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Autonomy Respecting Relationships

Relationships normally infringe on autonomy. Romantic/love/sexual/intimate relationships in particular routinely hurt people.

Broken hearts hurt. A lot. This is not something to gloss over or accept. The end of a lengthy relationship can be especially awful; think of bitter, messy divorces.

Everyone knows that breakups are common. But they also say, "Not me! My relationship is special! It's different."

People also bring up love. "We're in love, and love conquers all, so that will solve our problems and prevent a breakup."

Since most relationships are deemed special, different or loving, none of those claims actually make one's relationship different. They've been tried and don't work effectively.

Anyone getting into a romantic relationship, without some good explanation of what they will do differently, is setting themselves up for immense suffering. A good explanation of how one will avoid suffering will have to be something that hasn't been tried a thousand times without solving the problem or else we can't really expect it to work. It will also have to be exposed to critical evaluation and pass.

There's room for improvement here because people have no answer to this, but go ahead anyway, and commonly delude themselves into thinking they are different. So they're acting irrationally and consequently suffering.

Once in relationships, people have expectations of each other. Certain actions are deemed "betraying the relationship" -- for example having sex with someone else, or "not making an effort" consisting of doing things one doesn't want to. These expectations infringe on autonomy. They reduce one's ability to control his own life however he considers best.

Autonomy is a good thing. Any losses should be minimized or avoided. They shouldn't be accepted of a matter of course, or casually assumed to be necessary without a specific and compelling reason that each instance is needed.

Non-romantic relationships also routinely infringe on autonomy. People say things like, "You should have told me because I'm your friend." Or, "You have to come in on Saturday because I'm your boss." Or, "You have to take out the trash and do your homework because I'm your parent." In each of those cases there are rules one is expected to follow about what he does and doesn't do.

There are different sorts of rules in life. One set of rules is the laws of physics. You can't violate those. They don't infringe on your autonomy. There are other rules we might call *artificial*. They add extra restrictions that aren't necessary but could be avoided. Those are the ones that harm autonomy.

Correct moral rules do not reduce autonomy. It's not a loss of autonomy or liberty or freedom that one isn't permitted to be a mass murderer. Morality makes one's life better by one's own standards and violating that is hurting oneself (and others), so that is off limits.

The restrictions that come with relationships in our culture are largely parochial, cultural customs. They should be questioned and people should seek ways to solve the problems they cause such as loss of autonomy and heartbreak.

Our culture presents of a model of a romantic relationship which virtually everyone follows in important ways if not every detail. The model involves dating and monogamous marriage, with accompanying life roles. This model is not the only possibility and is not something to take for granted as beyond questioning. Especially because it's not working: it hurts people, a lot, frequently.

It's not just the breakups that hurt. It is generally believed that if one only fights with one's spouse a "small" amount then that's good and above average. So some amount of ongoing suffering is taken for granted in what is considered a successful relationship.

Non-romantic relationships also have well known models like "friendship", "family", or "boss". And these also have well known flaws like peer pressure, unwanted visiting relatives, and unfair and unreasonable boss decisions.

How come people keep doing these things even though it hurts them? The traditions also hurt them for not participating. For example, it makes non-participants feel lonely, there's social stigma, it's hard to have a satisfactory role in life and society when one doesn't obey the cultural rules.

Underlying these persistent problems, mistakes and blindnesses people have is irrationality caused by static memes (see the book _The Beginning of Infinity_ by David Deutsch for an explanation of memes). Our culture's sexual traditions especially are not "human nature" but static memes -- old and bad traditions.

Autonomy Respecting Relationships (ARR) is a philosophy which applies good philosophical ideas to these problems. It has a particular focus on ideas from Taking Children Seriously, as well as Karl Popper (especially for epistemology), and a certain conception of (classical) liberalism. Understanding relationships from the perspective of this worldview is the purpose of ARR.

ARR has room for refinement and advancement but has also reached a number of conclusions and figured some things out.

For example, monogamy is not rationally defensible. Nor is love. Nor the way people approach sex, and sexual relationships. These things are mistakes as well as static memes, and they have been refuted by ARR's criticism.

ARR also has some things which may seem like its own conclusions, but which are really conclusions of TCS or the general worldview behind ARR. For example, it rejects compromise and sacrifice, and insists that conflicts should be resolved in a rational, truth-seeking way. It says human interaction should be non-coercive and people should seek common preferences. It says problems are soluble and not a part of life to simply accept, and that people can change and improve their preferences.

Applying epistemology can quickly reach notable conclusions. For example, sex is not inherently super pleasurable as everyone claims. Rather, the enjoyment is an interpretation according to people's ideas. This follows directly from a Popperian understanding.

People will object that this is contradicted by experience, even though it literally isn't since it explains their experience. Further, a keen observer will see that experience contradictions the conventional perspective on this matter. People put effort into making themselves enjoy sex. People regard insufficient desire for sex as a problem which they try to fix. They are under pressure to like sex, so they do their best to make themselves like it. The evidence is readily available and the reason people miss it is because they misinterpret it.

From a sophisticated rational perspective, criticisms of so much of people's lives are not very hard to come by. Join us and move beyond the stage of clinging to these mistakes. The real project is reforming the traditions and finding non-Utopian replacements. This requires critical discussion.

For example promises are irrational (because either the promise turns out to coincide with morality, in which case it serves no purpose, or it does not, in which case it is a promise to do wrong). And one can refrain from ever saying, "Promise you'll never leave me" or demanding promises from friends or family or employees. But this creates problems. Promising served a purpose and without it you'll have to find a new way to communicate that the issue is important. But more than that, you'll need a new perspective which takes more personal responsibility instead of trying to shift responsibility onto others as promises do. This is the bigger issue than simply pointing out that promises are irrational.

Promises are just one issue. There's bigger things. We can recognize that the unpleasant nervousness people feel when asking someone out on a first date is bad. But there's no straightforward solution. Just don't feel nervous? How? People have already put a lot of effort into figuring that out that without success. Just don't ask people on dates? Well, then how will you get to know people? Some kind of replacement is needed, and it needs to work with conventional people who aren't yet aware of the new way of life.

The unexamined life is not worth living. Join us and think these things through instead of mindlessly conforming to conventional, cultural rules, and rationalizing them in accordance with one's static memes. Help solve these important problems instead of wasting your life suffering through another non-ARR relationship. Participate in progress.

You should join the ARR discussion group here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Autonomy-Respecting-Relationships/

Update: ARR discussion has moved to the Fallible Ideas group.

Elliot Temple on November 3, 2011

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