Thursday, April 20, 2023

Romance & reason 2

In my last post I discussed the ideas of Eva Illouz, a Moroccan born sociologist who writes on the topic of relationships. I noted that she agrees with a point that I have long made, namely that there is a tension between a belief in individual autonomy and a commitment to stable relationships. This is because autonomy requires us to be free to choose in any direction at any time and we cannot do this if, for instance, we take seriously our marriage vows. Eva Illouz puts it this way:

This idea makes sense only in the context of a view of the self in which promises are viewed as posing limits on one’s freedom: that is, the freedom to feel differently tomorrow from the way I feel today. Given that a limit on one’s freedom is viewed as illegitimate, requesting commitment is interpreted as an alienation of one’s own freedom. This freedom in turn is connected to the definition of relationships in purely emotional terms: if a relationship is the result of one’s freely felt and freely bestowed emotions, it cannot emanate from the moral structure of commitment. Because emotions are constructed as being independent of reason, and even of volition, because they are viewed as changing, but, more fundamentally, because they are seen as emanating from one’s unique subjectivity and free will, demanding that one commits one’s emotions to the future becomes illegitimate, because it is perceived to be threatening to the freedom that is intrinsic to pure emotionality.

A reader ("Guest Ghast") drew out something important from this:

It’s something I’ve been made more aware of recently through a number of personal incidents, but there’s a real unexamined driving ideology here that emotions equate automatically to action. Eva doesn’t even question her assumption that how we behave is determined by how we feel and that people’s feelings are what we ought to be concerned about, even though she’s clearly thought about it. I can’t claim an exhaustive examination of this, but once you notice it it’s clear it’s everywhere. The so-called transgender movement is practically founded on the notion that how you feel ought to determine reality, but that’s somewhat adjacent to the, I think, larger phenomenon of action being assumed to derive almost purely from emotion. I would suspect this is a development from the ideals of the Romantic movement that lionized feeling and passion, but I haven’t investigated to find out.

I think that Eva herself does question the loss of a "moral structure of commitment", but even so the main point here stands: that modernity has slipped into the idea that how we feel justifies how we act. Instead of our feelings being ordered to a notion of the good, it is the other way around: what we feel becomes the good we are to pursue. 

This led to a discussion of why liberal modernity has slipped into this habit. Both Guest Ghast and I agreed that it could have something to do with the influence of Romanticism, with its emphasis on feeling and passion and its focus on individual, subjective experience. I also offered this:

I wonder (this is just a thought experiment) if it has something to do with the logic of modernism itself. If what matters is maximum preference satisfaction, and preferences are equally valid, then there is perhaps less "rational" justification for any act. It just comes down to subjective preference, i.e. what we want to do and this itself may be perceived to be based on what we feel like doing or having.

In other words, liberal modernity sees the good in a freedom to choose as we will, rather than in our choosing rationally and prudently what is objectively good for us and for the communities we belong to. As James Kalb used to emphasise, our preferences are seen as equally valid (as long as they do not limit what others might prefer to be or to do). But if they are equally valid they do not have to be justified by an act of reason. They are valid because they are my own subjective preferences. If preference alone is a sufficient justification, then it comes down to what I want, or feel like, or think will create a pleasurable experience, or simply to what moves me - which is often my emotional responses.

Guest Ghast replied with another significant argument:

I posted a comment here some time which I worked through my own logic to show that liberalism requires only meaningless choices. In short, since choices that have consequences would influence one to make a decision in one direction or the other, freedom is maximized when consequences are done away with, but this reduces all choices to meaningless preferences. Now that you’ve suggested a connection, it occurs to me that said meaningless preferences by necessity must operate only by feeling since there’s no logical way to choose one option over another. Since we seem to hold that we are defined as individuals by having individual preferences no one else has, this would seem to elevate feeling to the dominant position we observe it in (since feelings would be the truest expression of one’s individuality). Worse, reason in fact cannot have anything to do with decision making rather than being merely subordinate to feeling.

