Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Seth Adam Smith's Dad

Less than a year ago, Seth Adam Smith's great blog post, "Marriage Isn't For You," went viral. In the post, Smith explains how, not long before his wedding, his dad dealt bluntly with his cold feet by urging him to think about giving to, rather than getting from, his bride-to-be.

It is, as I say, a great piece. But it raises an interesting question for me, a question somewhere at the border of normative and applied ethics.

The crucial moment in Smith's story comes when his dad says:
Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. . . . Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.
It seems clear that the elder Smith isn't offering a report on what he thinks his son is doing, much less on what people in general are doing. So what is he claiming, then?

It might be useful to contrast what seems to be going on in Seth's dad's comments with a more straightforward account of devoted love in marriage.

Such an account begins, let us suppose, with the first stage of a couple's interaction. Perhaps the lover begins by simply liking the beloved, before going on to find the beloved attractive romantically, erotically, or both. In an ongoing spiral of engagement, liking and attraction give rise to the determination to engage further, which leads to additional bonding. The lover begins to incorporate the beloved into the lover's own sense of self, sense of identity. At the same time, the lover's delight in and desire for the beloved grow.

At this point, at least two complementary things may occur. (i) The beloved may find the beloved—whether simply because the beloved occupies a more central place in the lover's live and world, so that the lover is more aware of the beloved as a three-dimensional, vulnerable human with particular needs, or because particular needs and vulnerabilities on the part of the beloved present themselves to the lover—a vulnerable person whose needs evoke a desire to offer care and nurture. (ii) The lover incorporates the beloved clearly into the lover's own sense of who he or she is—a process of attachment, identification, and bonding. These developments prompt the lover to reach out, to will, to care for the beloved.

Meanwhile, delight and desire continue to play their independent roles in drawing the lover into the beloved's presence and prompting the lover to seek increased closeness with the beloved.

The lover moves toward a multi-part commitment: (1) a commitment to caring for the beloved, a commitment that prompts the desire to provide the reassurance and security that constancy can afford; (2) a commitment to achieve a "we" relationship with the beloved; (3) a commitment to the beloved to care for her or him precisely in and through the maintenance of a "we" relationship.

The initial commitments are commitments the lover makes in and to her- or himself, ratifying the felt attachment and bonding that's already been taking place. The third-stage commitment builds on these commitments, expressing them, at the right time, to the beloved. Thus, love here begins as impulse, becomes interaction-forged attachment and bond, becomes a self-chosen commitment, and is consummated as an interpersonal commitment.

So on this model, which I'd like to think will be familiar in general terms to many readers, love's obligations grow out of love's bond which grows out of love's desire.

Seth's dad seems to be saying something different. In his words, as Seth reports them, the focus seems to be on an in-built teleology. Love and marriage just are for particular purposes.

It should be clear that this can't be a report on the purposes empirical individuals happen to have. After all, Seth's dad isn't just reminding him of a purpose he already he has—he's saying, instead, that Seth should have a particular purpose. What, then, is the force of the should here?

Clearly, Seth's dad could just mean  that romantic relationships and marriages offer the opportunity to love unselfishly. But he seems to be saying more than this. He clearly implies that Seth is choosing and feeling deficiently because he is not immediately inclined to love openly and generously to his betrothed.

But he is also not saying that Seth is choosing in a manner inconsistent with commitments to himself and to his betrothed. For his language seems to imply that love's imperatives precede these commitments. There is, on his view, a set purpose for marriage, so that if one is going to marry at all, one should embrace this purpose.

The question, I think, is how Seth's dad would have responded if Seth had said, "Well, maybe you're right that 'marriage' as an institution has the character you describe, so that if I commit to marriage I am committing to behaving in this way. But what's to stop me and my beloved from entering a parallel institution, call it 'schmarriage', that lacks any expectation of devoted love but has many of the other superficial feature of marriage?"

It might well be that Seth's beloved would prefer a marriage to a schmarriage, so that, if he's going to commit to her at all, he'll need to commit to marriage rather than schmarriage. And, indeed, he might prefer that she adopt in relation to him the attitudes involved in marriage rather than those associated with schmarriage, and be willing for this reason to offer her a commitment to marriage. But while this might be a perfectly good reason for Seth to commit to a devotedly loving marriage, it's not what's in view here, since Seth's dad, in Seth's story, criticizes Seth for not wanting to commit to a devotedly loving marriage, and does so because of his judgment about Seth's attitude toward his beloved. His dad seems to presuppose an imperative something like this: Choose to commit to marriage in order to give to your beloved. He seems to think Seth would act wrongly or deficiently if he ignored this imperative.

I can think immediately of at least two ways in which one might defend Seth's dad's claim.

(1) One might understand Seth's dad as embracing, not an ethics of rules or duties or principles but rather an ethics of virtue. On this view, Seth's choices would be problematic, not as inconsistent with any categorical or self-assumed obligation (to himself or to his beloved) but rather as revelatory of a deficient character. More work would be needed here, but the idea seems plain and fairly plausible: devotion to one's beloved is a virtuous disposition worth embracing, and failing to embody this disposition (when one has a beloved to love devotedly) is a reasonably criticizable deficiency. One might ground this account of human virtue in different ways—as an embodiment of self-sacrificial divine love (cp. Ephesians, Hosea); as the expression of an attitude we just find ourselves consistently valuing (the Humean approach); etc. Particularly relevant here might be the fact that devotion is a natural expression of love's own impulse, so that failing to love devotedly might be a matter of suppressing love's own inherent potential and dynamic. (Perhaps this is what Seth himself is getting at when he later says: "No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, “What’s in it for me?”, while Love asks, “What can I give?”) It's hard to argue against this on deontic grounds, but it might qualify as ugly, and so as a Humean vice.

(2) One might also attempt a deontic account. To make this view work, we'd need some kind of argument to the effect that romantic love and marriage necessarily entail committed devotion, and that someone opting to love romantically or to marry would act wrongly if she or he failed to commit to loving devotedly. One might try to make this case in several steps. (a) One could note that, whatever one says about marriages versus schmarriages, the formal features of marriage—shared life, shared identity, shared physical space (not necessary, but common), and sex (again, not necessary, but common and obviously expected) make for great vulnerability between the partners, and a commitment responsive to that vulnerability is appropriate even if the partners try to frame some less committed relationship (at least without a purposeful waiver on the part of one or both). (b) One could note that, by inviting one's beloved into a love relationship, one effectively deprives her or him of opportunities to enter other relationships that might offer devoted love; and, given the great value of such love, it would be unreasonable to preclude it in a context in which one's partner might ordinarily expect it. Alternatively, (c) one might see this obligation as a product of some kind of vocation (not necessarily willed or announced by God; cp. Lawrence A. Blum, Moral Perception and Particularity).

I think the virtue-based approach comes closer to capturing what I suspect Seth's dad is trying to say. In any case, both approaches deserve further study and reflection.




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