Harry and Sophie wanted to take seriously the words the minister would utter as they exchanged rings: "These two lives are now joined in one unbroken circle." This meant putting their collective interest first, and their individual interests second. If they could do that, the marriage would be better for both of them.
But Harry had seen his own parents divorce and too many friends and relations hurt by betrayal and deceit to accept this unquestioningly. The calculating part of his brain reasoned that, if he put himself second, but Sophie put herself first, Sophie would get a good deal from the marriage but he wouldn't. In other words, he risked being taken for a mug if he romantically failed to protect his own interest.
Sophie had similar thoughts. They had even discussed the problem and agreed that they really would not be egotistical in the marriage. But neither could be sure the other would keep their part of the bargain, so the safest course of action for both was to secretly look out for themselves. That inevitably meant the marriage would not be as good as it could have been. But surely it was the only rational course of action to take?
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 130.
As I mentioned on Monday, I very recently celebrated my 14th wedding anniversary. So maybe that coloured my reaction, but honestly, when I read this, I viewed it as such a patently absurd view of marriage that I had to read Baggini's discussion of his thought experiment to understand why exactly he'd invented it. Here is what he said:
This is a form of problem known as the 'prisoner's dilemma', after a well-known example concerning how two prisoners should plead. Prisoner's dilemmas can occur when cooperation is required to achieve the best result, but neither party can guarantee the other will play ball. ... The dilemma reveals the limitations of the rational pursuit of self-interest. If we all individually decide to do what is best for each one of us, we may end up worse off than we could jave been if we had cooperated. But to cooperate effectively, even if our motive for doing so is self-interest, we need to trust one another. And trust is not founded on rational arguments.
What nonsense! The Prisoner's Dilemma is a very specific situation from game theory where no communication is permitted between the two prisoners who must make a one-time decision that will affect the entire outcome of the game. Does that sound anything like a marriage? Of course not. In the real world, people talk to one another and we have multiple chances to build reputations for trust. The real world is much more likely to be modelled by the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. In this version:
"...two players play prisoners' dilemma more than once in succession and they remember previous actions of their opponent and change their strategy accordingly... The iterated prisoners' dilemma game is fundamental to some theories of human cooperation and trust. On the assumption that the game can model transactions between two people requiring trust, cooperative behaviour in populations may be modeled by a multi-player, iterated, version of the game. Interest in the iterated prisoners' dilemma (IPD) was kindled by Robert Axelrod in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (1984). In it he reports on a tournament he organized of the N step prisoners' dilemma (with N fixed) in which participants have to choose their mutual strategy again and again, and have memory of their previous encounters. Axelrod invited academic colleagues all over the world to devise computer strategies to compete in an IPD tournament. The programs that were entered varied widely in algorithmic complexity, initial hostility, capacity for forgiveness, and so forth. Axelrod discovered that when these encounters were repeated over a long period of time with many players, each with different strategies, greedy strategies tended to do very poorly in the long run while more altruistic strategies did better, as judged purely by self-interest. He used this to show a possible mechanism for the evolution of altruistic behaviour from mechanisms that are initially purely selfish, by natural selection. The winning deterministic strategy was tit for tat, which Anatol Rapoport developed and entered into the tournament. It was the simplest of any program entered, containing only four lines of BASIC, and won the contest. The strategy is simply to cooperate on the first iteration of the game; after that, the player does what his or her opponent did on the previous move."
Using only the cold logic of analysis from this portion of game theory, Harry and Sophie were unlikely to have just arrived at the wedding day with no knowledge or experience of trusting one another. They were much more likely to have begun dating several months or years ago, took many turns proving they were each willing to sacrifice for one another on occasion, and then made a rational decision to believe the other one could be trusted when they promised to do so for the duration of their marriage. The simple answer to this thought experiment lies in the fact that life is not a one-off academic exercise with artificial constraints placed upon it.