It also occurs to me that to reason necessarily means to discriminate, which liberals have reliably connected with oppression. cf. a previous post you wrote wherein it was said (not in so few words) that treating people differently for their choices was unacceptable and cf. the ubiquitous modern attitude that treating people differently for their unchosen aspects is also unacceptable. Basically treating people in any rational way is unacceptable. Mere feelings and preference can’t be in essence accused of discrimination, at least when you’re sufficiently reeducated and your choices are indistinguishable from random ones.

There are two points being made here. The first is that if we think of choices as having consequences, serious enough to sway one's decision permanently in one direction only, then a limitation is being placed on our freedom to choose in any direction. Therefore, it is better if choice is conceived of as not having these serious consequences (or if these consequences are seen as being there artificially, as a power ploy of some sort, i.e. of one person or group wanting to manipulate others, so that they can be dismissed as an oppressive imposition that can be overridden). Another way of putting this is that the absolute ideal under the terms of liberal modernity is to be "empowered" in the sense of being able to choose in any direction, without negative consequence or negative judgement. In this case, the older emphasis on wisdom or prudence is superseded, as the vision is of a society in which it is possible to choose any self-determined path that we have a mind to travel.

The second point is that when we reason we necessarily discriminate. We make judgements as to the good, as to the worthiness of particular acts, and to the likely consequences of beliefs and behaviours. But making these judgements is not licit under the terms of liberalism, and in some cases will be condemned as inherently hateful or bigoted. Therefore it is difficult to "treat people in any rational way". In contrast, a feeling or a preference is simply a subjective state that in itself does not involve a process of discrimination (though it might still be considered illicit if it is not in line with the larger principle of non-discrimination). Perhaps this helps to explain why the liberal classes so often emphasise "right feeling" as the basis of being a good person, or why they seek these feeling states rather than grappling with the longer term repercussions of what they advocate.

Why discuss all this? We need to go back to the where the discussion began. Relationships cannot be defined in purely emotional terms, independent of reason and volition. First, because emotions change and therefore relationships grounded only on emotion will be unstable. Second, if we start from the point of pure subjectivity, conditioned only by our own feelings and passions, then relationships will be thought more pure and elevated the less they are based on pragmatic rational considerations and the more freely bestowed they are, without any "limiting" claims being made on the feelings or passions of the other person.

The very first generation of Romantic thinkers in Germany seem to have already accepted the logic of all this. Their relationships were marked by this emphasis on pure, unconditioned subjectivity. I will go into details in the next post.


  1. treating this as anything less than adherence to a satanic religion is going to miss the point and end up in a lot of pain. these people can can gladly will lose any and all “autonomy,” that rhetoric never meant anything.

    1. It did mean something. It’s a rebranding of the same old lie of Satan’s: “You will be as God.” The two are one and the same, not disconnected and unrelated, even if some people do not recognize the relation. Its devotees only appear to lose it gladly because it was an impossible lie, and when confronted with its impossibility they chose to collaborate in Satan’s project of being hateful to God as a response, calling their freedom to behave so under Satan’s governments “autonomy.”

    2. Well I suppose that’s correct. the marquis de sade had the same idea: if the proliferated pornography to all the young men, all the men would feel so internally evil that they would “identify” with a satanic order wanting to conquer France.

      Theodore Dalrymple has this to say:
      “Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.”

  2. Another example is the demand that people have “empathy.” This demand perplexed me for a long time because when they talked about “empathy” they plainly were not referring to an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. (Perhaps ironically they are some of the least able, or inclined, to do this). I used to think (and say) that it was a confusion of sympathy for empathy: a demand that you care. But over the last few years I’ve realized that the issue is more fundamental: they assume (without any reflection at all) that if you understood (or felt) how someone might feel that you would care and accept his behavior, obviously because if you felt the same way you would behave the same.

