Sep 26, 2010

Reasons for Love and Particularism

Jack loves Jill, and we'll assume that he has some reasons for doing so, reasons that are based on properties that Jill has in herself; she's smart, funny, likes climbing hills, etc. But now suppose Jill has a twin sister, Jane, who shares all the intrinsic properties that Jill has, and so shares all the properties that Jack takes as reasons to love Jill. Now it looks like Jack has as much reason to love Jane as he has to love Jill. And he'd have more reason to love Jane than Jill if Jane were to become, for example, smarter than Jill. [1]

This 'twin paradox' is an odd result. The rationality of loving someone should be relatively stable in the face of changes outside of the relationship, such as facts about who else shares some of the properties of the beloved. (This is especially clear in cases of familial love, though I'm focusing here on romantic love.) We are led, it seems, to have to reject the view that the reasons for love are intrinsic properties of the beloved, on pains of admitting an unacceptable instability to our loving relationships.

One way to avoid this result is to refine our conception of how the properties of the beloved give rise to reasons to love. We might propose that Jill's beauty, for example, gives Jack a reason to love Jill, while Jane's beauty does not. How could this be? One explanation would be particularism or holism about reasons for love. On such a view, a property that Jill has may be a reason for Jack to love Jill, whereas if Jane has that property, it would not provide Jack with a reason to love Jane. There is something about the beauty being Jill's that matters for Jack's reasons; it's not beauty itself, which happens to be instantiated in Jill, that gives Jack a reason, but rather Jill's beauty. 

If we're attracted to particularism about practical reasons in general, we might find this a plausible move. There's another tack we can take here, however.

We can grant that the intrinsic properties of someone provide reasons to enter a romantic relationship with someone, provided that one is not in a romantic relationship. But things might be more complicated when someone is already in a relationship. While Jack is in a relationship with Jill, for example, I'm supposing that Jill's beauty gives Jack reason to love Jill. What about Jane's beauty? Here's a proposal: In virtue of Jack's being in a relationship with Jill, Jane's intrinsic properties ought not give Jack any reason to love Jane (in a romantic way). This proposal is different from the particularist reply because we're not requiring a particularist construal of the reasons for love. Instead, we're considering that relationships put normative constraints on how we take things to be reasons. We can put it this way: being in an exclusive relationship means excluding the intrinsic properties of third parties from being reasons for love. 

We saw that if we take a property view of reasons for love, the 'twin paradox' results. I proposed two solutions to this problem on behalf of the proponent of the property view, one giving a particularist account of the reasons, and one focusing on the normative demands of romantic relationships.

I'm just getting started in some of this literature, so what I'm saying here is very tentative. I don't yet know whether I want to endorse a property view, but I thought it worth pointing out some dialectical strategies for the property theorist that seem to have some merit.

[1] The example is based off a similar scenario in Niko Kolodny's "Love as Valuing a Relationship."


  1. Contingency, contingency, contingency.

    You shouldn't attempt to find some sort of ubermensch. You date/marry someone who, probably largely by chance, crossed your path, and you base your choice on that person's characteristics, the situation you find yourself in, and on your own characteristics.

    It's rational because it makes sense according to your and her life situations, goals, etc. Because it's harmonious and sensible. It's a prudential judgment.

    This actually has an interesting parallel in economics. Much of economic theory is based on trying to optimize functions with one or more constraints. What's the optimal way to allocate these resources? But for all intents and purposes, it's probably unknowable. Trying to find the optimal or "perfect" mate is probably a fool's errand. Who is better, Mozart or Einstein? Is this even a meaningful question? A good man/woman is hard enough to find, so don't wait around for perfection. I may try to flesh out the economics analogy more later.


  2. r.d.,

    Prudence has a role in choosing one's romantic relationships, to be sure, but that can't be all there is to say about the matter. We should ask what it means to make a prudent choice. And that means thinking about which reasons (if any) we should be responsive to, how those reasons should enter into our thinking, etc.

  3. The "Twin Paradox" might work for Jack, Jane, and Jill, IF Jack was able to stop time and consider every possible thing about each sister at the very moment that he met them.
    However not everything can be exactly the same. If Jane and Jill were standing together and Jack happened to see one of them from a slightly different angle or small shadow on one's face, that could have been all it took for him to choose one over another. It makes me think of AT&T's commercial with the split screen showing 2 different ways a person's life ended up for fast/slow wireless phone. One way shes a Ballet dancer and other shes serving tables.

  4. Anonymous,
    You're right that some contingent empirical facts might influence Jack's perception of Jill's and Jane's properties; but we can abstract away from that and ask what his reasons for loving each of them are, apart from limitations of perception.

  5. The puzzle is originally due to Ernest Gellner, "Ethics and Logic" which can be found here:

  6. Thanks for the reference, Aaron, that's very helpful.