That's all I would have written about this experiment, but a couple reader comments expanded the area of inquiry in ways that deserve to be touched upon. First, Dr. John Johnson wrote:
I suspect that Baggini is using this scenario as an example of the prisoner's dilemma or game theory more generally. [my note: Ding, ding, ding, ding! Well spotted, John.] My own take on this problem is that it represents the fuzzy thinking inherent in talking about the "interests of collectives" over and beyond the interests of the individuals who are members of a collective. ... I submit that there is no such thing as the "interest of the collective" that transcends the interests of the individuals. In every case, a particular event can be, to some degree, for or against the interests of all of the individuals, but there is no event that is in the interest of the collective but not in the interests of the individuals. I challenge anyone to give an example of something that is "good for the marriage" but not good for either of the individuals in the marriage. ... Language about "common good" or "good of the marriage" is a rhetorical smokescreen to convince the person whose interests are less served to go along with what the person whose interests are more served.
Again, I think time helps clear up some of this concern about what is good for a collective vs. what is good for an individual. Short-term interests often need to be sacrificed for the sake of long-term gains, and this is what is often the issue when trying to strike the balance between individuals and collectives. For example, in the case of the use of economic "commons", it is detrimental to all individuals now to limit their exploitation of the resource in the common, but it is beneficial to all individuals over the long term to make that sacrifice. Further complicating the issue is the fact that individuals have their own internally competing needs and wants, so some of them must be sacrificed for the sake of other ones too. My short-term gluttonous instincts must regularly be sacrificed for the long-term benefits of my desire for health. In the case of my marriage, both of our short-term urges for pleasurable couplings with sexy strangers should be sacrificed for the long-term benefits of being able to trust that a supportive partner will be there for us when we need it. You could say monogamy is "good for the marriage" but not "good for either individual", but only if you don't look at the benefits the individuals eventually get from the marriage. It's a complicated math, but tradeoffs must be made the longer you look and the larger set of interests you realise you must take into account. As I wrote in this month's cover story in Humanist magazine:
"While the freedoms and liberalism of the Enlightenment can be viewed as understandable and beneficial reactions to centuries of authoritarianism, oppressive governments, and rigid religious dogmas, I would argue we have now taken this too far. Modern communitarianism is a reaction to this; it is a reaction to excessive individualism with its overemphasis on individual rights that has led people to become selfish and egocentric. Communitarian philosopher Amitai Etzioni writes that all societies must have a carefully crafted balance between rights and responsibilities and between autonomy and order. Focusing on one side alone is not enough."
Now for a much deeper question—the meaning of love itself. In a comment on this week's thought experiment, reader atthatmatt wrote:
True love simply means that you prioritize the other person higher than yourself. ... If just one of them truly loved the other, the deal would work, at least abstractly. The game logic wouldn't matter, because one of them would go all in regardless of the other's decision. ... A person who is fully committed to someone who isn't fully committed in return is in a bit of a pickle. They have a hard choice to make.
First, I'll agree with the second half of that comment that a relationship might be sustainable if one person is truly committed and open to being exploitable by another one who is happy to accept that. I don't think such a relationship is optimal though, nor truly sustainable given the possibility the committed person will stop being a sucker some day, at which point it will be awfully difficult to make up the imbalance accrued in the relationship.
As for true love, I think it's not as simple as prioritising one person higher than yourself. Let me share some passages from some great books on love to help me explain my point. First, I recently re-read Trine Erotic by evolutionary psychology professor Alice Andrews, and there was this piece of dialogue:
"Well, you're right. I've been in love. And it's what I tried to explore in [a previous story]. I called it the hot love / warm love meme. It's romantic love versus companionate love, I think. Being in hot, romantic love, there is never a chance to think. Never. Not a gulp of air. Nothing. No control. No sense of self. Just 'other'. Just feeling. No thoughts. No thought about being selfless, just selfless... But the paradox is, we can look at that and see that it's really selfish, right? To be unthinking is selfish. The mechanicalness of it doesn't really leave room for you to consider the other person, even though that's all it feels like you're doing."
