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Monogamy 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What are some problems with marriage?
Elliot: It requires restricting your life if you want to commit to a marriage, forever. To reliably avoid a breakup, you have to avoid drifting apart. You have to make sure your interests remain compatible.
Caeli: That sounds easy. We'll just discuss what's interesting until we agree.
Elliot: There are no reliable ways to agree, about anything, quickly. You might not agree. You might not think of any persuasive arguments today. And you might not again tomorrow. Who can say when you will?
Caeli: So it might take a long time? Years? Even if it does, so what?
Elliot: Well, normally disagreement doesn't have to be a problem. People disagree all the time and life goes on. There is no reason they must hurt each other. The problem comes when you are unwilling to drift apart. Part of the way people who disagree are able to continue amicably is by going their own ways: each does what he thinks is right.
Caeli: Married people don't have to do the same thing all the time.
Elliot: True, but they have to do the same thing more then never, or being married makes no sense.
Caeli: If they have a disagreement and haven't resolved it yet, that doesn't mean they won't do anything together, it means they won't do one thing together. And it's only temporary.
Elliot: They could have two disagreements, or three, or fifty thousand. And they could all last over a hundred thousand years. They might move to different countries, and have no contact of any sort, for centuries. They might die before they see each other again.
Caeli: People don't live that long.
Elliot: One day they will, with life extension. But that only adds to my argument: if they die before solving the disagreement, then the fact that it could be solved hasn't helped their marriage.
Caeli: Isn't that all very unlikely?
Elliot: I don't know how likely it is. But I do know that marriage has no defense against this. It could happen. So the philosophical grounds for marriage are shaky. At best you are taking a risk.
Caeli: If it's a big benefit to be married, and a small risk, then it might be worthwhile.
Elliot: Perhaps. But how big is the risk? Why do you think it's small?
Caeli: What you described seems unlikely.
Elliot: Does it really? It's very common that families fight and disagree. It's very common that controversies are not resolved in the lifetimes of the people who started them. And it's very common that marriages don't work out, because the couple grew bored of each other.
Caeli: Isn't that only bad marriages?
Elliot: Isn't the divorce rate around 50%?
Caeli: So half of marriages work out?
Elliot: No. People hate to divorce so they try very hard to avoid it. On first principles, we might think that for every divorce, ten couples want one but won't do it. The numbers don't work out for that. Still, there are a lot of unhappy marriages, and a lot more that are more neutral: not a constant source of pain, but nothing magnificent about them.
Caeli: That sucks. But lots of people are dumb. Maybe the successful marriage rate is very high among intelligent people who understand what marriage means and how to do it right.
Elliot: It's a cliche that smart guys get dumb about girls.
Caeli: Are there other cliches about how bad marriages are?
Elliot: Why marry? Just find a woman you hate and buy her a house.
Caeli: I want a house. Maybe I should piss some guys off.
Elliot: Good luck with that. Have you seen The War of the Roses?
Caeli: No. Is that a movie?
Elliot: Yes. It's about a marriage that doesn't work out. The people start hurting each other very badly.
Caeli: Why does that happen?
Elliot: People feel they'd never hurt their partner. They are in love. They want the marriage to work. They are committed to trying very hard. You might expect all this will result in them being very nice to each other. And that works at first. But if things start to go badly, then they feel betrayed: the other isn't as passionate as they are. All the efforts they made now spite them, because they know this person wasn't really worth it, he only lied that hew as. The more you put at stake, the more there is to be upset about if it doesn't work as you hoped.
Caeli: Not everyone feels that way. Some are jerks.
Elliot: Right. So marriages with jerks work out badly. Then of the marriages entered into in a serious, loving, passionate, committed way as described above, they suffer from the logic I described where the more people try, the more betrayed they feel if it doesn't live up to expectations.
Caeli: Why wouldn't it live up to expectations?
Elliot: Partly because of unreasonable expectations. Romantic fantasies are pretty grand. But more importantly, because people are different and want and expect different things.
Caeli: Wouldn't they have talked about what they want?
Elliot: A little. But you'd be surprised. People are scared to disagree and fight, and don't want to break up, and they're insecure, so they often try to avoid discussions like that. If they do agree, the discussion won't make things better, and if they don't, it could ruin their relationship today.
Caeli: You act like people could break up at any moment.
Elliot: Can't they? Most people are prepared to break up, immediately, if they discover certain things, such as that their partner secretly has a child, or is having an affair.
Caeli: Who would want to be with someone who lied like that?
Elliot: There's very little that would put me off my friends. If they were criminals, that would put me off. But only immediately if it was an especially bad crime. If they were mean to me, I'd assume it was a misunderstanding, and only mind if it kept up for a while. Friendships are far more stable than romance.
Caeli: Is stability good? Maybe passion is inherently unstable, because it's so strong.
Elliot: Stability is supposed to be one of the goals of marriage.
Caeli: That doesn't answer whether it's good.
Elliot: If nothing ever changes, that is bad. But if things change very rapidly, that is worrisome. Misunderstandings are very common, so we should be resistant to those. And there are many more ways to be wrong than right, so we should try out new ideas tentatively at first. When people change their opinions of each other quickly, it's usually because they lost perspective and they are focussing on one little issue and over estimating its importance.
