Monday, December 23, 2013

The Real Problem Of Love And Economics

"The difficult choice (money or love)." After Cornelis van Haarlem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Obviously, there is no single problem of love and economics. Clearly, the whole area is fraught and complex. As always, I'm not here with any "key to all mythologies."

But what's on my mind -- and perhaps it's been on yours as well -- has to do with the contrast, and the interaction, between the attitude of economics and the attitude of love.

In the attitude of economics, I think it's fair to say, the basic idea is that of an implicit contract or negotiation, with a good outcome being one that maximizes each person's preference satisfaction. If A has X and B wants X and B has Y and A wants Y, then the birds and the bees .. Oh, wait, that's something else. What I meant to say is, these people will make a deal. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker ... " etc etc etc.

In the attitude of love, if you believe the hype, it's supposed to be different. You're supposed to give and share. It's not all about you. You're supposed to care about the other person and want what's best for them for their own sake.

On one level the problem of love and economics might seem obvious and familiar, in that the attitude of economics is self-oriented and the attitude of love is other oriented. To approach the object of your love with self-oriented preferences would be to misunderstand the nature of love. If that's right, the problem of love and economics, insofar as its a problem, is mostly a problem for lovers, and the problem is that the attitude of economics makes them selfish jerks.

But as I see it, this not actually the real problem of love and economics -- or at least, it's more complicated. The reason I say that is that on closer examination, the distinction between self-oriented and other-oriented is not as simple as this analysis makes out. Even though the attitude of economics requires dealing with preferences, it is well known that there are many ways to understand what a preference is. If we're just talking about what is preferred, of course you can care about the happiness of another person. Nothing prevents you from preferring that your loved one get to have as much happiness and satisfaction as he wants -- indeed, nothing prevents you from preferring the well-being of your loved one to that of yourself.

Since we're doing philosophy, why don't we start with a completely oversimplified toy example using cake? If A and B each prefer cake to no cake, and each prefer the other to have cake rather than no cake, then violà!  A and B make the deal that any loving and consenting adults in their situation would: they agree to share the cake. Their other-oriented cake preferences express their caring and love; A and B both get cake; A and B both get to enjoy the other person's enjoyment of cake. WIN!

However. What this shows is not that there is no problem of love and economics. What this shows is just that when it comes to the problem of love and economics, we're just getting started. Because there are funny things about preferences that concern the preferences of others. One thing that can happen is "double-counting." In the economic approach, a good outcome happens when people's preferences are satisfied. But if A has preferences for B's preferences to be satisfied, it appears that B's preferences get counted twice.

For example, going back to our cake-obsessives, it would appear that the effects of double-counting are most dramatic when one person is in the attitude of love and the other is not. Suppose A loves cake, and A loves B, and because A is in the attitude of love toward B, A wants B to have cake. But now suppose B is just a cold ingrate who wants as much cake as possible, who couldn't care less about others, and who specifically doesn't care much about A. Then it seems that whatever means A and B use to maximize their joint preference satisfaction -- negotiation or an algorithm or whatever -- you know and I know what comes next: B gets all the cake. Dammit!

But wait: if that's correct, then it starts to seem like the real difficulty is less of a problem for the committed lovers and more of a problem for everyone else -- out here interacting with god-knows-what manner of person. Because it's when A is looking out for B and B is looking out for B that things go wrong.

Here is perhaps a more interesting example. In my to Ethics and Values course this past Fall we were talking about whether there are some things for which market norms are inappropriate, and we read this essay by Elizabeth Anderson. Among other things, Anderson says that if a potential surrogate mother has "non-commercial motivations," but are offered only what "the norms of commerce demand in return," then she is open to exploitation. In connection with this I found it striking that the author of this "secret diary of a surrogate," answers her own "would I do it again?" question by appeal to non-commercial motivations, telling her children: "The right thing isn't always the easy thing."

I take it the exploitation possibility arises because in caring you look out for others and in markets you look out for yourself. Any preference maximizing solution to this problem takes into account the purchaser's self-oriented preferences and the potential surrogate's other-oriented preferences. It's the real life equivalent of B getting all the cake. A gets no cake : ( 

Indeed, by developing other-related preferences, A gets less of what she wants for herself than she would have had otherwise.

If these thoughts are on the right track, then the real problem of love and economics is way bigger than the one inside the love relationship -- because it's a problem about how everyone relates to everyone else in the wide wide world. If you adopt a love attitude toward anyone who is not also committed to taking the love attitude back, you're screwing yourself over. You're getting the wrong end of the stick. In fact, if you approach the non-loving with any other-oriented preferences at all, you're putting yourself at a real disadvantage.

The implications of this seem to me vast. Just to start:

1) You have to basically divide the world into separate categories: the love category and the non-love category.

2) You'd better make sure that all the people in your love category have you in theirs, and even with comparable strength and caring, or you're fucked.

3) If you even care about the people in your non-love category you're a chump who's going home with no cake.

So the real problem of love and economics? It's not just for lovers anymore. 

1 comment:

Daniel said...


I like cake too!

It hurts my brain to try to follow all of the logic, so I must make a blanket apology if I'm commenting on something that is in your post already.

I have a question about love. In particular, does the attitude of love not necessitate some sort of selflessness to begin with? For example, if sharing were where it's all at, and in fact, if it were the "normal state of things," would it even make sense to call it an attitude of love anymore?

I ask, because the implications that you list seem to turn on an idea that unless everyone else is doing it, or something like that, chump-ness will result.

It would seem to me that the attitude of love might be just the opposite - that the sacrifice (in the terms of the attitude of economics from your piece) precisely shows the love, and not the chump-ness. And it is within the context of the attitude of economics that this particular attitude of love exists.

Interesting piece!