These fictional words are a perfect example of the problem with such "other directed" love as discussed in two passages from Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by the brilliant existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom. He wrote:
Every therapist knows that the crucial first step in therapy is the patient's assumption of responsibility for his or her life predicament. As long as one believes that one's problems are caused by some force or agency outside oneself, there is no leverage in therapy. If, after all, the problem lies out there, then why should one change oneself? It is the outside world (friends, job, spouse) that must be changed—or exchanged. (Prologue)
I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy—I , too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love's executioner. (Opening to Chapter 1)
So, I consider these three passages, and I think you cannot say love is simply prioritising another over yourself. Firstly, you could again look at the iterated version of the prisoner's dilemma and say you don't always have to prioritise an 'other' over yourself. You just have to take it in turns to do so. That would avoid the deadlock of a "clash of martyrs" that Dr. Johnson worried about in his comment on this idea. More importantly, however, is the question of how you decide to prioritise another person. What is the criteria? Where does that criteria come from? These questions show that there is something more fundamental to love than simply prioritising another person.
So what is my position? I argue that true love is driven by long-term admiration of a person's life, as expressed by their personal philosophies that are rationally chosen and conscientiously acted upon. In my writings on How to Know Thyself, I had these two short things to say about spouses:
Finding a romantic partner is natural and useful. A good one will provide the focus of your secure attachment needs in adulthood, thus providing much safety and comfort for exploration. Primal sexual urges lead some to believe that monogamy is not natural, but that is short-term yielding to gratification at the expense of long-term happiness and satisfaction. A spouse can be your companion through life. Find one that can grow and develop with you over the long term. Find one whose life goals are compatible with yours. Find love - love being the admiration of a person’s life.
It takes time to know someone, to hear their stories, know their beliefs, see them in action, see them respond to stress. It takes time to find love. Do not mistake the short-term feelings of desire, lust, and curiosity, strong as they may be, for the long-term feeling of love. Do not believe in the myth of love at first sight—that denigrates the actual meaning of the word. Do not believe that there is only one soul mate out there for you. There are no souls, and there are many people worthy of love if you are worthy of it yourself.
Those were very short, clinical conclusions about spouses and love that I wrote to get the ball rolling for discussions about my philosophical beliefs. I know they need much more to back them up, and I have tried to do that through this blog and my fictional writings. I'm almost done with my next novel, and there happens to be a big passage in it on this topic, which I'd like to share now. To set it up, you need to know that the novel is about a biotechnology firm that is seeking candidates for new life-extension technologies that stop their ageing process and render them effectively immortal in the absence of accidents. This passage is from an interview between one of the candidates and the leader of the biotech firm. (I've changed some names and titles to stop any spoilers from being released.) I hope it clears up some of what I'm trying to say about love.
"...What about love? The initial rush of falling in love is so strong, but all great love stories end with saying ‘till death do us part.’ How will we ever say that to someone without death looming over us any more? Will we have to promise to love a person forever? Is that even possible? And if we can’t promise to love someone forever, will we ever promise it at all? I guess I’m wondering what the chances are that this program might actually take love as we know it away from us all.”
Bob paused to consider Bill's questions for a moment before he was ready to begin. Once he was, he looked directly at Bill and asked him, “Have you been in love before?”
“A few times.”
“And what’s the longest amount of time you’ve been in love?”
“A little over two years once, when I was in college. But our lives sort of just led us on our separate ways. That’s one reason I’m leery of this project. I can’t imagine two lives leading down a shared path for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“Well, I’ll be honest with you, Bill. I’m not sure how that will play out either. I can tell you that sometimes love requires sacrifices of the self, but I don’t know how long we might be prepared to sacrifice something—a perfect job for example, or some time apart—in order to make love last.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
“What I do know though, is that we need to be careful about which kind of romantic love we are talking about. Psychologists currently say there are two, so we should consider each one. The first type is passionate love. That’s the short-term burst of chemicals built on ancient biological responses that makes us feel like we’re falling head over heels and unable to focus on anything else. Do you know that feeling?”
