Embracing the Love Ethic: A Roadmap for Abolition

Article by Elena Breda, Pitzer ‘21
Music by Jackson Kinder, Pomona ‘21

To view the lyrics, click here

    Like most Americans, I knew little about the police abolition movement until the summer of 2020. As a student, I was invested in philosophical discourses on ethics and justice, but I supported movements to abolish prisons and police only symbolically. This changed when, along with the rest of the world, I watched in horror as police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes, taking his life without hesitation. This moment catalyzed a global conversation on police brutality and the inadequacy of past reforms, compelling myself and many others to recognize abolitionists’ message: police reform is not, and will never be, enough. Abolitionists see prisons and police as irredeemable institutions of state-sanctioned violence.1 They advocate not only for a world without the prison industrial complex, but for a world where these institutions are unnecessary.2 This vision of the future—one without the prison industrial complex or the ideologies that support it—is what abolitionists refer to as abolition democracy.

    It is a fateful coincidence that I read feminist cultural theorist bell hooks’ All About Love (1999) amidst this summer’s call to defund police departments. In this book, hooks connects a collective fear of love to an obsession with safety, citing both as symptoms of a culture of domination.3 She insists that overcoming this reality requires rejecting domination, choosing love and care instead. In her words, hooks advocates for a collective embrace of the love ethic—a set of principles guided by love.4 In this paper, I explore the relationship between abolition democracy and the love ethic. Abolitionist theory contends that the prison industrial complex depends on carceral ideologies. Its proponents urge for a world without prisons and police. The love ethic, on the other hand, renders carceral ideologies obsolete. Thus, I argue that a collective embrace of the love ethic leads to abolition democracy by uprooting the ideologies that the prison industrial complex relies on for its existence.

    W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term abolition democracy in Black Reconstruction in America (1935) to argue that abolishing slavery required citizenship, suffrage, and equal rights for Black Americans.5 Today, the concept retains these roots while also requiring the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organization, defines the PIC as “a term [abolitionists] use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”6 Describing prisons and police as a prison industrial complex exposes the actors involved in criminalization and incarceration. These actors—both private and public—reap financial and political rewards from this system. Finally, the term broadens the scope of criticism available to abolitionists, acknowledging how prisons, police, and other institutions of social control work together to dominate and oppress marginalized communities.7

    A society without prisons and police is challenging to imagine. Abolitionist and law professor Allegra McLeod clarifies one vision for abolition democracy, describing a movement that “calls for a constellation of democratic institutions and practices to displace policing and imprisonment while working to realize more equitable and fair conditions of collective life.”8 Importantly, abolition democracy requires not just a radical restructuring of democratic structures and institutions, but an ideological restructuring away from carcerality.

    Hooks provides further insight. Relying on her theory of the love ethic, I argue that collectively embracing practices of love and care leads the United States towards abolition democracy. Hooks builds the love ethic on M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as the “will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”9 Hooks adds that love requires a combination of various “ingredients,” namely “care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”10 Importantly, hooks defines love as “an action:” the “will” to base one’s behavior on these ingredients.11 In sum, love is a continuous process of nurturing spiritual growth in ourselves and others.

    Hooks bases the love ethic on this specific conception of love. If acting lovingly includes collective care, respect, and honesty, living by a love ethic means loving not only oneself or one’s friends and family, but all human beings. A society guided by the love ethic “presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well” and that “in large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions.”12 Embracing the love ethic nurtures everyone’s spiritual growth and well-being. To live by the love ethic is to base one’s actions in love.

    So far, I have examined abolition democracy and the love ethic as separate concepts. In the following pages, I bring these concepts together, exploring where they intersect. I argue that these concepts are deeply intertwined, down to their discursive frameworks and ideological underpinnings. Finally, I conclude that abolition democracy and the love ethic are not simply interconnected—rather, a collective embrace of the love ethic leads to abolition democracy.

