Love has historically played a big role in how we understand the task of treating other people well. Many moral systems hold that love is foundational to doing right.

The Bible, for example, commands us to “love thy neighbour” – not merely to respect or value them, but to love them. Thousands of years later, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote that “loving attention” is the core of morality.

In our contemporary understanding of the word, love seems to involve partiality. In all kinds of settings from romantic love to the love in friendship or familial love, loving people seems to mean not loving others. We love our wife, not our neighbours’ wife. We love our friends and our parents, not our boss’ friends or our bus drivers’ father.

In fact, we might think that someone does not love their spouse in any meaningful sense of the word if they also say they love all other people equally – the celebrated essence of love seems to involve choosing some people over others.

This partiality affects our actions as well as our emotions: our parents, friends, and spouses receive more prioritisation, gifts, and emotional attention from us than strangers. This is a celebrated and joyful feature of human life.

Could love in fact be immoral – or amoral? Could behaving lovingly and behaving ethically be two separate tasks – tasks that might sometimes come into conflict?

Morality, has often been thought of as essentially neutral. That is, the moral gaze looks at everyone as equals; not favouring one person over another simply because of our relationship with them. Kantian ethicists, for instance, hold that all people deserve ethical treatment simply because they are persons.

Anyone who is a person deserves to have others not lie to them, disrespect them, enslave their body or seize their property. Thus, the only thing the moral gaze is concerned with is whether someone is a person – and since all people are persons, the moral gaze looks upon all of us equally.

Consequentialist ethics contains a similar commitment to neutrality. For a consequentialist, the moral measure of an action is whether it maximises value. Whose value is maximised has no special claim to our attention; the more value, the better, whether it accrues to my mother or to yours. Since the moral gaze looks to creating the most happiness, it looks at all people equally – as equal vectors of possible happiness.

If morality contains a commitment to neutrality – and if love contains a commitment to partiality – then the moral gaze and the loving gaze might conflict. It might even be the case that love demands acting in ways that morality seems to forbid.

Imagine that you are on a ship which begins to sink. You have held onto the railing but other passengers have not been so lucky, and in the water before you are several strangers struggling to stay afloat. Also in the water, struggling alongside the strangers, is your wife. Are you permitted to throw your wife the one remaining life jacket? Or is her right to life no stronger than any of the strangers’? Love seems to demand that we save our wife, but morality, if it is neutral, seems to offer no automatic reason why we should.

The philosopher Bernard Williams saw a way out of this puzzle. He argued that any person standing on the boat in this situation, who starts thinking about what morality demands, might reasonably be charged with having “one thought too many”. The person should not think “my wife is in the water – what does morality require I do?”. They should simply think “my wife is in the water,” and throw the life jacket.

Williams’ view was that a morally good person is not always thinking about what is morally justifiable. Perhaps, counterintuitively, being a truly ethical person means not always looking through the moral gaze. The question still remains – do love and morality ask us for different things?