Love will not save you III

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Love will not save you II

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!).
  4. 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.
  5. 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 costlessEngaging in it means giving up free time, wealth, and energy that might otherwise have been used to make oneself happier in other ways.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Love will not save you I


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.