In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Does Love Require Having the Same or Having Enough?

Having the same is not as good as good enough

"Good enough was good enough for me
As it should always be
You who broke my heart and still I grieve
How can you be over me?" (Sonata Arctica)

The egalitarian claim that it is desirable for everyone to have the same as other people (in terms of opportunities, money, and other goods) is central to our notion of morality. In my view, in the romantic realm the value of this claim is questionable. We should speak about a good enough partner, rather than the perfect person.

Despite its obvious value in improving the situation of the poor, the claim that everyone should have the same is clearly wrong when understood in mechanistic terms. People have different needs and it is incorrect to treat everyone as if they are identical. Indeed, the basic socialist ideal of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is not mechanistic. In light of this ideal, what a person should receive is a function of the person's needs and not of what other people have.

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I would like to compare the notions of "having the same" and "having enough" by referring to romantic reciprocity and compromises. In both, the mechanical attitude of wanting to have the same as others is superficial; a more profound attitude is to be sensitive to each person's needs.

Reciprocity is central to love as the need to be loved is as important as the need to love. Mechanical reciprocity is giving the partner the same as the partner gives to you. This kind of attitude requires precise calculations, which are so untypical of genuine love. When I do something for my beloved, I do not do it because I expect to get exactly the same in return. I do it because I care for her and want to enhance her well-being. The two lovers may show a similar level of profoundness in the way that they care for each other, but the expression of that care may be different as each person has different needs.

However, it would be hard to accept if only one person gave the other birthday presents, remembered anniversaries, or offered cups of tea-while the other person offered none of these symbolic acts of giving. Here it is not the quantity that matters as much as the care that indicates the other's significance.

Romantic reciprocity involves giving and getting enough in order to maintain the sense that the partner cares for one ((see here)).
We can also distinguish between superficial and profound attitudes in cases of romantic compromises. Mechanical compromises, which involve splitting the difference, are superficial. They are easier to do and assess, but they lack a proper sensitivity to the real needs of the partner, which is so crucial in genuine love (see here).

Splitting the difference is a simple mechanical measure for coping with the differences between people. If someone wants to sell his car for $10,000 and I am only ready to pay $8,000, splitting the difference by agreeing upon a price of $9,000 might be a simple and plausible solution. Although this method can work in certain circumstances, it is inappropriate in many others as our lives and romantic relationships are more complex than simple financial bargaining. Such a mechanical manner of compromising ignores the essence of romantic love (or, for that matter, of any kind of love or relationship), which is to be sensitive of the other's needs without continuously comparing what you and he are getting and giving at each moment of the day.

Consider the following real case of a compromise. The wife loves operas and the husband loves soccer. They have agreed upon a compromise that the husband will join his wife in a visit to the opera and that he will go alone to watch soccer games. From a mechanistic point of view, this might seem an unfair compromise, but if the compromise suits the each of their needs and if they consider it to be a sufficiently good compromise, then it might work well for them.

Successful compromises are those in which people do not feel that they are compromising. Such compromises do not give half to one person and half to the other; rather, they pay close attention to the significant concerns of each person and attempt to address them. What an outside observer might consider to be an insignificant issue can be highly meaningful to the people involved.

Moreover, even what someone sacrifices for her partner may not be seen as such by the partner if it does not fit the partner's concerns. Thus, not going to soccer games might be what the wife wants; she might merely wish to have his company in one or other quality activities. In successful compromises, the preferred solution is that in which the essential concerns of each side are not compromised.
After discussing the attitude of having enough in reciprocity and compromises, I turn to the more complex issue of having a good enough romantic partner.

The term "satisfice," coined by Herbert Simon, combines the words "satisfy" with "suffice" and is used to express an adequate solution rather than one that maximizes utility. A satisficing solution may often be optimal if the costs of looking for another alternative are taken into account. Simon notes that since human beings lack sufficient cognitive capacities and their information is limited, they should take a more realistic approach in seeking their optimal solutions, which are not necessarily those which maximize their possible gains. Simon's considerations are relevant to the romantic realm as well, but here there are further complications concerning our inability to predict the partner's attitude in the long term as well as our response to that attitude. Consequently, the importance of finding a good enough partner is even greater.

In his seminal paper, "Equality as a moral ideal," Harry Frankfurt rejects the basic doctrine of economic egalitarianism, which assumes that it is desirable for everyone to have the same amount of income and wealth. In his view, termed "The doctrine of sufficiency," what is morally important is that everyone should have enough. When following (economic) egalitarianism, people focus their attention on what others have rather than on what is intrinsically valuable for them.

Frankfurt emphasizes that being content is a matter of the agent's attitude toward what he has and not toward what others have. Thus, "suppose that a man deeply and happily loves a woman who is altogether worthy. We do not ordinarily criticize the man in such a case just because we think he might have done even better." A nicer looking, wiser and wealthier woman may not be good enough for you if her attitudes toward you do not fit your concerns. It is not the external, objective, measurable features that count in being good enough, but her and your subjective attitudes toward each other.

In Frankfurt's view, having enough money precludes the agent from having an active interest in getting more; his attention and interests are not vividly engaged in the benefits of having more, he does not consider having more as important, he does not resent his circumstances, he is not anxious or determined to improve them, he does not go out of his way or take any significant initiatives to make them better, and his contentment is not dependent upon comparing himself to others.

A similar attitude can be found when a person has a good enough romantic partner. This implies that the person is content with her partner inasmuch as he suits her and not necessarily because he is the most perfect partner in the world. Accordingly, she does not have an active interest in seeking someone else and she does see her situation as needing improvement. She is content with her lot and does not need anyone else. Having a happy and satisfying life implies the presence of many intrinsically valuable activities in the agent's life. While engaging in these most interesting and fulfilling activities, the agent has no active interest in getting more or something else.

One difference between having the same and having enough is that the main concern in the former is based upon a superficial comparison to others who might be very different and thus irrelevant to the agent, where in the latter it is the agent's attitude that is important. The satisfaction we gain from what we are doing and from those with whom we are associated should first come from within. Although we cannot escape making comparisons between ourselves and others, what counts at the end of the day is what gives us most satisfaction, and this has to do more with our intrinsic personal structure than with what others have.

To sum up, despite the considerable value of the egalitarian approach, which expresses the worth of having the same as what others have, a deeper look into our romantic (and many other) experiences indicates that a more profound value is that of being content with what we have. In the latter case, having the same is not as good as good enough: our genuine concerns and needs play a greater role in our well-being. We should just be careful that by being satisfied with our good enough situation, we shall not decrease the motivation to improve it.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, there are indeed people who are more beautiful, wiser and wealthier than you, but there is none who is as good for me as you are."

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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