Attachment, Agency, and Virtue

A Philosophical Treatment of Emotional Attachment



In ordinary language, we often use the term “attachment” to describe our emotional connectedness to objects in the world. A parent might describe her child as attached to this toy or to that blanket. People often become attached to their careers, to their homes, and even to ideas. But as human beings, we typically describe our most significant attachments as those we have to other people. We develop attachments to our families, to our friends, to our lovers, and oftentimes to certain colleagues, teammates, and others with whom we regularly associate.

It is clear that attachments, though not necessarily restricted to human beings, are very important for us qua persons. Attachments give shape and meaning to our lives. They help to define who we are. They capture our thoughts and guide our actions in uniquely impactful ways. Yet, despite its ineluctable import and complexity, the topic of attachment per se is largely ignored in the philosophical literature.

In my dissertation, Towards a Theory of Emotional Attachment, I began to address this lacuna by offering a preliminary account of the nature and value of (what I call) security-based attachment. That investigation spawned a number of articles, which can be found here and here. In the near future, I plan to further develop and consolidate this work in the form of a book mauscript that will be divided into three sections, each containing 3-4 chapters. I briefly describe the book trajectory below.

Project Overview

In the first section, I identify the key marks of (security-based) attachment and locate it within the nexus of related attitudes, including caring, valuing, and love. On my account, attachment is marked by a felt need of its object and an integral connection between engagement with that object and the attached agent’s sense of security. I employ insights from ancient Stoicism and Eastern philosophy, as well as empirical work from clinical and developmental psychology to articulate the relevant concepts of need and security. Security, as I use the term, does not denote mere feelings of “safety,” but should be construed as a kind of confidence in one’s well-being and agential competence. Without our attachment objects, we tend to feel “out of sorts” or “no longer all of a piece,” while engagement with our attachment objects helps us to feel as though we are “on solid ground” and "empowered to take on life’s challenges." I take it that these phrases, while admittedly colloquial, capture something very real about the emotional lives of human beings and the relationships that both move us and hold us together as agents.

In the second section, I animate the aforementioned view of attachment toward informing extant debates in the philosophy of emotion and agency literatures. For example, I argue that attachment can helpfully illuminate both the specific types of relationship that undergird warranted grief and the particular brands of affect and agential impairment characteristic of grief’s phenomenology. I also argue that contra strong disinterested concern views of love, attachment represents a kind of self-interestedness that is not only permissible in, but essential to, some kinds of love. I am currently working on additional chapters for this section that aim at showing how attachment can elucidate both other emotional phenomena (including hatred and trust) and the normativity of special relationships – i.e., the particular reasons and requirements to which certain kinds of special relationships (e.g., romantic relationships, parent-child bonds, etc.) give rise.

The final section focuses on the value of attachment, what it means to attach well, and the role of attachment in a flourishing life. I start by considering two attachment-related forms of psychopathology, psychopathy and addiction. Psychopathy is a disorder in which the afflicted lack the capacity to form intimate attachments to other persons, and certain forms of addiction represent what I refer to as hyper-attachment orientations. Investigating these pathologies of attachment affords us a clearer picture of what attachments can do to us and for us, thereby illuminating the value of attachment. I then revisit Ancient Stoicism and Eastern philosophy in order to assess certain worries traditionally associated with attachment. Taking such worries seriously aids our understandings of the specific vices and virtues implicated in (particular kinds of) attachment, thus informing what it means to attach well. In conclusion, I argue that as some of the virtues that facilitate attaching well are also promoted by attachment itself, developing and maintaining certain attachments may help us to become more virtuous agents.