For Fromm, “To be concentrated in relation to others means primarily to be able to listen.”20 It requires us to avoid conversations that are “trivial” and “not genuine.”21 It also calls on us “to avoid bad company,” which he defines as “people who are vicious and destructive;…zombies,…people whose soul is dead.”22 Fromm notes that this practice requires one “to be alone with oneself,”23 to become “sensitive to oneself,”24 to hold a “relaxed alertness,” open to “relevant changes” in oneself, sensitive to one’s mental processes.25

Finally, love requires patience.26 We cannot expect “quick results.”27 He writes, “If one does not know that everything has its time, and wants to force things, then indeed one will never succeed in becoming concentrated—nor in the art of loving.”28

Fromm warns us not to confuse love with fairness; we can respect the rights of others and yet not love them. He asks,

If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his [sic] own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?29

And answers,

Those who are seriously concerned with love as the only rational answer to the problem of human existence must, then, arrive at the conclusion that important and radical changes in our social structure are necessary, if love is to become a social and not a highly individualistic, marginal phenomenon.30



  1. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, 50th anniversary ed. (1956, repr., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006).
  2. Ibid., 37.
  3. Ibid., 43.
  4. Ibid., 77, 87.
  5. Ibid., 87.
  6. Ibid., 72, 74.
  7. Ibid., 74.
  8. Ibid., 9.
  9. Ibid., 24.
  10. Ibid., 25 (set in roman here; italicized in the original).
  11. Ibid., 26.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 27.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 96.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 114.
  18. Ibid., 100.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 105.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., 103.
  24. Ibid., 106 (set in roman here; italicized in the original).
  25. Ibid., 107.
  26. Ibid., 101.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., 106.
  29. Ibid., 120.
  30. Ibid., 122.