Two arguments for a right to love.

Previously, there was a bit of a dust-up in the comments over my inability to comprehend why people say there is no right to the set of interactions usually called, and to which I’ll refer as (without prejudice to skepticism), “love.” (I’m thinking of this because the topic has again come up to annoyingly derail an interesting discussion in which I was lurking.) In my previous thread, the issue came down to the extent we can make sense of a free-floating entitlement — a right to X that doesn’t bring with it a claim on any specific other(s) to provide X.

I still think that’s a useful notion. The rough argument is that everyone has the right to have his or her basic needs met, and love is a basic need, full stop. That version of the argument deliberately leaves the question of on whom (if anyone) that obligation falls open, and therein lie the objections.

But I have an alternative line of argument that might avoid some of these problems. As follows:

The Luck-Egalitarian Right to Love
1. Love is a basic human function, by which I mean it is an experience that will happen in the course of an ordinary human life.

2. If an individual desires to, but does not experience, a basic human function, s/he has either been treated badly by other individuals or has had very bad [brute] luck (the “failure in love is not your fault” premiss).

3. Each individual has a right, giving rise to a claim on society as a whole, to be protected, to the extent possible and compatible with the rights of others, from mistreatment and very bad [brute] luck (the luck egalitarian premiss).

4. If an individual desires to, but does not experience, love, his/her right to be protected from mistreatment and very bad [brute] luck has been disregarded.

Premiss 2 is, naturally, what does all the work here.

Importantly, note that I bracket “brute” because I, like many people, think the distinction between “option luck” and “brute luck,” is illusory, as are the similar devices that luck egalitarians use to track the distinction between misfortune that’s your fault in some normatively meaningful sense and misfortune that isn’t. For “bad brute luck,” we should read “events and characteristics for which we wouldn’t hold you responsible if we really reflected on it, like being genetically unattractive, being indoctrinated by the media into unrealistic desires, or being emotionally warped from being mistreated as a child.

With that note out of the way, I think it becomes fairly easy to accept premiss 2. Why are people unsuccessful in love? Either they’re ugly, they grew up in such a way that they never learned how to interact with their preferred sex, they have the misfortune of being in a society where sex relations are warped in such a fashion that it ruins the mate-matching process in any number of ways, etc. None of these things are their fault, and many of them would be solved if we lived in a just society where, for example, some kids didn’t get systematically worse socialization, the patriarchy didn’t poison relations between the sexes, childhood nutrition and health care was handled responsibly so kids didn’t end up sickly, obese, or mentally ill for life, parents didn’t behave abusively and screw up the emotional lives of their children, people weren’t indoctrinated by the media into demanding unattainable beauty standards, rampant homophobia didn’t lead to the destruction of same-sex relationships or the renunciation of gay people’s own desires, etc.

We should feel bad for unattractive, “creepy,” etc. people. They have undoubtedly had bad lives, and the physical and behavioral features to which we object in them are just the consequences of that misfortune and mistreatment! That does not, of course, mean that we have an obligation on an individual basis to, I dunno, date people to whom we are not attracted. But it does mean we have an obligation to work to build a society where nobody is put in the position of being unattractive to everyone in whom s/he is interested, by stopping mistreatment and trying to alleviate the avoidable effects of bad brute luck.

Jeez, have I become a luck egalitarian? Perhaps I have. My intuitions in general are sort of perfectionist luck egalitarian: it seems really objectionable to me when people can’t fulfill the functions that make up a good life because the universe thwarts them…

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18 Responses to “Two arguments for a right to love.”

  1. Aaron Says:

    If only you’d accept the whole ‘game’ thing, Paul!

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Would I then be driven to the position that failures in love are option luck, or the non-false-distinction-driven equivalent?

  3. Steve M. Says:

    For some time, it’s seemed pretty obvious to me that something like this view is true. Pretty much *everyone* accepts similar reasoning in other areas. Like adoption: everyone has the right to a childhood in a loving family, but there is no corresponding obligation on specific persons to adopt as many children as possible. Or education: every child has the right to an adequate education, but there is no obligation on everyone else to become a schoolteacher. Instead, I think we have personal obligations to make reasonable efforts to construct just social institutions. Just social institutions will, among other things, ensure (or make likely?) that individuals’ personalities are properly shaped in their tutelage. The tutelary right doesn’t impose on me an obligation to teach children, except perhaps in hypothetical scenarios in which my not being a teacher means children will go untaught, but I *do* have an obligation to support politicians who will make sufficient efforts to provide for childhood education. I don’t think it too much to insist that social institutions, to be just, adequately prepare people to live fulfilling lives. That includes teaching what’s necessary to learn, grow, and, yes, love. (That last part may be sufficiently saccharine to warrant punishment.)

  4. Ryan Says:

    It seems like you’ve dumped the right to love and argued instead that the least advantaged(love-wise) in a society have a right to have the underlying ‘basic structure’ of their society set up to improve their odds of finding love.

