Darling, Should I Get Romantically Involved With Other Women?

“I know nothing about sex, because I was always married.”

Posted Jan 22, 2010

"I know nothing about sex, because I was always married." Zsa Zsa Gabor

Romantic love is partial and discriminative. We cannot love everyone; our romantic love must be directed at only very few people. For most of us, having one romantic partner is more than enough as the partner exhausts our entire mental (not to say, financial!) resources. More energetic people may have two, three or even five romantic partners; but even those talented people can hardly have 1000 romantic partners. (One stark exception is the actor Warren Beatty who, according to a recent book, has slept with 12,775 women -- give and take a few. But it must be emphasized that this was over a long period of more than fifty years.) Since romantic love, like other emotions, requires us to invest time and attention, of which we have limited amounts, we must limit the number of its objects as well.

Emotions are partial in two basic senses: they are focused on a narrow target as on one person or a very few people; and they express a personal and interested perspective. Emotions direct and color our attention by selecting what attracts and holds our attention; they make us preoccupied with some things and oblivious to others. Emotions are not detached theoretical states; they address a practical concern from a narrow and personal perspective.

Not everyone and not everything is of emotional significance to us. We cannot assume an emotional state toward everyone or those with whom we have no relation whatsoever. The intensity of emotions is achieved by their focus upon a limited group of objects. Emotions express our values and preferences; hence, they cannot be indiscriminate. Being indiscriminate is tantamount to having no preferences and values; in other words, it is a state of nonemotion.

We have greater resources to offer, when we limit the number of emotional objects to which we are committed. So there is some sense in Whitney Houston's line, "I'm saving all my love for you." The beloved has emotional significance that no other person has; the beloved fulfills much of our emotional environment. A police officer was once asked in which direction the police were focusing their investigations; the officer replied: "We are focusing in all possible directions." This reply involves a conceptual mistake as we cannot focus in all directions. Similarly, we cannot focus our love on all human beings.

This limitation in the number of possible emotional objects forces us to focus upon those who are close to us. When we hear of the death of thousands of people in an earthquake occurring in a remote (that is, from our vantage point) part of the world, our emotional response comes nowhere near the intensity of our grief at the death of someone close to us, nor does it even approach the level of feeling we experience in watching the suffering of a single victim of that same earthquake on television (thereby establishing some affinity with that particular victim).

Television news coverage maintains our emotional interest by describing global situations in terms of particular stories about individual people or families. As Stalin argued: "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Similarly, when Unicef campaigns for donations to help disadvantaged children, it does not supply us with statistics about these children, but indicates that by donating 32 cents, we can provide a vial of penicillin to treat a particular child's infection. Emotions express what may be termed "the hammer point of view": When you have a hammer in your hand, the whole world looks like a nail.

Contrary to the partial nature of emotions, intellectual reasoning is not partial: it is focused on a broad, rather than narrow, target, and it is not done from a personal and interested perspective. Intellectual reasoning is a detached state: it looks at all implications of a current state; it takes us far beyond the current situation. Intellectual reasoning is committed to formal logical rules of valid arguments, but it has no commitment to values; it is value-free. In intellectual reasoning we are supposed to consider all available alternatives and then choose the best one. Unlike the case in emotions, the present situation has no privileged status in intellectual reasoning; on the contrary, we are required not to be influenced by that situation, but to consider all other possible situations in an objective manner.

In light of the partial nature of emotions, emotions are basically discriminative and nonegalitarian. Morality is basically egalitarian; it is concerned not only with a particular person, but with general relations among many people. It presupposes that other people-or creatures in general-have moral rights which we should respect.

In accordance with the partial nature of emotions, romantic love is not egalitarian; on the contrary, it is discriminative, and it is praised honored for being so. In monogamous societies, it is generally considered morally desirable to be romantically involved with just one person, or at least with as few as possible. Someone who conducts many love affairs is not commended as being egalitarian or as expressing compassion for many people; rather, such a person is considered to be a womanizer or a slut. There are certain moral tasks that demand a great deal of resources, and hence their implementation requires a discriminative rather than an egalitarian attitude. (This is not to say that those who are indiscriminate in regard to their beloveds are doing better or worse in their daily lives; it is merely that it is extremely difficult for them to provide the appropriate emotional support that their beloveds require from them.)

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, would you prefer an: indiscriminate lover such as Warren Beatty, or a discriminative lover like me? But please don't answer if you'd choose the former."

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions (see also here)