    Abolition democracy and the love ethic are connected by what they oppose: ideologies of violence and domination. Hooks wrote All About Love to address Americans’ fear of love, reflected in a cultural obsession with safety.13 She writes, “Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience… Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination.”14  The love ethic is a framework for overcoming fear and challenging structures of domination. According to hooks, “when we choose to love we choose to move against fear—against alienation and separation.”15 Hooks connects structures of domination—including prisons and police—with fear, manifested as ideologies of violence and domination. This fear creates alienation and separation between individuals, allowing structures of domination to uphold the status quo. The love ethic rejects the PIC by targeting the ideologies that perpetuate it.

    Abolitionists similarly critique ideologies of domination and violence, referring to them as “carceral ideologies.”16 Abolition is not simply defunding the police or closing prisons. Rather, abolishing carceral institutions is incomplete without dismantling the ideological frameworks that allow these structures to exist. Thus, abolition democracy requires the abolition not just of prisons, policing, and surveillance, but also of the corresponding ideologies on which the former structures depend. Abolition democracy and the love ethic share a goal: abolishing ideologies of fear and domination. The love ethic, however, offers an aspirational framework to move towards. When synthesized, abolition democracy benefits together with the love ethic because the latter provides a positive alternative to carceral ideologies.

    Just as abolition democracy opposes carceral ideologies, it also opposes fear and alienation—two notions that undergird traditional conceptions of safety and security.17 Abolitionists question the assumption that police and prisons keep us safe. Examining whom these institutions incarcerate and surveille, abolitionists also interrogate racialized constructions of threat. Abolitionists expose the history of police departments, created in the 17th and 18th centuries to control newly freed slaves in the South and keep the industrial working class from organizing in the North.18 The police were designed, abolitionists argue, to keep wealthy white Americans safe from poor people of color. Today, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and countless more unarmed Black people demonstrate the enduring legacy of policing’s racist initiative. Abolition democracy redefines safety not as protection from poor Black people—and certainly not as a privilege held only by upper class white communities—but rather as the protection of collective well-being.

    Bringing abolition democracy in conversation with the love ethic clarifies the meaning of collective well-being. Hooks explains that the love ethic is an “ethic of communalism and the sharing of resources.”19 Abolition democracy adopts a similar commitment to communalism in its advocacy for increased public welfare, investment in marginalized communities, and a universal living wage.20 Both the love ethic and abolition democracy define safety as protection from hunger, poverty, housing insecurity, and interpersonal and state-sanctioned violence, rather than protection from stereotypical “bad guys.” Reframing safety in these terms embraces the love ethic. Because abolition democracy and the love ethic converge on this framework of safety as well-being, adopting the love ethic leads to abolition democracy.

    In the previous pages, I have shown that abolition democracy and the love ethic are connected: both oppose ideologies of violence and domination, reframe notions of safety and security, and prioritize collective well-being. Based on these connections, I argue that abolition democracy emerges following a societal embrace of the love ethic. Abolition democracy cannot exist until carceral ideologies and the PIC are abolished and replaced. The love ethic uproots carceral structures and ideologies, replacing the PIC with systems of justice and accountability that prioritize collective well-being.

    Hooks writes, “Domination cannot exist in any social situation where a love ethic prevails.”21 Carceral ideologies are ideologies of domination. The prison industrial complex relies on carceral ideologies to legitimize its role in society and uphold the status quo. Living by the love ethic means rejecting ideologies of domination that are incompatible with loving action and decision-making. Embracing the love ethic renders carceral ideologies obsolete. Without carceral ideologies, the PIC no longer appears legitimate or natural.

    Indeed, living by the love ethic leaves no other choice than to abolish these institutions. The love ethic requires that concern for collective well-being drives action. The PIC, on the other hand, operates on fear, social control, and domination. Most importantly, the PIC is built on systemic racism that disproportionately targets marginalized communities.22 Any institution that protects one group at the expense of others is incompatible with the love ethic.

    If the love ethic were to govern society, the PIC would become obsolete. We would understand safety as having a roof over your head, enough food for your family, freedom from interpersonal and state violence, and so on. Prisons and police—institutions that intimidate, divide, and harm people of color—do not fit with this redefined conception of safety. The love ethic dismantles structures of domination and state-sanctioned violence, encouraging investment in institutions that foster well-being such as social services and welfare programs. Guided by the love ethic, we would settle for nothing less than abolition democracy.

