Posts Tagged ‘love’

Romantic Pluralism

03/09/2011 4 comments

What makes someone romantically attracted to someone else? Usually the answer is broken down into two types of attraction: attraction to one’s physical features and to one’s personality. But this answer seems to leave out important factors that play large roles in romance. Take intelligence for example. Intelligence is not a physical feature but it doesn’t seem to be a feature of one’s personality either. The same seems true of the interests we have. If I like baseball and you like baseball, we share something in common. This commonality will likely make us more attracted to one another. But you liking baseball has nothing to do with your physical features or your personality. The same also seems true of our beliefs. Few would deny the relevancy of beliefs to the romantic attraction one feels toward another. The sharing of political and/or religious beliefs is often listed as top among the factors one considers when looking for a romantic partner. These are often “deal breaker” issues. But beliefs are neither part of one’s physical features nor one’s personality. It is possible, of course, that your interests and your beliefs flow out from your personality. Perhaps people with a certain personality type XYZ are more likely to have interests and beliefs of the sort XYZ whereas people with personality ABC are more likely to have interests and beliefs of the sort ABC. But this is far from obvious. And even if true, there would still be no necessary connection between one’s interests and beliefs on the one hand and one’s personality on the other. There would be no contradiction in having personality XYZ and have beliefs ABC. The problem seems to be that we lack a coherent conception of “personality.” Physical attraction is a very important and indispensable part of romance, but it is not difficult to understand what we mean by it (although admittedly there are various features involved here as well). “Personality” by contrast seems to be a muddle of conceptions, a melting pot where we throw everything non-physical into. This is a mistake because it paints a picture of romance that is all-too simplistic: it paints a picture that does not line up with the complex situation we find in experience.

So what is “personality” if not a conglomeration of all non-physical features of a person? Personality traits usually look like the following: shy, boisterous, kind, sarcastic, generous, petty, hot-tempered, goofy, stern, introvert, extrovert, and so on. These are important features that make up a person but they are only one slice of a multifarious pie. Physical features also make up a part of that pie. But so do things like intelligence, interests, beliefs, desires, and values.

The complexity of this view becomes apparent when we realize that different people weigh these factors differently. Different people will slice up the pie in various ways. If you place high priority on sharing similar beliefs, you will not be attracted to someone with starkly different ones. But beliefs for you may also take a back-seat to your interests or your values. In this case, you may not care very much if you share beliefs with this other person so long as your values are similar. Perhaps you are diametrically opposed with regards to your political beliefs, but the important thing is that you both place great value on political awareness. Other people place great weight on physical attractiveness, at times sacrificing some of the other factors for it.

Moreover, it is implausible to suppose that these various factors of attractiveness are completely independent from one another. Very often the physical attractiveness of another person will increase if it is found that they share similar interests or beliefs with yourself. It is also possible that physical attraction could be so great that it leads to a convergence of interests and beliefs. Furthermore, the pie that we initially slice up–by assigning different percentages to the different factors–will likely change with experience. Perhaps we start with physical attraction taking up half the pie, but as we age that portion may slowly give way to the other factors. Or the reverse may happen. I suspect that all logically possible scenarios (the various possible pies and their development over time) have had or do have counterparts in the actual world.

So what is the best possible pie? I don’t know. I don’t even know if there is a best possible pie. Some pies are probably better than others: a view that places one hundred percent priority on physical attractiveness will not be as good a view as one that disperses each factor more evenly. This is because any view that places all priority on physical attractiveness will not capture the complexity of goods that people contain. People are more than their looks and to only value looks is to overlook an important feature of persons. Romantic pluralism is thus about two different things: the plurality of factors involved in romantic attractiveness and the plurality of possible pie distributions that are equally good.

People are complex. We should not expect the reasons for attraction to be any less so.

Categories: Philosophy Tags: ,