Autonomous Beings or Helpless Puppets?
Charlie is talking excitedly about a first date she went on the night before.
Next to her on the sofa is her husband of six years, Tom. And on the other side of him is Sarah, who’s been in a relationship with Tom for the last five years. Sarah’s fiancé, Chris, is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.
The two women are also in a full-blown relationship, while the two men are just good friends. Together, they make a polyamorous family and share a house in Sheffield.
The article is, as one would expect from the BBC, entirely unjudgemental about the arrangement. It is interested in how the arrangement works, but is, like Sarah, Chris, Charlie and Tom, chirpy and upbeat about any potential difficulties.
It glosses over (or utterly avoids) some fairly obvious questions: is there a hierarchy of relationships – ie, do you have a greater responsibility to the person you’re married or engaged to than to any of the others? Sarah and Chris, are you actually going to get married? What will be the nature of your vows if you do? What if some of you want kids? What if some of you split up?
These are essentially practical matters, though, which the foursome would doubtless shrug off as they did the others, saying that all relationships take work, negotiation and good communication, so simply having more people involved doesn’t make a fundamental difference.
The core issue is revealed right at the end, when the four apparently chorus in unison, “But we don’t have a choice. We’re in love with each other.”
This is one of the most firmly held beliefs of Western culture – ‘falling in love’ is an irresistible force and cannot – should not – be restrained.
I’ve written previously on my personal blog about how we see this manifested in popular culture, such as an episode of The West Wing.
Charlie, an aide to President Bartlett, is asked what he thinks about the case of a fighter pilot who has been placed under military arrest for committing adultery. “I don’t think you can reasonably expect someone to control who they fall in love with,” he says, and his comment is taken as a wise and helpful one. If she’s fallen in love, well, that’s something out of her hands and we’re all going to have to live with it.
Except, of course, that we are not puppets. We are not slaves to our emotions or impulses, and most people would be offended if you suggested they were. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous, rational beings, making choices based on evidence. Those who don’t live this way are considered either morally deficient or physically or mentally ill.
If someone heavily overweight says ‘I just can’t stop eating’, we consider them weak-willed and a drain on the health system. If we meet an alcoholic, we (rightly) seek to help them conquer their disease. If a friend is fighting depression, we don’t think their emotions are king and should be allowed to dictate their actions, we go into battle alongside them and speak words of truth and hope into their darkness.
But love, ah, love is different. Falling in love doesn’t carry automatic and inevitable health risks. Being in love isn’t always negative. Love is hard to define, hard to quantify, hard to measure. And feelings of love come and go.
And when they go, then love becomes a choice – you choose whether to work at it or to walk away, but the former is both difficult and counter-cultural. In this area, for some reason, our culture gives its approval to doing what feels good and right in the moment. Though we may respect self-discipline, will-power and self-control in some areas of life, we disparage them when it comes to relationships.
This is at least in part because we don’t have a compelling cultural narrative that celebrates the goods of commitment and monogamy. If it exists at all it is found in a utilitarian argument that stable, heterosexual marriages are better for children’s emotional health and academic success, better for the economy, and build a better, stronger society. All those things are true, but they are all vulnerable to the counter claims of single parents or same-sex couples with flourishing children, or the economic strength of a nation with looser moral boundaries, or the societal collapse of one with a stronger emphasis on marriage.
Monogamous, heterosexual commitment isn’t only good because it brings about positive social outcomes. It is good because it is inherently good. If it didn’t contribute to the good of our society it would still be good. Kindness isn’t only good if it makes people like you and act kindly back. Generosity isn’t only good if it improves the lives of those to whom you are generous. Good things are good because they are good, not because they bring benefits.
This is a message that our society desperately needs to hear, but which is incredibly difficult to communicate. We’re such a rational, cause-and-effect, utilitarian people, that saying ‘you can’t just follow your heart’ simply doesn’t make sense. But the truth of it is there, under the surface, all around us.
Take the BBC article above, for instance. Open though the polyamorous relationship described is, its participants reserve the right to veto any new relationships - so perhaps you do have a choice about who you fall in love with and what you do about it, after all.