    At least that would be what someone skeptical of free-floating entitlements might say about what you have done. The right is for the basic structure to help you as much as possible, not to receive the thing itself.

  5. Steve M. Says:

    I have a hard time accepting that moral claims operate on the model of a lawsuit — that they must, by their nature, be asserted against someone in the cause of extracting something, and that what you doing when you assert a moral claim is to right some balance or demand effect redress. Doesn’t a child have the right to an education? Against whom does the child assert that claim? It will do no good to say “the state,” unless the state has the power to conscript people as schoolteachers.

    I’m curious to hear someone sympathetic to the morality-as-lawsuit model explain how it deals with shared moral obligations? Say I form a contract with four other people, A, B, C, and D, in which I promise to pay them $20,000 if they repair my house, which was severely damaged in a storm. A works diligently, but B, C, and D shirk their obligations and run off with the down payment. I think it makes most sense to say that I have a moral claim against the group that exceeds the specific moral claim I have against any single member. Query whether I have a claim against A for his choice to associate with untrustworthy thieves, assuming their untrustworthiness was foreseeable to him and not to me?

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ryan: you might be right at that, but they amount to the same thing — the irremediable absence of love is near-conclusive evidence that someone is a victim of basic structural injustice.

    Steve: and the law doesn’t even work that way — isn’t it a truism that there can be legal rights for which there is no remedy?

  7. Steve M. Says:

    Yeah, but nowadays doesn’t the “no eight without a remedy” bromide usually appear in a dissent? I’m thinking of all those Eleventh Amendment cases.

  8. Steve M. Says:

    “eight,” obviously, should read “right”

  9. Mike Says:

    If only you’d accept the whole ‘game’ thing, Paul!

    Truth. Paul’s post is asking me to feel sorry for a broke person who could find a job if he’d look for one. The information is out there. If people want to remain loveless because they are too afraid of taking their licks (as a person learning game will get eaten alive for several months), why should I care?

    Sort of like fat people. I have lost 70 pounds. It has been a struggle every day. If people are fat, why should I feel sorry for them? The information on how to lose weight it out there. If people don’t do it (and losing weight IS really fucking hard and not pleasant at all), then why should I care?

    People talk about luck. Sure, luck matters. I was born with a not good metabolism, which means it’s easier for me to get fat than it is for others. It’s also harder to lose weight. Yet this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just means that I have to ask myself if it’s worth it to suffer to lose fat.

    Is it worth it to suffer (and going out using game IS hard work and is not fun at all at first) to find love? That’s a personal choice.

    If a loveless person has decided that it’s better to sit home, celebrating a never ending pity party, where’s the injustice?

  10. When to Express Pity? And for that Matter, When to Express Anger? « Aaron Weingott Says:

    [...] both are beyond the affected people’s control. People may be poor, slow, mentally unstable, or bad at love, and where one has a right to certain necessities beyond their reach, society at large owes them [...]

  11. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    “events and characteristics for which we wouldn’t hold you responsible if we really reflected on it, like being genetically unattractive, being indoctrinated by the media into unrealistic desires, or being emotionally warped from being mistreated as a child.

    With that note out of the way, I think it becomes fairly easy to accept premiss 2. Why are people unsuccessful in love? Either they’re ugly, they grew up in such a way that they never learned how to interact with their preferred sex, they have the misfortune of being in a society where sex relations are warped in such a fashion that it ruins the mate-matching process in any number of ways, etc. None of these things are their fault, and many of them would be solved if we lived in a just society where, for example, some kids didn’t get systematically worse socialization, the patriarchy didn’t poison relations between the sexes, childhood nutrition and health care was handled responsibly so kids didn’t end up sickly, obese, or mentally ill for life, parents didn’t behave abusively and screw up the emotional lives of their children, people weren’t indoctrinated by the media into demanding unattainable beauty standards, rampant homophobia didn’t lead to the destruction of same-sex relationships or the renunciation of gay people’s own desires, etc.

    I’m even more flabbergasted than I was the first time around.

    Is it your view that under conditions of social justice no one would have personalities that were systematically unattractive to other persons generally? that all unattractive personalities are the result of emotional abuse by parents that are forbidden by justice, or of other persons being socialized in ways that make them blind to the virtues of the unattractive? ["It's the patriarchy's fault that the hot girls always go for jerks!"] that there is no room in humanity’s crooked timber for persons who, more or less on their own, choose to be pompous, self-involved, rude, cretinous, sadistic, etc?

    First of all, you seem to be mixing “unchosen” up with “attributable to injustice.” Maybe that follows from your skepticism about the brute luck- option luck distinction. But it seems to me that your insistence that we must never hold a person responsible for his own personality had better be independent of the specific causal claim that all bad personalities are attributable to injustice to be even remotely plausible.

    Once it’s been detached, then I guess all we’re left with is the reductio of the desert argument. Because we didn’t create ourselves ex nihilo, we should not (on each other’s best moral reflection) hold one another responsible for any feature of our personality, and the harm that those with obnoxious personalities inflict on those around them provide all the more reason to feel sorry for them and to try to rectify the injustice that they’re unloved.

