Sunday, December 17, 2023

Why the dysfunction in relationships?

In "The Load-Bearing Relationship" Cat Orman sets out to explain the dysfunction in modern relationships. She begins with the statistical trends:

In 2000, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 50 who had never married was just 21%. By 2018, the share of never-married adults climbed to 35%. The median age at first marriage was 25 for women and 27 for men in 2000; by 2022, it was 28 and 30. Today, 41% of Americans ages 18-29 are single, and about a third of never-married single adults say they have never been in a committed romantic relationship.

Her explanation for the decline in relationships is what she calls the "contractual moral framework":

Traditional societies held that we are born into our roles and responsibilities. You owed certain social and practical tributes to your neighbors, siblings, and countrymen, even though you didn’t sign up for them. Confucianism and stoicism made these systems of reciprocal obligations explicit in “role ethics.” Abrahamic religions treated one’s responsibility to the community as part of their obligation to God. Hinduism and the related traditions of the Indian subcontinent contain injunctions from dharma, the personal and social moral duties expected of every spiritually upright individual. While the roles and responsibilities differed greatly across time and place, all of these societies agreed on the necessity and even nobility of fulfilling unchosen roles and responsibilities.

As a consequence, doctrines of how to be a good person centered on the idea that we hold a positive duty of care to others, be it through tithing, caring for sick family members, or raising our neighbor’s barns on the frontier...

The last decade is defined by a shift away from a role ethic and towards a contractualist one. In a contractual moral framework, you have obligations only within relationships that you chose to participate in—meaning, to the children you chose to have and the person you chose to marry—and these can be revoked at any time. You owe nothing to the people in your life that you did not choose: nothing to your parents, your siblings, your extended family or friends, certainly nothing to your neighbors, schoolmates, or countrymen; at least nothing beyond the level of civility that you owe to a stranger on the street.

This is well put. It is part of the shift toward seeing individual autonomy as the highest good in life (which itself has a connection to "voluntarism" in the sense of seeing the will as the ultimate source of value). If it is my autonomy, i.e. my ability to choose as I will in any direction, that is the highest good, then stable commitments to others are a limitation on this good, a kind of fetter or chain, that I should seek to liberate myself from. The focus becomes my freedom to revoke my commitments, rather than my obligations to fulfil my given roles in life. It is not surprising that this focus would lead to a lower trust society with less stable patterns of family life.

Cat Orby goes on to make an interesting observation, namely that if we cannot rely on the support we once received from our unchosen forms of relationships, then too much comes down to the support from a spouse, placing excessive burdens and expectations on that one relationship. 

One small criticism I have of Cat Orby's piece is that the shift toward moral contractualism is much older than she realises. The idea that human society is governed by a "social contract" voluntarily entered into goes back to the proto-liberalism of the seventeenth century. Again, the first wave feminists of the nineteenth century emphasised the idea of maximising autonomy for women, which meant valorising independence rather than family commitments. A female student at Girton College in the 1880s expressed this ethos by stating that,

We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family...One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Unsurprisingly, the same dysfunctions in relationships we see today were also present toward the end of first wave feminism, including delayed family formation and a low fertility rate.

Another minor criticism is that Cat Orby might have extended her argument to go beyond that of obligations. For instance, if what matters is an autonomous freedom to choose in any direction, then the qualities that we are born with, rather than choosing for ourselves, will also seem to be constraints that limit us as individuals. This includes our given sex. And so instead of cultivating the positive qualities of our own sex, it is common for moderns to think negatively of these qualities. Modern women, for instance, have a difficult relationship with their own femininity. This too disrupts heterosexual relationships.

Then there is the issue of equality. It is common now for people to conceive of the very categories of man and woman as political classes vying against each other for power in a zero sum game, where if men win women lose and vice versa. There is little sense of men and women realising themselves more fully in relationship with each other and therefore having a mutual interest in upholding family life as a common good. 

Another way of framing this is that there is no longer a sense of unity governing the relations between men and women. Instead there is fragmentation and the only way of overcoming this fragmentation, within the current way of thinking, is a non-reciprocal one in which either men must strive to meet women's needs and desires or vice versa (or else, as suggested in the recent Barbie film, the sexes achieve equality by going their own way).

To be fair, if there were an emphasis again on role ethics, then this would challenge some of these other problems, because there would once again be a consideration of what we owe to others in virtue of our given roles and responsibilities. What Cat Orby emphasises is therefore not a bad starting point for tackling the current malaise.