What Would Aristotle Do?

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Thriving Relationships

Thriving relationships treat each other as persons, not objects.

With the divorce rate at a dysfunctional high, we might pause for a moment to consider why so many couples do not stay together.  One reason is that many relationships are based on externalized values. 

A classic example is the trophy wife/husband relationship in which the beautiful wife or handsome husband is perceived as a status symbol.  Here, “great sex” together with physical attractiveness is assumed to be a sufficient condition for forging a meaningful relationship. Unfortunately, the body’s beauty starts to fade with age and the lustful relationship begins to get old and boring.   Like a worn out shoe or a car with high millage, the first inclination is to replace it.  So there is often trading up to a “newer model” with “all the toys.”  This is pure objectification of personhood.  The fundamental fallacy inherent in such relationships is confusion of person with object.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between object and person in terms of the kind of value that each possesses.  An object, according to Kant, has use-value.  It is as good as it is useful for a particular purpose.  For example, a pen has value for someone as long as it writes; but when it runs out of ink it can (properly) be thrown out.  A person, on the other hand, is not like a pen to be thrown away when it ceases to serve a certain use; for the value of a person, says Kant, can neither be augmented nor diminished by its usefulness.  This value is a constant and attaches to a person by virtue of his or her being a rational, self-determining agent. 

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Unlike an object, persons are proper objects of respect; for an object does not require your consent before you act on it (for example write with the pen) whereas a person does.  One treats a person like an object when one manipulates, forces, or otherwise acts on a person without his or her consent.   This is why rape is such a devastating crime.  It is an assault on one’s very personhood.  It is complete and utter objectification. 

Thriving relationships are based on this distinction between persons and objects.  They are honest, sincere relationships, not disingenuous or deceitful.  In Kant’s words, they treat the significant other as “an end” in himself or herself, not as a “mere means.” Cheating on one’s mate is thus not an option because this would be a violation of personal dignity.  Respectful relationships avoid personal attacks, tit-for-tat, name-calling, and other damning or defamatory behavior.  Rational discussion is the usual modus operandi for resolving conflicts, not threats, emotional blackmail, or physical or verbal assault. True, persons get upset and do not always act rationally.  A respectful relationship, however, is tolerant of each others’ humanness.  Still such a relationship avoids the extremes of intolerance and docility. 

Such a relationship is also passionate and caring.  One cares for the other as one would care for oneself.  But one does not attempt to control the other, for this would be a violation of the other’s self-determination.  So there is unity, but not domination.  Each is one with the other but still separate and independent.  There is interdependence but still there is independence.  Harmonizing these two competing elements is not formulaic but it is an important dimension of a successful relationship.

It is often assumed that one person in a relationship must be the boss; however, this is just black or white thinking.  A partnership with mutually agreed on divisions of labor tends to be functional whereas relationships based on dominance, power and control tend to be dysfunctional. 

It is also often assumed that quality of sex is a determinant of a good relationship.  But this depends on what is intended. “Great sex” is not merely lustful.  The sexual relationship of a respectful relationship is soulful sex.  In the words of Martin Buber, the one partner says “Thou” to the other, and conversely.  This is the opposite of seeing the other as an “It” to be inspected for defects, possessed, or dominated.  In saying “Thou” each resonates with the body and soul of the other.  Each perception—sight, smell, touch, sound, taste, movement—of the other’s body is experienced as though it were that of one’s own body.  One absorbs oneself sensuously in the other but without domination.  There is unity but still independence.  It is not how the other can please oneself, nor is it how one can please the other.  In giving to the other one is also giving to oneself.

 If you are looking to forge a lasting relationship then look past the superficiality that can fade with age.  Look for a person with whom to share your life, not an object to behold and show off.  This is more likely (no guarantees) to yield a relationship with endurance and stability.

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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