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Eiuol

Relationship Anarchy: questioning romance

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"Relationship anarchy" is a term I've been thinking about lately. The term isn't referring to anarchy as about rejecting government - it is not political. Instead, it is about rejecting rules that exist on a social scale for how to treat relationships, especially regarding friendship and romance. I don't mean a disregard for social norms altogether, I just mean social norms pertaining to romance. The link is a decent source, but keep in mind that the term hasn't been around long at all, so a lot of it is vague or disregards principled thought, but a gist of the idea is there:

 

Each relationship is independent, and a relationship between autonomous individuals.

 

and
 

[Relationship anarchy] is about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings.

 

RA implies a few more ideas, namely, non-monogamy and because each relationship is independent of other relationships. Think of it as a form of polyamory. That you have two or more mates (I mean "mate" as a romantic relationship) need not mean that the two relationships leech the quality of love with both your mates. Additionally, sex between friends is morally acceptable with this view, since it rejects the norm that sex ought to be between mates only - or only with your "highest value" in Objectivist parlance.

Clearly, RA is not an Objectivist view, at least regarding sex. To be clear, the rest of my post assumes selfishness as a virtue and all that good stuff, I'm discussing this on questioning Objectivist views of sex and romance. Let's make the Objectivist view about romantic relationships clear:

 

Like any other value, love is not a static quantity to be divided, but an unlimited response to be earned. The love for one friend is not a threat to the love for another, and neither is the love for the various members of one’s family, assuming they have earned it. The most exclusive form—romantic love—is not an issue of competition.

 

One falls in love [referring to romantic love] with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul—the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness.

 
A lot more can be said, but I chose these points because I think they are the most essential. As for sex:
 

Sex is a physical capacity, but its exercise is determined by man’s mind—by his choice of values, held consciously or subconsciously. To a rational man, sex is an expression of self-esteem—a celebration of himself and of existence. To the man who lacks self-esteem, sex is an attempt to fake it, to acquire its momentary illusion.

 

Sex is one of the most important aspects of man’s life and, therefore, must never be approached lightly or casually. A sexual relationship is proper only on the ground of the highest values one can find in a human being. Sex must not be anything other than a response to values. And that is why I consider promiscuity immoral. Not because sex is evil, but because sex is too good and too important.

 

This last quote is from the Playboy interview, and I think it is a source at least reliable as most of Rand's non-fiction for portraying Objectivist philosophy.

These quotes open questions for me. For one, why is romantic love the "most exclusive" form of love? I read lines like this before, but it seems to come out of nowhere while not making a lot of sense considering the points like love is an unlimited response to be earned. So how can romantic love be "more exclusive"? I suppose it means a sharper focus and more intense love, but I'm still not seeing why exclusivity matters other than how it is a standard view. RA, and polyamory in general, both reject exclusivity. Additionally, I don't see exclusivity as an Objectivist view if we look at Rand's overall message, that love is an unlimited response to values and sense of life.

My other question is why sex is only proper with regard to highest values as opposed to sufficiently high? Let me take an arbitrary value ranking of people as follows: Philip, 7; Kate, 9; Rick, 1; Gina, 5. Suppose 7 is a sufficiently high valuation to warrant sex, assuming the feelings involved are still a notable response to values. That means it is proper to have sex with Philip and Kate. Rick is perhaps equivalent to a one night stand where sex happens once but not contact again. Gina is a good friend, but there isn't a great deal of intensity despite an enjoyable friendship. Philip is "just a friend", while Kate is a mate. Yet why would Objectivism say sex is only proper with Kate? RA goes further than simply saying sex doesn't need to be with highest values - it says that sexual/romantic relationships don't have to be more important than non-sexual/romantic partners.

To begin, I want to pay attention to the difference between friendship and romance. Some would say they are a difference in kind, except when I take into account all that Rand wrote on love, I don't see how even Objectivism properly justifies that conclusion. Take this line from ITOE:

 

The concept “love” subsumes a vast range of values and, consequently, of intensity: it extends from the lower levels (designated by the subcategory “liking”) to the higher level (designated by the subcategory “affection,” which is applicable only in regard to persons) to the highest level, which includes romantic love.

