Between Laissez-Faire and The Rule of Law: What is the Politics of Your Relationship?

Posted on August 18, 2014


DirectionMost people want to be in some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship, whether it be short-term or long-term, monogamous or non-monogamous. Many people, it seems to me, rarely reflect on the best way to arrange or organize that relationship. We very often race from tree-kissing to the baby carriage, without reflecting on whether or not there are better or worse ways to organize a relationship, given our goal or goals for that relationship. Certainly, we all have preconceived notions of the kind of relationship we want. Rarely, however, do we reflect on how best to arrange or organize that relationship, and whether or not a particular arrangement is consistent with a relationship’s intended purpose. The aim of this (rather lengthy) post is to propose a framework with which to make sense of and assess the many ways two (or more persons) might arrange and organize their relationship.

An Assumption With Which to Start

In this day and age, I have a hard time imagining that there are very many people who are looking for a romantic partner to complete him or her, in the classic sense of some fraction of a person meeting the complementary fraction of a person in order to make one person. It seems to me that most people are looking for a whole and complete person (more or less) with which to form a partnership in which both partners have equal standing (more or less). I write, “more or less” because whole and complete people tend to evolve over time, so, in one important sense, they are never whole and complete. Also, perfect equality in any relationship seems impossible, but equality, on the whole, certainly is possible.

So, if we begin with the assumption that the best romantic relationships are made up of (at least) two whole and complete people, what is the best way for this relationship to be arranged? There seems to me to be four options that can be usefully highlighted on a spectrum of possibility.

A Laissez-Faire Approach

In this approach, two whole and complete persons say to each other, “I am who I am, I do what I do, I do it when I want to do it, and I have no responsibility to you or anyone else, unless, in any given moment, I decide to create that responsibility. I can also revoke that responsibility as quickly as I create it.” The relationship exists so long as both persons independently make choices, with little or no coordination, that allow the relationship to persist over time, unless, of course, both independently decide to make some choices together.

A Hobbesian Approach

In this approach, two whole and complete persons recognize that they need to give up some of their freedom to avoid certain negative outcomes that neither of them want to experience. They recognize that a completely Laissez-faire approach to their relationship can and will lead to harm, so they agree to some basic ground rules that reduce the chance that they might be harmed by the other. In principle, any set of rules could be agreed upon. Crucially, the persons involved in the relationship only agree to the rules because they don’t want to experience the harm that occurs when the other person breaks the rules.

An Autonomous Approach

In this approach, both whole and complete persons recognize that they need to give up some of their freedom not only to avoid harm, but also to achieve certain goods that would otherwise be unachievable. They freely enter into a relationship that constrains both of them because they recognize that each partner will be better off when they both accept the limitations. In principle, any kind of relationship can be agreed to, so long as both partners contribute equally to the development of the relationship and freely accept and abide by it. Moreover, if both partners agree to revisit the terms of the relationship, they can.

An Absolute Law Approach

In this approach, both whole and complete persons recognize that there is a certain set of rules, which govern any and all successful relationships, whatever the people involved may think of them. Perhaps, the rules are god-given, naturally-given, or the result of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Whatever the underlying metaphysical explanation, the rules are more important than what the partners think of them. In principle, one can imagine any set of rules being identified as the one-true set of rules for all relationships, depending on the people involved. The important consideration is that both partners are expected to play by those rules, no matter what they think of them, and the rules are not subject to revision.

Which Approach is the Best Approach?

I’m pragmatic enough to accept that each approach can work for different people at different times in their lives and in different circumstances, given their relationship goals. However, there is no reason to expect every approach to work for every kind of goal that a relationship might have. Some approaches are likely to be  better than others, depending on the goal or purpose of the relationship. Because most people seem to want a relationship that involves a long-term commitment, let’s consider these approaches from that perspective.

Assessing the Laissez-faire Approach

Although it seems unlikely, a Laissez-faire approach could, in principle, lead to a long-term and committed relationship. Perhaps, the wants, desires, and insecurities of the two people are so perfectly aligned, when they act on them without consideration of the other person, they simply stay true to each other. It is theoretically possible, but highly implausible.

