Sunday, February 01, 2009

Why romantic relationships are intrinsically valuable


At first I didn't have words to describe just how skin-crawlingly horrible I found this post to be.

The basic idea is that romantic relationships are only instrumentally valuable, whereas strong friendships are intrinsically valuable, where "intrinsically valuable things are those that make us happy (rather than happiness itself being the intrinsically valuable thing), and instrumentally valuable things are those that we only value insofar as they give us access to those things that in themselves make us happy." The author breaks relationships into categories:

First, we have acquaintanceships. Examples of people we share these with might be certain people you work with or share a class with; you talk to them and perhaps walk between classes with them, perhaps have lunch breaks together, but the association ends when the semester ends, or one of you resigns from the job or whatever. (Just think of people you were friendly with at high school but never talked to again once high school ended.)

You then have what I think Aristotle called pleasure friendships. This might be where you share an interest with a person such as fishing or music or something, so you hang out to do those things. Once the fishing season is over or your band breaks up, the friendship also ceases.

You then have strong friendships where two people are friends because they respect and admire each others’ virtues. They associate with each other purely because they like each other as people. There are no extrinsic conditions; the main basis for the friendship is the liking of each other as people, and they thus find association with each other valuable for its own sake.

Romantic relationships are not like this; they are a form of pleasure friendship. The participants have attraction and infatuation in common, and there is no need for this to be grounded in a real appreciation of the other person’s virtues. Perhaps we could say that what they have in common is the indulgence in intimacy for intimacy’s sake. Of course when we are in a relationship we see our partner as perfect and they can do no wrong (unless/until you’ve been together for a while). Every instance of agreement between the participants is evidence to them of their being soul-mates.


Now, there are exceptions to all of this. We usually meet our good friends at school or work or perhaps through some mutual hobby (how else?). Sometimes those in romantic relationships really do have much in common; these relationships are probably those which result in either happy marriage or successful post-romance friendships (I mean more than just the occasional “hi” or semi-annual coffee).
Then we get into the valuation:

The type of value a relationship has depends on what kind of relationship it is. ... [S]trong friendships are intrinsically valuable because you like the person’s character for its own sake. The friendship does not depend on an activity or proximity.

Romantic relationships, being a form of pleasure friendship, are, I would say, instrumentally valuable. When the romance ceases, so does association. ... The association in romantic relationships was never about the person them self; otherwise genuine post-romance friendships would be more common, and post-romance regret would be less common.
Perhaps I am some exceptional case, or fancy myself to be one, but this analysis does not represent the reality of romantic relationships as I see and have experienced them. Are people sometimes more in love with the idea of someone than with the person? Certainly, but this is typically based on the lover's opinion of the beloved's character or self. What is one attracted to and infatuated with, but the beloved's physical and mental selves? What is the value of intimacy without the accompanying knowledge that the beloved is worthy of such contact? Romances founder not because one somehow loses some targetless, floating "attraction," but because one's initial assessment of the beloved's balance of traits changes, either due to the inclusion of new information or revision of old information. The idea that romance, like needlepoint or fishing, is something that people get together to do for its own sake, regardless of the nature of their partners, is baffling in the extreme.

The author acknowledges this in a brief addendum:

I still think some kind of an argument can be made to say romantic relationships are intrinsically valuable, though. When you’re in a romantic relationship, you usually do think your partner is virtuous and respectable. It is only when the infatuation ends that you realise you were deluded. Perhaps this isn’t so different to a genuine or “strong” friendship ending upon learning that the friend you thought virtuous is really a sneak. Would we say here that the friendship was still genuine and thus intrinsically valuable? Perhaps it is about perception, rather than fact?

And what's so problematic about the original hypothesis, which the author does not appear to have rejected?

Contending that romantic relationships are not about the content of the partners' character allows the adherent to objectify potential partners. In the one type of relationship typically marked with the greatest level of intimacy, it presupposes an almost arms' length transaction, in which personal qualities are somehow irrelevant.

By elevating "strong friendships" (on average likely to be homosocial) over romantic relationships (on average likely to be opposite-sex), it contributes to the repellent, sexist "bros before hos" dynamic, in which the opposite sex is denigrated and depersonalized as being unworthy of true personal intimacy and value (perhaps in this case such a connection is merely unnecessary).

Plus, acceptance of this philosophy of relationships? Correlated with being a dick. Witness this, also from a recent post on the linked blog:

Who the hell uses the word ‘avant-garde’ with a straight face, anyway? It’s like dropping ‘postmodern’ during conversation. Anyone who does that is a prick.

The only time I’d ever welcome that would be in a girl. People like that are trying so hard to be open minded that they’ll buy any bullshit you offer.

So, Weingott: Threat or menace?