Why do love and sex generate so much misery? Is it just a sorry historical accident? The result of crappy institutions and mores (“patriarchy,” “immorality,” etc.) that we can rid ourselves of? I am skeptical. One reason for my being skeptical is that I’ve absorbed a lot of what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had to say about politics and think it applies to sex as well.
Explicating a Hobbesian understanding of mating and dating is tricky to do in the context of a single blogpost. To do so I’ll introduce some deliberately simplified assumptions, something which is necessary to keep my informal model tractable. I’ll relax some of these assumptions in later posts, but for right now I’ll proceed with them. The toy world I’ll be considering doesn’t resemble with perfect fidelity the world we actually live in, although I think readers will notice more than a few points of contact.
The assumptions run something as follows.
- People occupy places on a ladder of desirability. It’s a sad and deeply unfair but nonetheless universal fact of life that not everyone viewed as equally desirable or lovable or sexy, whether for purposes of a one-night stand or a life-long partnership. I shall be agnostic about the particular content of what it is that makes some people more appealing than others — it can be a complex function of physical attractiveness, wit, charm, kindness, health, wealth, sexual talent, musical and artistic ability, you name it, as you like — but people don’t have “it” in equal proportions.
- People get happiness by pairing off. This is an analytic simplification. In the real world there are such things as being poly and so on, but let’s bracket that for now.
- People like to pair off with someone as high up the ladder as possible. This is probably the case in the real world — think, reader, you certainly don’t regard everyone you’ve ever met as equally attractive. (If you do, write to me, because I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in life!).
- There is only one ladder. This is probably the grosses of my analytic simplifications, and I know that in the real world it is not true (though it might be closer to true than most people think). I will relax the assumption in a future post, but people who think they can open a gaping hole in the argument here through denying (4) be warned: relaxing this assumption does not mean that love will save you after all — far from it.
- Places on the ladder are not fixed, but responsive to individual effort. To everyone is open the option of working on verself to make verself more attractive — prettier, wittier, healthier, wealthier, you name it — and moving up a rung or so on the ladder. Of course, none of this activity is costless. Engaging in it means giving up free time, wealth, and energy that might otherwise have been used to make oneself happier in other ways.
- It’s sort of nice to move up the ladder. This is a corollary of (3). People are generally happier pairing off with people they find more, rather than less, desirable.
- It really sucks moving down the ladder. Because thanks to (3), if you move down the ladder, and if you’re paired off, the person you’re paired off with might not want to be paired off with you any more. (Ever been dumped? Remember how much that sucked?) Or, if you’re not paired off and trying to, you might find that someone whom you might have paired off with will now no longer be interested in pairing off with you. (Ever been rejected? Remember how much that sucked?)
Now the fiendish thing about this whole world is that when there is only one ladder (#4), everyone is trapped in an unstable game of trying to scramble over each other driven a little bit by the desire to move up and a lot by the fear of moving down. Illustration: suppose a world has two kinds of people in it, 0s and 1s. 0s all want to pair off with the best 1s they can, and vice versa. (Forgive the heteronormativity, or should I say heteroarithmaticity — another simplifying assumption!) The population of 52 is divided neatly in half, and everyone is ranked A to Z in terms of how desirable In a world in which assumption #5 does not hold, one might imagine a stable arrangement where A0 pairs off with A1, B0 with B1, and so on down to Z0 with Z1. Everyone is happy — or at least, as happy as nature allows them to be.
Except that, of course, perhaps Z0 isn’t all that happy and thinks that ve might want to make a run at being paired off with Y1, who is slightly sexier than Z1, and so heads off to the gym or learns to play guitar or whatever. Not that Z0 really wants any of this (those muscles sure hurt, and learning all those chords is sort of boring), but Z0 thinks Y1 is worth it, and so ve works away…
…and promptly threatens the position of Y0. How humiliating it would be to be dumped by Y1. Y!! Next from the bottom on the ladder! And so pretty soon Y0 is busy working away at things that Y0 doesn’t necessarily like either, which in turn threatens the position of X0….and…
….and before you know it, there a war of all against all fighting for positions on the ladder as the competition zips all the way up to A0. And the competition is not just on the 0 side of the ladder, because the 1s are of course just as capable of fighting among themselves as well.
There’s a bad equilibrium in this game, and it’s this: everyone slaves away trying to be attractive to the point where they use up resources, making themselves only marginally less miserable than they would be just sliding down the ladder. Life might not be dependably solitary, but it’s certainly likely to be poor, nasty and brutish. (And, if the relationship between anxiety and life expectancy is what I think it is, also short.) Love hasn’t saved anyone. Indeed, love has ruined people’s lives. And unfortunately, I don’t see any reason why this equilibrium should not be selected.
We can make an analogy between the struggle for position in this toy world and the struggle over security in Hobbes state of nature. In Hobbes’s state of nature, people’s strivings for security makes everyone supremely insecure. In the toy world I’ve just constructed, people’s striving for happiness leads to everyone’s being miserable. There is a disanalogy in the solution, however. Hobbes proposed an escape from the state of nature through submission to a sovereign who had exclusive power of life and death over his subjects. That’s a defensible proposal, even if many think it unduly pessimistic and harsh.
I’m pretty sure no one would defend the appointment of a dictator over sex. So the alternative solution is…hmm.
“But our world does not resemble this toy world!” decent readers will protest. I agree! But I am not sure the ways in which our world doesn’t resemble it make things better. I think there’s actually a case for our world being worse, which will be the subject of a future post.