Relationships never happen in a vacuum. Every whole and complete person has other people making demands on his or her time and attention. Unless both people are reacting only to the exact same people in the exact same circumstances, it seems unlikely that their decisions will always align in a way to allow for continuity over time.

Finally, it seems possible that two people could simply decide they are in a long-term and committed Laissez-faire relationship, even if their behaviours towards each other don’t really look anything like a long-term and committed relationship to anyone else. Importantly, however, certain goods, which can only be achieved through cooperation, would be very difficult to achieve or sustain in this kind of relationship. Raising a family together, in this approach, seems to me to be pretty much impossible.

Assessing the Hobbesian Approach

A long-term and committed Hobbesian relationship seems possible. So long as both partners respect the terms of the relationship, it could run smoothly for an extended period of time. In fact, I suspect very many relationships are Hobbesian in nature.

The shortcoming of this approach, I think, is that certain kinds of goods will be inaccessible to the people involved in this relationship because each person only gives so much regard to the other. It also seems plausible that the partners might inadvertently corner themselves into situations where they both make choices that make both of them worse off because of that limited regard. For example, people who are not wholly honest with each other might, in the light of more information from their partner, make different and better choices. Nevertheless, a family could, I think, be raised in this kind of relationship. In fact, many families probably are.

Assessing an Autonomous Approach

A long-term and committed Autonomous relationship is also possible, however, there is no reason to think it will be any more or less long-term and committed than a Hobbesian relationship. An Autonomous relationship, I think, has the potential for a wider range of goods and experiences than the Hobbesian approach because there is much more opportunity for cooperation and all those goods that are accessible only through cooperation, but it can’t, of course, guarantee them. Furthermore, if the whole and complete people involved in the relationship don’t want these cooperative goods or experiences, there really is no reason for them to relinquish more of their freedoms in order to adopt the Autonomous approach. For some, the Autonomous approach is the right approach, for others, it is not.

Assessing a Rule of Law Relationship

A long-term and committed Rule of Law relationship is also possible, but, once more, I can’t say it will be any more or less long-term and committed than a Hobbesian or Autonomous approach. The advantage of this approach over the others seems to be the security and peace of mind of operating within one clearly defined set of rules, which are not open to revision. The shortcoming, it seems to me, is that the supreme authority given to the one set of rules undermines the notion that the people involved are whole and complete. Because the rules take the place of the person’s own reflections on the best way to arrange a relationship, the rules, it can be said, complete the people involved, if those rules fill a vacuum in the person’s development.

A Rule of Law relationship doesn’t, however, preclude the possibility that the people involved in it are whole and complete. Whole and complete people can freely and willing enter in relationships of total obedience to a particular set of rules, and remain whole and complete people, because a substitution of one’s own reflections for a particular set of immutable rules does not make a person less whole and complete. It is, after all, a substitution. One might suspect that the opportunity for further growth will be limited in this kind of relationship, but, there may be opportunity for growth in learning how best to interpret the rules and how best to live within their constraints.

The Laissez-Faire Approach: What Have We Learned?

It seems that a Laissez-faire relationship is highly unlikely either to be long-term or committed. In fact, the Laissez-faire attitude that motivates this kind of relationship is antithetical to all but the thinnest notions of what a relationship might be. Accordingly, if you find yourself thinking or saying things like, “I want to be in a long-term committed relationship with a whole and complete person, and I also want to do whatever I want whenever I want,” you have two incompatible and competing desires. You can have a long-term and committed relationship with a whole and complete person or you can have a life of total freedom, but you can’t have both.

The caveat that the relationship involve another whole and complete person, however, is important. I am sure there are people who would be willing to put up with a Laissez-faire relationship, because they are less than whole themselves or because they hope for some long-term payoff. In either case, however, this kind of unequal relationship would not do well for the person with the Laissez-faire attitude. We only become whole and complete persons when we learn to negotiate the compromises necessary to live justly with others. When we are given permission to act as if we have total freedom, we are, in fact, being granted permission to delay our development as a human being.