Somehow, romantic love is incredibly unique, all while Rand is saying here that romantic love is more intense than liking, not a concept with a different genus. Love versus hatred is an example of two concepts of consciousness with a different genus. I prefer to get more precise than this, though. I say romance and friendship share many dimensions and vary on a dimension of intensity of loving feelings. What kind of feelings does friendship cause if not just a reduced intensity of loving feeling? It doesn't seem like there's a reason to preclude loving acts like sex in friendship if love should not be purely platonic. If romance shares dimensions A-D with liking, but primarily differs along E, intensity, then it would make sense to say that in principle sex is proper in greater degrees of E. Furthermore, the degree of E doesn't mean always that the relationship is more valuable. In my mind, it is epistemologically important to define relationships in terms of maximizing values rather than holding romantic love as the "be-all end-all" form of love. Otherwise, it compartmentalizes thinking in unnecessary ways.
 

((All quotes about Objectivism I got from the lexicon.))

Edited by Eiuol

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Some expansion of my post after talking to people about this specific post.

With regard to love being the "most exclusive", it doesn't need to imply total exclusivity. Even though Rand was probably thinking about exclusivity as it is usually meant, i.e. monogamy, there is reason to say it doesn't have to singular. Picture a triangle representing how many people fit into categories of relationships. At the bottom and most diverse level, there is anyone I interact with. Narrower than that might be say, acquaintances, followed by friendship, and so on until romantic love reaches a singular point. Instead of a point, it is fair to treat the whole shape as a trapezoid, where multiple people qualify as romantic partners. This is still the most exclusive, where the fewest people fit into this category. As I understand RA, although romance can be the most exclusive, it doesn't follow that therefore romance is the most important. I don't have a lot more to say, maybe Eponine might for how it might matter for RA.

Secondly, I want to emphasize the part about the distinction between friendship and romance. RA is basically that the distinction is one of degree. Objectivism suggests, at least by anything I read, that the distinction is one of kind. "Kind" isn't the best term, as all emotions share some common features by virtue of being concepts of consciousness, although it conveys what I want. The trouble is some overlap possible where romance is "low" and friendship is "high" - a borderline case. This overlap doesn't mean that the distinction is one of degree necessarily, as all emotions transition proportionally and multiple emotions may be present at the same time. As friendship grows, it makes sense to say when there is romantic compatibility, the feelings of romance would increase. It helps with psychological visibility and understanding the other person's sense of life. Simply put, friendship and romance correlate, it just doesn't mean they fall in the same category.

However, I've still yet to identify what essential feature(s) differ between romance and friendship besides intensity. No answer about that has been given to me, or at least the best answers are vague or too open to be worthwhile for philosophical discussion. To use my lettered dimensions again, romance may only share dimensions A-B of friendship, and differs on dimensions C-E, including affective intensity. What are dimensions C and D? The similarity is down, but differentiation is needed to point out if romance is a special category of love, all on its own. If romance is not a special category all on its own and only part of a continuum with friendship, it is proper to have sex with anyone in the continuum, provided they meet a rational standard - it isn't in principle wrong to have sexual friendships. For RA I think, the rational standard cannot be romance since it belongs to the continuum.

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RA is basically that the distinction (between friendship and romance) is one of degree.

This is just my interpretation, but I don't think RA prescribes any distinction between friendship and romance. The distinction (if there's any) doesn't matter to RA's. A lot of RA's like to say "love is love is love," which means essentially it's the love that matters, no matter it's romantic, friendly, or familial love. In mainstream culture, "love" often refers to romantic love by default, which implies that romantic love is the most important and profound kind of love. Whereas in RA philosophy, romantic love isn't magically different from other kinds of love and shouldn't be treated with an entirely different set of principles.

I don't think it's possible to reach a universal answer to "what's the difference between friendship and romance," because individual experiences are too diverse. There are some common differences, like the intensity of feelings, jealousy, sexual desire, desire to share a life together, etc. But there are exceptions to any of these, and there are even people who can't distinguish between friendship and romance whatsoever. My understanding of RA is it doesn't try to argue there's little or no difference between friendship and romance, but it suggests that individual relationships override categories of feelings. In other words, what a relationship entails should be customized based on the unique needs of the people involved, not like "we're a romantic couple, so we should do X, Y, and Z."

 

My other question is why sex is only proper with regard to highest values as opposed to sufficiently high? Let me take an arbitrary value ranking of people as follows: Philip, 7; Kate, 9; Rick, 1; Gina, 5. Suppose 7 is a sufficiently high valuation to warrant sex, assuming the feelings involved are still a notable response to values. That means it is proper to have sex with Philip and Kate. Rick is perhaps equivalent to a one night stand where sex happens once but not contact again. Gina is a good friend, but there isn't a great deal of intensity despite an enjoyable friendship. Philip is "just a friend", while Kate is a mate. Yet why would Objectivism say sex is only proper with Kate? RA goes further than simply saying sex doesn't need to be with highest values - it says that sexual/romantic relationships don't have to be more important than non-sexual/romantic partners.

