In an earlier post in this series, I defended the proposition for a certain kind of world, individual rationality in pursuit of romantic aspiration would bring collective misery because people face a collective action problem. In a world characterized by a single hierarchy of desire — a ladder of desirability, so to speak — the strivings of each to rise higher on that ladder would result in a destructive competition that would destroy the goods that might otherwise result from romantic endeavor. In a world with one ladder of desirability, the competition costs are outrageous.
Now the premise of my earlier model was admittedly unrealistic; in real life there is not a single ladder of desirability. There are many. Some people look for mutual sexual attraction, others intellectual compatibility, or intense common interests, or spiritual sympathy, or just the ability to set up a harmonious house together. There are many little niches, many little ladders, and you can search among them to find one that you feel comfortable on. There are many “species” of human. Perhaps you can find the right one, especially if you follow the advice of someone like Reid Mihalko to “date your own species.” That’s Good Advice. Though I must confess that for someone like me who is (at least might as well be) the only member of his species, it is also Bad News. But hey, not everyone is a weirdo like crabby old Dr. Faustus. Perhaps you can find that Special Someone who has no desire to kick you off any ladder because you’re both so darn compatible. Strenous sexy athletes can pair off (or, of poly, gang up, perhaps?) and fuck wildly, intense spiritual people can go off on meaningful life-journeys together, Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts can role play very interesting scenarios together, and so on. It all sounds very nice.
I don’t think it’s that nice in reality, though, and here is why.
- We don’t know ourselves all that well. What “species” you belong to isn’t something told to you when you graduate from middle school. It’s only something that we discover about ourselves, often through long and painful processes of trial and error. Personal example: I thought I had a very nice relationship once, with the woman identified in the Thaumatophile Manifesto as “Second Serious Girlfriend.” I was (and am) an atheist who thought he could deal with the religion of his significant other (as long as it wasn’t the religion of First Serious Girlfriend — I learn but slowly). Second Serious Girlfriend thought she was an atheist, until later on she started drifting into neopaganism, seeing that curious position as somehow closer to what she really is than what she thought she was. So neither of us knew ourselves very well, and the consequence was heartbreak on both sides. The point here is not to gripe about the past but to illustrate the point. Many, many people reflecting on their own pasts will discover that they themselves didn’t know themselves all that well in the past. Add a dose of humility, and they’ll realize that they don’t necessarily know themselves all that well now.
- We are apt to starve emotionally without satisfying romantic relationships. Natural selection is not our friend, and it wields the whip hand over us to engage in the sorts of behaviors that, when engaged in by our Pleistocene ancestors, resulted in the production of offspring.
- We are really good at deceiving ourselves. I shan’t belabor the point too much, as there is already an immense literature on self deception, and when there is something that we desparately want, it is terribly easy to just wish away any contrary evidence. When you’re starving for love or even just want to get laid it is all too easy to convince oneself that a potential partner really is a member of your own species, part of a small ladder that wouldn’t be that hard to climb up to. Have you ever been to a party and found yourself talking to an attractive member of your preferred gender (assuming you have one!) about some topic that hitherto had seemed sort of boring but which now suddenly seems quite fascinating? Self-deception on this point might seal the deal…for a time.
- We have strong incentives to deceive others. People might happen to want a lot of things out of a relationship even if it doesn’t work, and they also, having deceived themselves about the desirability of a certain partner will proceed to try deceiving that partner about the desirability of themselves. It’s an old game, and an aspect of how natural selection is really, really not our friend. As Robert Trivers (if I remember right, and I am certainly paraphrasing) once pointed out, animal communication systems did not evolve to produce truth, they evolved to produce offspring. And humans are nothing if not really clever animals.
So even if there are lots of tiny little ladders and there really is someone out there for you, you’re going to spend a lot of time and energy searching for ver. You’re likely to go through quite a lot of not-suitables on the way. And you may never get there. There will be a lot of heartbreak along the way. A lot.
And what makes matter worse still is the the more you suffer, the more you’re likely to starve. Starvation drives more self-deception (and more inclination to deceive others) which drives still more failure.
All this failure we might call extended search costs. They’re very real, and they’re perfectly awful.
And it gets worse still. The more fragmented the world, the more the human group is divided into lots and lots of little species, the higher the costs. You can reduce the extended search costs by trying to make the world more unified, but what happens then? You get back closer and closer to having a few long ladders where people can fight with each other competing ovr rungs on the ladder. You can get rid of extended search costs only by incurring greater competition costs, and vice versa.
Small wonder that I, at least, think that the overall accounting for love in the fate of humanity leads to a hedonic deficet. Love will not save you.