Should love be rational?

Why do you love me? Tell me the reasons.

I love you because you are you. If I loved you for reasons then I wouldn’t love you, but the reasons. I would have to leave you if someone better came along.

Movies, music and novels portray a particular ideal of romantic love almost relentlessly. Love is something that happens to you, something you fall into even against your will or better judgement. It is something to be experienced as good in itself and joyfully submitted to, not something that should be questioned.

Is this person good for me? Would I be good for them? To ask such questions would betray a spirit of rational calculation that has no place in matters of the heart. The only question you should be asking is whether it is the real thing, which can be assessed by the strength of your feelings for the other. For authentic love, no price is too great.

It should be pretty clear that this is a pathological idea of love that — thanks to its immense popularity — has trained generations of people into attitudes and expectations that cause them and others great unhappiness. How many stalkers are simply following what the movies have taught them and risking all for love? How many people find that love has attached them to a person who isn’t worthy of their commitment, or who even exploits it and causes them harm? Love as authenticity may be a delicious fantasy, but it is a terrible way to try to live.

So what is the alternative? Should we be rational about romance instead, and analyse love as an investment that should yield a return. In that case we should seek the prospect with the highest expected return that lies within our budget. This brings us to the idea of dating.

On the one hand dating can be a direct alternative to romantic love, in which one pursues an entirely prudential relationship with one or more others for the purpose of mutual pleasure. This is different from romantic love because the benefit lies not in the experience of one’s emotional orientation to the other, but in the specific sources of joys that their company brings you, including sex. (With writers like DH Lawrence conflating love to ‘lovers’, masters of technique.) In one sense this kind of relationship seems healthier since it is less about how you feel and more about the success of your connection to the other person. However, that is because you are only interested in them for what they can do for you, which is the same rather consumerist attitude of someone considering which restaurant to choose this evening.

The advantage of taking a market attitude to romance is that you don’t lose your head. You make decisions according to your budget and preferences, and if they don’t work out, you just walk away. You retain your independence and control. You don’t owe the other person anything beyond the terms of the mutually beneficial transactional relationship and they don’t owe you. However, many people want a relationship in which they won’t have to be on their own anymore. For these people, the role of dating is not a goal in itself but an interview process to select the best person to love, the single person who will make you most happy.

Ed Conard exemplifies this approach with an algorithm he calls ‘sequential selection, no turning back’ (adapted from those developed by economists to optimise searching for things like a new house and explained further here). First identify a pool of potential candidates — people who seem to meet your minimum criteria for a life-partner. Then date through 1/3 of this pool to get to know just what quality of partner you might be able to snag. This is the calibration stage, so you must resolutely avoid the emotional entanglement of love that might throw your rational calculations off. Finally, the evaluation stage. Start dating through the rest of your candidate pool and measure them against what you learned in the calibration stage. As soon as you meet someone better than the best of those you met while calibrating, choose that one as your life-partner. If you get to the end of your pool without meeting anyone better, just take the last person.

The problem with Conard’s approach is that people are not houses. The rational calculation approach treats people as commodities, things which are not even things but reduced to abstract bundles of properties that can be ranked. It is not only rather hideous to try to treat people like this, it is also incongruous with Conard’s declared purpose of finding someone to love. This is partly because — unlike houses but more like potential employers — prospective partners judge you right back. Romantic love needs to be mutual to be successful. But if your approach to dating is to ruthlessly project your interests, what about that makes you attractive to anyone else?

More significantly an approach like Conard’s is too rigid. It treats love as static and impersonal when it is actually dynamic and mutual. Love isn’t something you can switch on and off as required, but a complicated interpersonal psychological relationship. Recognising that another is attracted to you is important in kindling your own attraction to them in what, in the right circumstances, can become a virtuous spiral in which you come to care about each other because of who they are, not what properties they happen to have. This is why love properly feels so significant, so self-evidently ‘true’ (the feeling mistaken for authenticity) rather than flimsily contingent (like the feeling you get after buying what you’re pretty sure was the nicest car you could afford at the dealership you went to).

Jane Austen, that great writer of rational romance, fully appreciated this. Mr Collins, the pompous fool of Pride and Prejudice, seems almost designed to illustrate the flaws in the rational pursuit of love as he goes down his list of candidates, turning his affections on and off as required.

But I can assure the young ladies that I come prepared to admire them. At present I will not say more; but, perhaps, when we are better acquainted…[And then a few days later] Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth — and it was soon done — done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course.

Austen isn’t only great at poking fun at deluded models of both rational and irrational love. She is also the writer who I think does most to reconcile love and rationality. Perhaps not surprisingly for a virtue ethicist, Austen’s model of love closely resembles Aristotelian friendship. Marriage was only the beginning for her in a process of mutual moral growth whereby each partner brings out the best in each other and this is repeated in a virtuous spiral so that at every stage of the relationship reaches higher than before. Love is neither a guide to action nor a commodity to purchase at the best price, but a powerful engine to draw you onwards towards happiness. Without the guidance of reason though that same engine can drive a person to ruin. Austen makes love subject to reason, but only so that love can do its best work.

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