If you were to ask people why they think life is worth living, I suspect that a common reason you would get back would be that if you’re alive you enjoy the possibility of sexual or romanitc fulfillment. These things are wonderful and you can’t experience them if you don’t exist, ergo you have a reason to live.
That’s nice as far as as it goes. I can say from experience of those moments in which I have experienced them sexual and romantic fulfillment are wonderful, so can you, I hope. But it is curious and, to my mind, rather depressing that so few people really think through what underlies this rationale for life being worth living. For the fulfillment is something founded on a desire, a yearning which, when thwarted or unfulfilled, becomes the source of profound suffering. Think of all the misery in the world that stems out of love. Have you ever pined with unrequited love? Felt the sharp sting of rejection? Been dumped? Cheated on? Lonely for extended periods of time? Tell me, dear reader, how did that feel? Not for nothing do we speak of burning with passion. (And as the more learned among us might note, not for nothing do we build the word that expresses our strongest state of desire on a Latin root passio which means suffering.) In a recent post I quoted relationship guru Reid Mihalko describing people as starving for a relationship, and there I think he spoke truer than perhaps he knows.
Misery, burns, starvation…ain’t love grand? As far as I know no one has ever really tried to do all the accounting, but I at least strongly suspect that if some great CPA of the human soul were to do an audit, they would find the enterprise of human love to be a deeply losing proposition.
Some people will retort that this is not true and, go off starry-eyed in prusuit of romantic dreams. Those folks I cannot reach. A more interesting reply would be that perhaps yes, there is a lot of sadness right now, but that this is the result of curable defects in the world. We just need better sex education that will give people better communications skills and more realistic expectations. Everyone just needs some therapy to relax and get rid of their problems. We just need to fix our culture (liberal version: we need more freedom and the overcoming of patriarchy; conservative version: we need to get rid of all the immorality evil liberals have introduced into the world). Do all thsoe things, and then life will be joyous on the most part.
Let me state that while I’m entirely sympathetic to better sex education and more freedom; these are things that I think can help reduce some serious forms of suffering (like those that result from unsafe sex practices or sexual opporession). But I don’t think they’ll do much to fix the problem of the burning and the starving, at least not very much. I think love will continue to make us miserable, and I’ll devote a few following posts to establishing why I think this is so.
4 thoughts on “Love will not save you I”
Interesting start and I’m looking forward to where you go with this but I wonder whether one really has to be an unreachable romantic to question whether the utilitarian calculus makes sense in this context? Does it really make sense to try and add up all the joys of love, then net out its miseries, in an attempt to calulate whether the final sum is positive or negative? It’s not clear to me that the highs and the lows are even capable of being measured in the same units. But I’m aware I’m treading on dangerous ground here … it may be utilitarianism itself that I am unwittingly attacking here, in which case, oopsie.
For what it’s worth, I quite agree with you that we can’t entirely fix love. Some of the starvation, at least, can be helped … online dating has made a good start and it’s still pretty primitive as an infotech goes. But much of the pain we generate quite deliberately and inflict on each other; love may or may not be a zero sum game but it is a game and some of its moves are going to hurt some people. (The enterprise of love generates jealousy, rejection, and pain as an inevitable byproduct.) The only way to avoid that would be for nobody to play, and by that point, I’m not sure we’re talking about humans anymore.
Even if we don’t think there are natural units of utility, we probably could aim for an estimate of how many people would be willing to accept Mephistophelean wagers with a cumulative probability of 0.5 or greater within the domain of love and sex (i.e. people who might, for example, take terrific gambles if only they could find a significant other they really liked, or to get out of a miserable relationship, etc.) For reasons that might become clearer in following posts, I think that number is higher than most people realize.
As for not talking about humans anymore, well, I guess I’m one of those nutty antinatalists with occasional flickerings of posthumanist sympathies, so that works for me.
Having just finished Stross/Doctorow’s Rapture of The Nerds my own post-humanist sympathies have recently taken a minor buffeting, but I want to hasten to explain that I wasn’t offering “not human any more” as a reason not to make the change. I don’t oppose rewiring ourselves to make us better; I just wanted to gesture at the idea that “fixing” love would make for a pretty dramatic change in who we are.