    At that point, it’s unclear to me what’s left of our capacity to hold one another responsible for anything. I think we’ve arrived at the bottom of the slippery slope Rawls’ desert argument seemed to place us on in the first place.

    But your own intuitions about humanity don’t seem any more free of attributions of moral responsibility than anyone else’s do. Those damned yuppie parents could, in your imagination, have chosen otherwise, and it’s to their discredit that they didn’t– even though they were themselves born into a causal chain. There you’re responding like a human being. Here you’re denying that one should respond in such a way.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    Jacob, you’re conflating two different claims that we might make about someone with, say, an obnoxious personality. The first claim, that I accept, is that human personalities are deeply and fundamentally conditioned by their environments, and people with truly nasty personalities have generally been the victim of something bad in their environment that caused it. (Perhaps it’s too strong to say that this bad thing is always something that gives rise to a claim of justice, but at a minimum it gives rise to a moral demand of some kind.) The second claim, which does not follow from the first, and which I do not accept, is that we cannot nonetheless hold someone responsible for his obnoxious personality. We can hold people responsible for their bad personalities — even though we do not hold such a person responsible for the bad [brute] luck that inflicted that personality on him.

    The idea here is something like bad moral luck. (For the benefit of any lurkers unfamiliar with the concept, you can get a grip on the idea of bad moral luck by imagining a scenario where someone is put between a rock and a hard place — any choice she might make is subject to severe moral criticism — like the FBI agent facing a terrorist, a ticking bomb, and a torture device, to make this timely — or who has been misinformed about the moral consequences of her actions.) Our sadist has been twisted into a blamable person by his environment. Even as we respond appropriately to the sadism (not date the sadist, punish him for his misbehavior, etc.) we can acknowledge the fact that he too is a victim.

  13. Paul Gowder Says:

    (please forgive the willy-nilly switching back between singular and plural in that last comment, too lazy to edit to fix while on iPhone)

  14. Paul Gowder Says:

    Also, I hasten to add that the appropriate response in the individual case to our sadist (feel sorry for him while punishing, blaming, etc.) diverges from the appropriate response on the societal level (fixing the institutions and practices that created the sadism).

  15. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    “The first claim, that I accept, is that human personalities are deeply and fundamentally conditioned by their environments, and people with truly nasty personalities have generally been the victim of something bad in their environment that caused it.”

    That in itself is two different claims. The first, naturally, I accept. The second seems to me an impressive leap of faith. I doubt that our personality-formation process is as morally neat as all that.

    Of course, even accepting the second still leaves a long way to go. But for the fallen condition of the world in which there are imperfect people who do an imperfect job raising their children or being in the same world with other people’s children and therefore yield imperfect adults, everyone would be lovable. If everyone were lovable, everyone at least *might* find the person or persons in the world who are well-suited to love them; such persons *might* be romantically available at the time; the romantic and sexual attraction *might* be mutual, and mutually expressed.

    And somehow all of these mights and maybes and counterfactuals and undoings of our fallen imperfection set up a baseline so morally strong that departures from it are to be construed as departures from justice!

  16. Paul Gowder Says:

    Do you really think the mights and maybes and counterfactuals and undoings are all that contingent? Ordinary human lives do contain at least some strong romantic attachments. That this is such a common, near-universal, experience suggests that it doesn’t require too much luck of the happening-to-stumble-across-the-right-person type (humans are, I daresay, pretty fungible romantically beyond the minimum tolerability level) to make it come together, if one hasn’t had the misfortune to turn out warped, extremely ugly, gay in a homophobic society, etc.

  17. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    If you think that there’s that kind of fungibility, and that there’s a right at stake, at what level of singlehood in society would reinstituting arranged marriages become a demand of justice?

    I agree with you that there’s considerable fungibility. I also think that along any of the physical and personality dimensions that feed into attractiveness, there are distributions with outliers, and that the fungibilty decreases as one moves away from the center of any of those bell curves. Most people most of the time have some romantic compatibility with a great many other people. And most people most of the time aren’t love-deprived in the way you’re worried about anyway. As we move closer to the cases that worry you, I think we move farther into the realm of idiosyncrasies that make people compatible with smaller and smaller proportions of the world– and that therefore the role of contingency rises dramatically, and that using “everyone finds someone” as a baseline becomes stranger and stranger.

  18. Paul Gowder Says:

    I think you’ve convinced me that the plausibility of this view depends on one’s beliefs about the counterfactual distribution of traits in a world where there aren’t the sorts of objectionable and love-life-destroying things that I listed earlier (abusive parents, homophobia, etc. etc.).

    I happen to think that in such a world most everyone (except for the truly genetically unfortunate) would fall into the “compatibility with a great many other people” sweet spot. That’s an inference mainly from the fact that the people of whom I’m aware who are truly loveless tend to be in that condition because of reasons that are more-or-less comprehensible in terms of having fallen on the wrong side of something wrong in our society — but I can see how others would make a different inference given a different sample pool.

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