    In this paper, I have explored the relationship between abolition democracy and the love ethic. Both oppose carceral ideologies and structures of violence and domination. Both fundamentally reframe the notion of safety to mean the protection of every citizen’s well-being. To create an abolition democracy, we can’t just abolish prisons and police. We must abandon the carceral ideologies that uphold structures of domination. Embracing the love ethic does exactly that: it renders carceral ideologies obsolete. A collective embrace of the love ethic leads us to abolition democracy.


  1. Rachel Herzing explains: “The prison industrial complex is not a broken system, right?  Reformers believe that this system is broken, and that if we can just fix the right cog in it, that it actually is going to work fine for all of us. Abolitionists know that the system works precisely as it should. It cages, it controls, it kills precisely who it should, and some other people probably in addition to precisely who it should, right? And I think if you believe that this thing can be fixed, then you're looking for the thing to fix it.” In the same panel, Marbre Stahly-Butts elaborates: “These are not broken systems, they don't need tweaking, it's not like, oh, ups, if we just maybe fix this one law — these systems are rotten systems, they were created to do what they're doing. […] And so our job is not to tweak them, it's to dismantle them.” Critical Resistance, “Abolition is Liberation: Marbre Stahly-Butts & Rachel Herzing in Conversation with Cory Lira,” filmed November 23, 2019 at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, OR, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpYc-WnmMBs&t=3889s.
  2. Abolitionist and law professor Allega McLeod quotes the following in her article on abolition democracy: “What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses, 22 SOC. TEXT 101, 114 (2004).
  3. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: William Morrow, 2000), 91-93.
  4. hooks, All About Love, “Values: Living by a Love Ethic,” 85-102.
  5. W.E.B. Du Bois and H.J. Mack, Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Rutledge, 2012), 165.
  6. “What is the PIC? What is Abolition?,” Critical Resistance, accessed April 29, 2021, http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/.
  7. See Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011), 12 & 84-104.
  8. Allegra McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy,” Harvard Law Review 132, no. 1 (April 2019): 1613-1649.
  9. As quoted in hooks, All About Love, 5.
  10. hooks, All About Love, 5.
  11. Ibid.
  12. hooks, All About Love, 87-88.
  13. hooks, All About Love, 91-93.
  14. hooks, All About Love, 93.
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Brett Story, “Dis-placing the Prison: Carceral Space, Disposable Life, and Urban Struggle in Neoliberal America” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2015), 28-29 & 158-202.
  17. Abolitionist author and lawyer Andrea Ritchie asks: “What are the metrics of safety? What are the things you will need in order to feel safe? Often when I ask that question, I almost have — I’ve never heard police. When I’ve talked to Black people about that. I’ve only heard I need a roof over my head. I need a job that is not criminalized […] We need to divest, as I said, from the notion that policing and punishment — that we can police and punish our way to safety. We can only police and punish ourselves to more violence.” Pitzer College, “Racial Justice in Our Time: A Conversation with Activist Scholars,” recorded September 10, 2020, held virtually on Zoom, video, https://www.pitzer.edu/racial-justice-initiative/racial-justice-in-our-time-a-conversation-with-activist-scholars/.
  18. See Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (New York: Verso Books, 2017); Orisanmi Burton, “To Protect and Serve Whiteness,” North American Dialogue 18, no. 2 (October 2015): 38-50.
  19. hooks, All About Love, 99.
  20. See “Invest in Care, Not Cops,” #8toAbolition, accessed April 29, 2021, https://www.8toabolition.com/invest-in-care-not-cops; “Divest/Invest: Criminalization,” Funders for Justice, accessed April 29, 2021, https://divest-ffj.org/#what-is.
  21. hooks, All About Love, 98.
  22. See “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP, accessed April 29, 2021, https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/; “Corrupting Justice,”  Prison Policy Initiative, accessed April 29, 2021, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/corrupting-justice.pdf; Holly Barrow, “Systemic Racism and the Prison-Industrial Complex in the ‘Land of the Free’,” Hampton Institute, July 26, 2020, https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/systemic-racism-and-the-prison-industrial-complex-in-the-land-of-the-free.