Do we really know love?

Elisa Do
February 10, 2022
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

C/O Allauren Forbes

A philosophy course offers a space for exploration of some of our most intimate topics 

What is love, really? What makes a meaningful relationship? How can our understanding of love and sex shift with the complexities of societal, political and ethical expectations? 

The study of philosophy involves seeking out truths about the world, our relationships with one another and our relationship with ourselves. Allauren Forbes is an assistant professor at McMaster University within the department of philosophy. Forbes teaches a course called Philosophy of Love and Sex, which focuses on exploring truths about topics of love and sex. 

The course offers students an opportunity to have discussions about philosophical topics, engage in self-reflection and analyze philosophical literature, some of which may challenge their personal views on intimate relationships. 

The course offers students an opportunity to have discussions about philosophical topics, engage in self-reflection and analyze philosophical literature, some of which may challenge their personal views on intimate relationships. 

Though unique to every individual, such topics are universal and monumental to how one navigates the world and Forbes believes that the importance of love and sex extends beyond just romantic relationships alone. 

“[T]hey're really personal things that shape enormous amounts of the way that we live our lives, the kinds of relationships that we pursue, the kinds of choices we make about careers or where we live [and] a host of other things,” said Forbes.   

Although not always obvious, love and sex are often complicated by societal values and expectations. 

“[Societal expectations] tell us what kinds of relationships are good or valuable [and] what kinds of structures are good or valuable."

Allauren Forbes, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

“[Societal expectations] tell us what kinds of relationships are good or valuable [and] what kinds of structures are good or valuable,” explained Forbes. 

One example of how relationships can challenge societal norms is found in polyamorous relationships. Forbes explained that polyamory is not as widely accepted in Western societies given that monogamy is the default understanding people have about what a relationship is supposed to look like. 

However, exploring philosophical questions can help investigate the value behind these assumptions in society. 

“[I]n the context of romance, you should have a relationship structure that suits your needs and if you are in a society that says, ‘Well, [here] is a very specific narrative: you should find the one and live happily ever after and have two kids,’ maybe that's not what suits you. [Philosophy] helps us question some of these structures. Maybe monogamy isn't right for somebody. Maybe there are other ways to do things that are still in love and still meaningful and valuable [in] all the ways that traditional relationships are,” said Forbes. 

In addition to societal norms, intersectional identities such as race and gender can also play a crucial role to how one experiences love and sex. 

Often, Forbes explained, this can present itself in the form of racist expectations of what is appropriate or not for a particular race. False stereotypes about people can be damaging and pose extra barriers preventing people from building meaningful lives for themselves. 

The community that an individual surrounds themselves with, whether it be their family or friends, can have also significant impact on their experience with relationships. 

“I mean, it could be so psychologically burdensome to try and live a life that is authentic and affirming to you if the people around you think that you are living or being in the wrong kind of way or the wrong kind of relationship . . . [Community] has the power to lift you up but also has the power to sort of pull you back, mak[ing] it harder to live the life of your choosing but also harder to feel good about living the life you're choosing,” said Forbes. 

“I mean, it could be so psychologically burdensome to try and live a life that is authentic and affirming to you if the people around you think that you are living or being in the wrong kind of way or the wrong kind of relationship."

Allauren Forbes, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

After teaching the course for the last two years, Forbes said that she enjoys teaching the course, though it can require an important balance between open discussion amongst the students and staying mindful of the sensitive nature of these topics. 

Forbes aims to be respectful of students’ experiences, recognizing that discussions can be personal, while creating an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable engaging in stimulating conversations. As a way of promoting this environment, an anonymous form is available for students to fill out if they have any concerns they want to bring to her attention. 

Stressing the importance of how philosophy can transform our understanding of love, Forbes hopes students can apply their learning to their own lives. 

“I want students to come away from the class with the sort of formal school skills of philosophy to question some of these things [and] make sure that they understand the kinds of things that they want to do for themselves. I mean, I think philosophy can help us live better lives and I think that part of it is understanding what it is that we're doing,” said Forbes. 

In 2020 and 2021, Philosophy of Love and Sex (PHILOS 2ZZ3) has been offered in the fall semester. Although not certain as of date, students can keep an eye out for future offering of this course on the department of philosophy website

Subscribe to our Mailing List

© 2022 The Silhouette. All Rights Reserved. McMaster University's Student Newspaper.
magnifiercrossmenuarrow-right