Elliot: Consider cooking using a recipe. A stable recipe would mean if you change the quantities of ingredients slightly, then the meal comes out about the same. That's good. Unstable means if you put in an extra drop of water, or pinch of flour, it will come out wildly different. More generally, unstable things get wildly different results based on different inputs. In our life, the input data is sensory data, and our observations of the world. We know we make lots of mistakes in that area: there are hallucinations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what we see all the time. So a stable approach is important.
Caeli: What do you recommend instead of monogamy? Polygamy?
Elliot: No. My advice is more like "just don't do it". We don't want the opposite of marriage, or even something that makes sense in terms of the romantic mindset. That's too similar. We want to find a better way to look at relationships. When we do that, dichotomies like monogamy versus polygamy will go away. That doesn't matter.
Caeli: That's pretty vague.
Elliot: Well I can't tell you exactly how to live, and I don't want to. The idea that everyone should do the same thing is another flaw in marriage. People are different.
Caeli: Good point.
Elliot: I can tell you some concrete things to avoid. Maybe that will help.
Caeli: Cool. Go on.
Elliot: Promises are irrational. People shouldn't make them.
Caeli: Why?
Elliot: Suppose I promise to do X. The time comes, and I'm considering doing it. Now, I either think X is morally right, or not. If it is right, I will do it whether I promised or not. If I think it's wrong, I shouldn't do it, but I might because I promised. So a promise ends up either being a promise to do what you would have done anyway, or a promise to do wrong.
Caeli: That's amazing. Promising is taken for granted as normal, good, natural, and just generally part of life. But this is a very brief argument that it's no good.
Elliot: Yeah. Just because something is widely accepted doesn't prove it's very good.
Caeli: Doesn't a promise communicate useful information about your plans?
Elliot: Yes. But people should just say, "I plan to walk the dog," instead of promising to.
Caeli: Does it make much difference?
Elliot: Yes. People don't get very upset if you change your mind about a plan. But a promise they will hold against you. You promised, and how can they ever trust you again if you don't keep your promise?
Caeli: Isn't trust important?
Elliot: If you don't make a promise, you don't have to be trusted, so that's a much better way of interacting and not irrational as explained above. But now that you ask, trust is bad.
Caeli: Why?
Elliot: Trusting someone to do something means not using your own judgment about whether he'll do it. It means if he doesn't, you play the victim and say he hurt you. It's better to think about what he will do, and make your own prediction, and take responsibility for it, not put part of your life in another person's hands.
Caeli: What if you don't know what he will do? Maybe you just met him and can't predict that.
Elliot: Then you certainly shouldn't put great trust in him!
Caeli: What if someone chronically breaks promises. Isn't that important?
Elliot: It means the person is bad at predicting what he will do, or it means he says what he thinks you want to hear. Either way, abolishing promises will fix things. He won't have to lie to you, or you can just consider him unreliable and not count on him.
Caeli: Isn't it better if we can count on people?
Elliot: If someone is unreliable, promises won't help anything. The cure can only be for him to get better at planning things.
Caeli: Doesn't a promise mean he will try?
Elliot: If he intends to try, he could tell you that. But he might not: he's unreliable.
Caeli: So what do you recommend instead of promises?
Elliot: This is like the same question about marriage. The answer is: they are bad. Get rid of them. Just don't do it. They don't need any replacement.
Caeli: Don't they serve a functional role of communicating peoples' intentions?
Elliot: Only trivially. It's not hard to just state your intentions plainly.
Caeli: But that's unconventional, so can be hard.
Elliot: True enough. But that's only more evidence that the whole tradition is irrational and we'd be better off without it.
Caeli: What's next?
Elliot: The romantic tradition is stereotyped. It's the same for everyone. People are different, so that's no good. This, like with promises, doesn't demand any particular alternative. Part of the problem is actually trying to have a one-size-fits-all solution.
Caeli: So would you say the solution is just to live your life, without worrying about what some tradition says to do? To believe they have no authority over how a life should be.
Elliot: Yes, that's good. But only for certain traditions we've identified as bad. Tradition isn't a bad thing in general.
Caeli: I see. What's next?
Elliot: Marriages aren't based on what's functional. People are attracted by pretty people, and what feels right, and first impressions, and whether the sex is good, and things like that. But none of those have anything to do with who would be good to share a kitchen with, or raise a child with, or have to live in the same country, city, and house as. People don't seek marriage partners based on who, rationally, would actually be nice to live with. In fact, they reject their friends out of hand due to a lack of spark or chemistry, or it not feeling right, even though their friends are the ones they know well, and get along with, and can rationally expect to still like in a few decades.
Caeli: I guess, again, the alternative is built into the criticism: find people to do specific projects with (like raise a child) who have the qualities you think are important for that project.
Elliot: Yeah. The next criticism of marriage is simply that it's well known that it often hurts everyone involved.
Caeli: You mentioned that earlier.
Elliot: Indeed, it comes up a lot. But it's worth repeating, because people are good at forgetting it. When people contemplate marrying, they aren't generally thinking to themselves that the usual result is being hurt badly. They expect it to work out, even if they have no reason to.
Caeli: OK. What's next?
Elliot: We've talked about marriage being part of a tradition, which I usually call romance. There is more detail than that.
Caeli: What?
Elliot: I'll tell you tomorrow.
Caeli: Bye.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006


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