05 December 2019

Love is dead

Love is dead

We first have to define our scope and parameters of what to include as love. From a language perspective the word 'love' covers all sorts of ideas. We have the kind of altruistic love such as a mother’s love towards her children, and one step remove the father of the children then moving on to the grandparents. We might even accept the argument that relatives have a genetic interest in supporting and acting altruistically towards members of the family group. This is not an issue except that it might also be argued that we also have no choice as to who we love in this scenario. But one necessary condition for there to be love is that this feeling is an intentional and a free act. We cannot be told who to love even though for example in arranged marriages some couples might eventually end up loving each other.

This leaves us with another important type of love, romantic love. The kind of love we all wish for if not long for, and certainly we feel we are in control of the whole process. We also feel that we are free when seeking love and free when accepting advances of love by others. Whilst I don’t want to discuss the mechanics of what is romantic love I do want to discuss: why we would want to consider that romantic love is dead? Of course, romantic love is not dead but it does not mean that romantic love can be achieved very easily and where and when we want to seek romantic love.

Again romantic love gives us the idea and feeling of fulfilment and autonomy so we might be justified in thinking that maybe this is a spiritual metaphysical experience and nothing to do with the physical and even biological existence of life. But we underestimate at our peril the biological importance in human existence in such matters as romantic love. In a reciprocal relationship of romantic love we have four distinct acts going on. An intentional act to do something about our feeling towards someone, an intentional act of communication with that person, an intentional act by the recipient to be interested in the person in love and the fourth act to reciprocate that love. Hence, it is quite easy for this causal chain to breakdown and come to naught.

Except in some cases romantic love might itself be the product of a much stronger force of reproductive forces which, of course, are physical/biological forces. Indeed these biological forces can be so strong that we might act on their compulsion without any feeling of romantic love.

But love still happens, whether it is romantic, filial or parental or altruistic, the only problem is that love does not happen on demand. Even biological attraction does not happen on demand. We are not attracted to everyone and certainly do not consent to biological reproduction with everyone. This immediately suggests that matters of love, especially romantic love, are not automatic or based on some law of nature but more a psychological-emotional game we engage in with others. The fact that we also have a whole body of language to help us engage into the delicate game of romantic love makes romantic love more of a rational process than a force of nature.

The idea that love is dead must therefore be the product of unreciprocated love; maybe it is much harder today to find the partner we want to love and to love us back. It is, therefore, quite a legitimate inductive conclusion to arrive at when we seek love and don’t find any that love does not exist. Of course, there is also the little matter that we are more likely to hear about successful romantic love affairs rather than the millions of failed attempts. Whilst it might be true that there are lots of fish in the sea, it is also true that the fish we are interested in might not exist in the patch of sea we live in.

So maybe we ought to dilute the claim, Love is dead, to a more manageable idea that love is difficult to encounter, and in extremis, never to encounter love. I would like to put forward a number of factors why love is difficult to encounter and maybe why it might seem for some that love is dead.

I want to argue that one of the key reasons why we might fail to encounter love is because of the paradox of choice: the paradox of choice was established by the American psychologist, Barry Schwartz, and is well documented on the internet, however, you can hear him on the The Psychology Podcast 25th May 2015 Maximizing, satisficing and the paradox of choice ( https://tinyurl.com/Barry-Choice ).

Basically the paradox of choice is that the more we have options to choose from the less we are like to make a choice never mind a good choice (this is my interpretation). What is important is that more choice is not necessarily better. Schwartz suggests that in our age we are obsessed at maximising our desires and wants: we are maximisers. We don’t just want a jar of jam we want the best jar of jam. This attitude means that we are prepared to put off buying any jam if we don’t believe that the jam we can buy is the best jam.

The paradox of choice is relevant for our discussion because we might be tempted putting off communicating with a prospective partner who might reciprocate our love because we believe that there is someone better out there.  In economics this would be covered by the theory opportunity costs: giving up an economic satisfaction today believing that we will do better in a future choice. This is beautifully illustrated during a property boom market: people will put off selling their house thinking that in a boom market there is a good chance they can increase their price by 50% or 100%. When the boom turns into bust they end up with negative equity if they have a mortgage.

The paradox also attracts the law of diminishing returns and information overload. Diminishing returns because the more jars of jam we have to chose from the less value an extra jar of jam will have for us: thus when we eat strawberries the more fruit we eat the less value we derive from an extra strawberry until we become sick. Thus from an exercise we start off looking forward to, we end up exhausted and dejected. Looking for prospective partners the more partners we meet the less attractive the next person will be. This is obvious by definition since if we are looking at an additional person we have not found the best partner yet. We might even end up with a gambler’s fallacy: all things being equal (see law of diminishing returns) we might believe that given we have not found someone by now we are bound to find someone soon. Unless something changes there is no reason to assume that we’ll win next time.

I would argue that information overload is also relevant for us: whilst it is true that the better informed we are the better placed we are at making an informed choice. But as we know from authors like Nassim Taleb of The Black Swan fame and Hume on induction, the quality of relevant data is more important than just accumulated data. If Bernard Russell’s chicken knew that on day 65 Russell would come to chop its head, the chicken wouldn’t have gone out for lunch. In effect what I am arguing is that the strategy and methodology we employ in our search for love determines both the chances of finding love and the quality of love.

Schwartz argues that we have lost the idea of “enough is good enough” and have entered into a mind set where we have unreasonable expectations in effect we are maximisers. Today we know that what we expect and what we can get are not in any way linked to each other. In other words, a degree of realism can take us a long way.

Another way of solving the paradox of choice is to know exactly what we want and in addition, I would say, know what we can get. In effect, before we can know more about our prospective love, we ought to start by getting to know more about what we want, who we are and what we can get. And most important of all, how realistic are our desires? In other words, are our necessary and sufficient conditions for a romantic love relationship close to reality? Enough is good enough when enough can be achieved.

The Delphic maxim “Know thyself” is more than just a sound bite. And in the journey of romantic love, knowing thyself is a good place to start from.

Best Lawrence

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