Furthermore, I think people who adopt a Laissez-faire attitude to relationships will find it much more difficult to be a part of a long-term and committed relationship. First, the people with the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for a long-term and committed relationship will be alienated in short order, leaving only those people who are themselves incapable of forming long-term and committed relationships. Second, the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for a healthy long-term and committed relationship don’t necessarily arise in a person spontaneously, especially when one adopts habits and attitudes that are antithetical to them. One can only learn the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for a long-term and committed relationship by trying to develop them. Presumably, these skills, habits, and attitudes could be developed in other kinds of relationships (the family, civic associations, clubs, etc), but they are probably best developed in relationships that aspire to be the kind of relationship one actually wants.

One might say, of course, “oh well, I guess that proves that I’m not ready for a long-term relationship.” This may be true, but to prepare for one — that is, if a long-term and committed relationship is what one wants — then, it is best to start preparing earlier rather than later. A Laissez-faire approach to relationships only prepares a person for more of the same. One should either discard the desire for a long-term and committed relationship or discard the Laissez-faire attitude.

The Other Approaches: What Have We Learned?

With respect to the other approaches, when one attempts to assess their suitability for a long-term and committed relationship for all people everywhere, the only conclusion one can draw at this level of abstraction is “different strokes for different folks” The three other approaches, in principle, are all conceptually consistent with the possibility of a long-term and committed relationship. To decide between them, we would need, I think, some solid empirical evidence that one approach is more likely to produce long-lasting and committed relationships than the others. I know of no such research, but it is possible it already exists or could be easily undertaken.

Nevertheless, when assessing the approaches for oneself and one’s own relationship, a decision can be made by specifying more carefully one’s own wants and desires. For example, for me, the autonomous approach seems much more appealing because it opens up possibilities that would otherwise be impossible. Companionship, for its own sake, has never been of much interest to me because, I suppose, I am fairly independent. I would, however, happily give up some of that independence, if it would open up experiences and possibilities for growth that would otherwise be impossible. Similarly, a Hobbesian approach could work for me with the right person, but “I won’t hurt you, if you don’t hurt me” doesn’t strike me as a particularly edifying principle with which to negotiate the complexities of a shared life. The Autonomous approach also seems to offer more possibilities for positive goods and outcomes. Finally, I’m disinclined to adopt a Rule of Law approach because I doubt the plausibility of an immutable one-size-fits-all-for-all-time set of rules. I’m also not willing to submit myself to any set of rules that isn’t always open to revision in the light of new evidence.

Another Perspective?

While writing this, it occurred to me that my understanding of the relationship spectrum might be too static and atemporal. Relationships are, of course, fluid. Perhaps, what I have identified are different moments in a long-term and committed relationship, rather than different approaches to such a relationship.

Seen as a straight linear narrative, the moments might tell a story something like this: in the beginning, two whole and complete people find time for each other when they can find the time. Then, after some attachment and trust develops, they enter into a Hobbesian relationship. Trust and attachment increases between the two people until they can engage in the kind of dialogue that leads to an autonomous relationship. Finally, after testing various arrangements, they commit themselves to a Rule of Law relationship, perhaps, because they feel they’ve found the one-true arrangement for a relationship or, perhaps, because they’ve decided they have better things to do than constantly renegotiate the terms of the relationship.

Furthermore, if one is willing to stipulate that claims about the one-true law for relationships can be falsified through experience (i.e. there is one-true law, but our first guess turned out to be wrong), one can imagine a long-term relationship entering into these moments at different stages and times depending on the circumstances and needs of those involved. Indeed, the moments might even be entered into more than once.

My concerns about the Laissez-faire attitude and approach, nevertheless, remain relevant in this temporal model. It’s easy to imagine a person getting stuck in the Laissez-faire moment because they are unable to develop the skills, habits, attitudes, trust and attachment necessary to move on to the other approaches to relationships. One can’t learn how to play the piano, for example, unless one practices the relevant skills and adopts an attitude appropriate for learning the piano. The laissez-faire attitude and approach simply does not prepare a person for a long-term and committed relationship, nor does it foster the appropriate attitude. A return to this moment might also compromise the trust and attachment developed in the other moments.

What do you think?

Is this a useful framework with which to make sense of romantic relationships? Do you see yourself or your relationship in either, some, or all of the approaches? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of each of the approaches? Alternatively, do you want to shift the terms of the debate, and make the case that the “two-halves making one” model should not be discounted so quickly.

All questions, comments, thoughts and reflections are very welcome!