I totally agree. To me, Objectivist view on sex doesn't seem consistent with the basic principles of Objectivism; it's more like Rand's personal sexual morality. If I understand it correctly, something is moral according to Objectivism if it serves one's self-interest and doesn't infringe other people's rights. This doesn't mean it has to be the highest value. However, romance and sex are specifically assigned to the highest values, which is arbitrary to me. Why only romance and sex? Why not friendship or cuddles or playing video games?

In the above scenario, I'll go even further to say that even sex with Rick can be moral, if the individual has a low threshold to enjoy sex so that even an 1 is good enough for his self-interest. Some people need a 9 (romance) to enjoy sex; some need a 5 (some kind of friendship); some only need an 1 (only physical attraction). None of them is wrong to pursue the kind of sex they enjoy; they're just wired differently.

Edited by Eponine

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If there are two different terms, they need to be distinct in some manner, otherwise they are just synonyms. Yes, love is what matters, and that's my point - romantic and friendly love are both under the some category, while the common view is that they fall into separate categories entirely. The affective intensity is greater in both cases, but the difference between the views is how to classify the nature of the intensity. Sure, RA would say romantic love is not "magically" different, but neither would the common view. I question that there really is any rational difference though, so I want to know from people who take the common view what they think the differences are. If friendly and romantic love are in the same category, you're totally right that the kinds of love shouldn't come with entirely different sets of principles.

I'm not seeking a universal answer, nor an Objectivist answer even, but a rational way to talk and think about love. What are the principles involved with love, and are the concepts friendship and romance as distinct as most people claim? True, RA doesn't try to argue that there is no difference, but as far as I see, for it to be a rational view, it must argue that the difference is not so significant that it requires a whole set of different principles. Perhaps intensity and duration are the only things that vary how love is experienced, and the two concepts are to approximate general areas on those two dimensions. As an aside, no concept is "universal" - concepts are tools to understand the world.

You're right about what is moral according to Objectivism. Part of Rand's point of sex being appropriate only for highest values is that the nature of sex is that it is such a grand expression of values and self-esteem that sex with anyone less than a highest value is a sacrifice, which is immoral. That is, against your self-interest. However, I think that's only an argument for "sufficiently high", not "highest". Clearly, if sufficiently high is needed, then Rand's conclusions don't follow. Maybe in principle it is proper, depending on individual context, to have people only meet a minimum, whether it is 1 or 9. The principle to use to judge if sex is moral or not changes from determining the highest value to determining the threshold minimum value in the first place.

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I think whether friendly and romantic love are in the same category depends on how broad the category is. They belong to the same superordinate category "love," but they're different subcategories of love (at least to most people). It's just like men and women can been seen as two categories of human beings, but they're both human beings. Some people believe men and women should be treated differently because of their sex difference, whereas some people believe every man or woman should be treated as an individual first and foremost, because one's sex doesn't fully define them as a person. I'd say RA is like the second approach in the area of relationships - it's the unique connection between individuals, rather than the nature of feelings, that determines the terms and conditions of a relationship.

 

I'd also like to add that I don't even think romantic love has to be the "most exclusive" in the sense that fewest people fit in this category, nor do I think the highest values can only be found in romantic love. True friends (those who share your deepest thoughts, not just friendly acquaintances) can be as hard to find as romantic partners. And I believe it's possible to see highest values in a person without loving them romantically, a simple example being that a straight person finding highest values in a same-sex friend.

 

Part of Rand's point of sex being appropriate only for highest values is that the nature of sex is that it is such a grand expression of values and self-esteem that sex with anyone less than a highest value is a sacrifice, which is immoral. That is, against your self-interest. However, I think that's only an argument for "sufficiently high", not "highest". Clearly, if sufficiently high is needed, then Rand's conclusions don't follow. Maybe in principle it is proper, depending on individual context, to have people only meet a minimum, whether it is 1 or 9. The principle to use to judge if sex is moral or not changes from determining the highest value to determining the threshold minimum value in the first place.

Yeah, I think it should be "sufficiently high", not "highest", just like in everything else. Sex is a grand expression of values and self-esteem for many people, but not for everyone. For some people sex is just another physical activity like having a massage or playing sports, and there's nothing wrong with that. It seems presumptuous to claim that someone who genuinely enjoys casual sex is making a "sacrifice" by not having sex with the highest valued person. 

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