“Yes. You could say that I do.”
Bob tilted his head slightly at Bill's use of the present tense, but he continued on without pressing for an explanation.
“Well, based on our biology, jolts from that type of love won’t ever stop reoccurring, but we already regularly ignore this for the sake of the second type of love, which is what psychologists call companionate love. That’s the feeling one has about a long, slow, deepened relationship between two people that have shared a life together for many years. It may never cause the intense biochemical highs of passionate love, but for many people the strength and breadth of it can far outweigh the temporary pleasures of passionate love.”
“I’m familiar with that. My parents, for example, seem to have built that kind of love; they’ve been married for almost forty years. But I have no idea if they’d want to make it to four hundred.”
“I don’t know that either, but here’s what I can say about the possibility of companionate love lasting for a candidate. Leonardo DaVinci once said, ‘Those who try to censor knowledge do harm to both knowledge and love, because love is the offspring of knowledge, and the passion of love grows in proportion to the certainty of knowledge.’ You know that my wife’s life was cut short some years ago, but up until that time, as I grew to know my wife more and more, I became more and more certain of my love for her. This doesn’t happen in all marriages, but when it does, you get the kind of people who are ninety-five years old and have been married for seventy-five years and say they would never want to live apart from their spouse. We can take comfort from those couples and believe that love could last for our candidates. Or they might work harder to find that type of love. Just like many people who are stuck in bad jobs currently wait things out because there’s no time to start again, the same thing is probably true for many people stuck in bad marriages. I’d like to think that our life-extension technology would liberate those people to go and find better matches.”
“But how would we ever know we had found the right match?” Bill asked, thinking back on his own recent failure at this task. “Isn’t love something that’s out of our control? Wouldn’t the life-extension program just doom us to repeating painful mistakes over and over until we maybe get lucky and get it right?”
“Ah, well, the passionate love of chemical reactions does seem out of our control, but that’s not the case for companionate love built over the long term. I see why most people don’t think of it that way though. Because the passionate love comes first, and because marriages were unequal partnerships for much of recorded history, philosophers actually have had a long history of considering love as something to be leery of. Eastern philosophies, for example, generally teach that attachment leads to unhappiness. And so love, being one of the greatest attachments, is therefore something these ancient belief systems often say should be held at a distance. In the west, it was even worse. The philosophers there, from Plato all the way through the canon of Christian moralists, believed that love debased us as humans, that love consumed us to the point of irrationality and illogical distractions, and kept us from acting with virtue. While that can certainly be the case under the unthinking spell of passionate love, I believe these philosophers all missed the kind of wisdom that true companionate love requires.
“That kind of love,” Bob continued, “is directed towards another person’s entire life. It is a response to the values that person embodies, the values that form a person’s character, that give them their goals, that drive their smallest reactions and gestures. It is for those unique and inimitable actions that we grow to adore and cherish someone over time. And they’re all driven by values, which can be rationally constructed and chosen. Does that kind of love sound capricious or like something that is out of our control?”
“No,” Bill had to admit, “which I have to say is a bit of good news.”
“It is,” Bob agreed. “One of the worst consequences of rational philosophers ceding discussions about love to the emotional romantics has been the widespread survival of the belief that love is a ‘matter of the heart’, or that ‘the heart wants what the heart wants’, and there is nothing that the mind can do about it. Those beliefs have doomed countless people to weak-willed mistakes and unnecessary heartbreak. Those beliefs may be true for passionate love, but that is the lesser and fleeting of the two loves. That love is blind, whereas companionate love can see, for it is built on the foundation of a shared philosophy.”
So with that, I'll just close by saying thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts in an effort to build a shared philosophy with me. I do love you for that.