    There is very little conception that this could be otherwise, and in fact people of this mindset seem to find that concept highly disturbing, perhaps akin to a sort of sociopathy. Have a search around for “dark empath” and you’ll know what I mean. That literature is totally devoid of any conception that people could feel some way and yet behave contradictorarily to that feeling; even the “dark empaths” they fear escape breaking the connection between feelings and action by merely analytically understanding what you feel in order to manipulate you rather than actually feeling what you feel. The concept of acting contrary to how you feel seems totally anathema to them.

    Anecdotally, a few years ago I had the experience of a very liberal friend of mine being horrified that I didn’t care about an issue that everyone at the time was meant to care very much about, so much so that he stopped speaking to me entirely. These people, as you mentioned in the post, seem to take a lack of feeling (care) as being a deep moral fault.

    It’s probably also worth pointing out that, if you’re of a mind for “conspiracy theories”, it’s much easier to manipulate people’s feelings than their reason. And whether this feelings paradigm was deliberately pushed or not, this probably goes a fair way to explaining the dominance of the media nowadays. When people are so controlled by their feelings you’d be stupid to try influencing them another way, and what better way to manipulate emotions is there than audio-visual media?

    1. "they assume (without any reflection at all) that if you understood (or felt) how someone might feel that you would care and accept his behavior, obviously because if you felt the same way you would behave the same."

      That's very good.

    2. Guest Ghast, one thing this discussion has made me ponder is what women really mean when they use the term "patriarchy". I had always assumed they meant it as a way of organising society politically, i.e. as the structure of oppression that prevents the regeneration of human nature. I think they do mean this, but it's possible I think that it goes further than this, to the kind of thing you've been pointing to, namely to the idea that a feeling should lead to a behaviour. Patriarchy would include limitations placed on a person acting out their feelings. I say this on the basis of conversations I've had on social media and with female colleagues. Some of the cutting edge leftist women I work with almost take it as a badge of honour to have acted purely on feeling - no matter how imprudent - as a progressive gesture that moves society toward feminism. And I have debated feminist women online who bring together the ideas of men being too "unfeeling" with patriarchal oppression - hence the emphasis on men "getting in touch with their feminine side", being allowed to be emotional etc. - these much touted phrases are not there simply for therapeutic reasons, but have a political context as well. And, in a sense, these women are right. It *is* a kind of "patriarchal" influence on society to insist that people act according to moral principle rather than on disorganised feeling alone. So the issue is why some women see this as oppressive. And I think it is in the loss of virtue ethics as one longstanding component of the Western tradition. In other words, there is a loss of the sense that in rationally ordering our feelings and passions we are enabling the experience of our higher and truer selves. Perhaps too the voluntarist concept has undermined traditional society in this respect, by suggesting that moral commands exist only as moral commands, rather than as reflecting intrinsic moral goods.

    3. I think you might be onto something. Some evidence that springs to mind in support of this is the traditional emphasis on men for moral instruction, preserved in some institutions (such as the Catholic Church) — of course its highest members were in the past called “Patriarchs.” (See also the Biblical Patriarchs). In my personal life I have experienced accusations from time to time from women close to me that I’m “unfeeling,” usually meant to mean that I’ve been too tactless in not buttressing or padding my arguments or comments with soothing language. Being distorted by feminism, I’m not exactly sure how primordial a dynamic it is between men and women that women are more driven by (or perhaps less able to resist) feelings. I’d have to think more about it.

      In terms of falsification, it seems significant that the original champions of feeling were in fact men. Feminists are rather recent on the scene. This may have been because women were simply not able to be champions, but I’m not so sure. In my personal life I won’t claim to have observed any noticeable difference between men and women when it comes to being driven by feeling, but I admit that’s anecdotal. More objectively, I have and will continue to argue strongly that for most uses of the word men are in fact more romantic than women. Women to my observation have in general a cold pragmatism about their sexual relations for the most part, whereas men becoming passionately in love with a woman contra reasonable behavior is a common phenomenon. Men also on the whole seem to be more given to idealism, which I’ve argued contributes to male embitterment when they’re disillusioned of their fantasies and high causes. (See, for example, how many if not most “incels” are former male feminists embittered against women for being taught the lie that being feminists would get them the women they wanted). I’m not sure that necessarily contradicts your hypothesis, but feeling is almost certainly the primary driver behind idealism and delusional romanticism.

      I suppose a possible reconciliation of the two might be the hypothesis that if (or since) men are more given to more powerful emotions they are also more likely to seek to master them.

      One thing I think it’s worth remarking on is that our rational abilities are one of the primary ways Man is separated from animals. Viewed from that perspective, an ideal of having emotion as a primary drive could be construed as an ideal of reducing Man to a purely animal state (or even outright dehumanizing him, the “rational animal”), because of course animals do in fact operate purely according to “emotion” (if we can call it such), having no capacity to reason. Would this mean that it is part of female nature to push for a more animal state? Or are feminists merely the latest and greatest champions of a primordial war against the higher modes of Man’s nature?

      I’m hypothesizing here, but some have argued (I will not claim agreement) that women occupy a sort of intermediary stage between full adults and children. If this was true, the feminist project might arise from a more excusable motive towards a more (but crucially not completely) animal (or child-like) state of influence from feelings natural to women, rather than complete animality. I suspect some sorts might argue this is a virtuous drive towards innocence (as is common to children and, according to this argument, women).

      Another way to look at it might be as a call for inversion. Make men more feminine (more feeling-influenced, if we accept for the sake of argument that women are less naturally rational) and women more masculine. The wrench in that argument I think is that I’ve never seen any feminist push for women to be less feeling (quite the opposite).


    4. I will admit my personal suspicion would be that there is a deeper underlying phenomenon at work of which feminists are merely the most common and pedestrian example, as in so many other cases, but I couldn’t tell you what that phenomenon is. That said, I agree with you that there seems to be a male-female aspect to the conflict between being feelings-driven and being reason-driven. Is this simply because men naturally are the ones to impose moral laws and behavior on women and so any rebellion against moral law would have this aspect? Is it because there really is a more male nature to reason and female nature to feelings? Perhaps some other explanation? I’m not sure.

      It occurs to me that with strict literal accuracy “patriarchy” is not merely rule by men but rule by fathers. Perhaps rather than a male-female dynamic it’s another dynamic at play: fatherdom vs. juvenility (or something else, perhaps). Certainly much of feminism seems to boil down to a lack of fatherly influence, authority, and care, but you could characterize many related disorders similarly. If you look at a lot of atheist arguments and behavior, even outside of arguing for atheism, there seems to be a distinct similarity between the atheist contempt for God and accompanying Christian morality and social organization and juveniles acting out against their parents and resentment for their parents’ rules and restrictions. Of course, almost all atheists become so in their pubescent years, so make of that what you will. For a different example, though I can’t claim a deep familiarity with the topic, to my understanding fatherdom plays an enormously important role in (at least male if not both male and female) homosexual dynamics. I’ve heard some refer in passing to a perennial homosexual search for the father.

      One thing it might be worth looking into is whether particular sorts of men that operate feelings-primary are more feminine (in ways not related to being driven primarily by feeling) than other men. I would suspect this is true, but it might not be. In fact, I confess that gay men immediately spring to mind, but this might not be fair. A converse study might be whether particularly rational women are more masculine in areas outside of not being driven primarily by feelings. In this latter case I think I would actually suspect this is not true, knowing several women like that who, if anything, are actually more feminine than the average woman today (but this is anecdotal).

      It’s an interestig question no doubt. I think the matter of feelings driving our behavior is probably actually more connected to other issues than any of us suspect, and the attacks against “Patriarchy” might be merely one aspect. Unfortunately I think I’ve merely vomited out some not very organized or refined thought, but maybe some of it will be useful.


    5. Perhaps rather than a male-female dynamic it’s another dynamic at play: fatherdom vs. juvenility (or something else, perhaps). Certainly much of feminism seems to boil down to a lack of fatherly influence, authority, and care, but you could characterize many related disorders similarly.

      This is a thought well worth pursuing.

    6. patriarchs were high-ranking roman governors and bureaucrats given a title in The Church to make Catholics at ease with the local authorities so they would not be overthrown. these bureaucrats and governors misused their vestigial Religious titles to preach heresy and so the whole thing was called off within 100 years. these kicked out bureaucrats eventually founded the “orthodox church.”

  3. It occurs to me there might be a connection with utilitarianism. Suppressing or mastering emotions is, of course, emotionally unpleasant, at least initially. If you’re seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize “pain”, behaving emotionally would be a necessary consequence.

    This might be a chicken and egg situation though. While pursuing a utilitarian life would lead to eschewing reason, a person who refused to oppose his emotions might very well be drawn in to or promote utilitarianism (he might even come up with it). I don’t think it really explains why people might behave that way though.

  4. If we have to follow our feelings, especially in relationships, what happens when we discover that one of our feelings, one of our emotional needs, is to have security and stability? How do we follow our emotional needs from moment to moment without experiencing emotional/cognitive dissonance?

    1. Excellent! It then gets very complicated, doesn't it? A healthy-minded, masculine man, for instance, is going to want both love and loyalty from his wife. The two things will go together. The loyalty part presumes stable attachment. As you say, this is a deeper kind of emotional need of the man in a relationship. And so the idea of maintaining a freedom to act how you feel, by not making commitments, runs against the emotional need of having fidelity and loyalty within a loving relationship. The results, I think, are messy. August Schlegel tried to grant his wife a "freedom" to have an affair with another man, but she ended up leaving him and marrying the other man, leaving August to lament his bachelor state in middle-age. I suspect, too, that some people react to the perceived loss of fidelity by withdrawing emotionally altogether, which then deepens the reluctance to commit, which then makes fidelity more remote, in a downward spiral.

      Anyway, I think your comment forms part of the answer we would give on this issue, that there is no genuine "freedom" in the modernist position, because our higher good, including that of our emotions and relationships, would be to honour the importance of fidelity in relationships, and that the more secure this is in a culture, the better the chance that people have of fulfilling important relational needs.

    2. There’s also evidence, if I recall correctly, that women are happier (including more sexually satisfied) with men they feel are committed to them; most probably women do not as easily give freely of themselves to their men without a very secure perception of commitment (most likely including their own commitment to that man, since I doubt there are many women that would give freely of themselves to a man they might kick to the curb down the line). I don’t know of a single woman that wouldn’t count any of those things as being emotional needs of women, the insistence of feminists that these emotional needs are best satisfied in having the freedom to cleave to and expel whatever men they are (dis)interested in at will notwithstanding.

      You could certainly generalize this to wider needs for stability (e.g. men are unlikely to sacrifice and work for communities they feel do not want or include them or may not even exist decades down the line). How many of the Anzacs would have fought if they’d known the societies they fought for were radically uncommitted to them and would work to destroy their posterity? Similarly, I also suspect there would be markedly less investment in parenting if there was a general perception that you would not be looked after and provided for in your old age, which is certainly a long-term commitment.

      Which is all to say that stability itself would appear to be an acute emotional need for humans. Aren’t people constantly talking about how young generations experience all manner of anxieties and disorders over the large uncertainties of the future?

    3. Guest Gast, excellent, thank you. Agree with this, but would underline your own qualification that a woman might not give herself so freely to a man she thinks she might later on kick to the curb, i.e. who she has merely settled for in order to get a wedding/house etc.