Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Models of the Sexual Revolution: Implications for Leaving

You can take either a somewhat pessimistic or an optimistic view of the consequences of the sexual revolution. Similarly, you can either believe that it is legitimate to curtail women's autonomy for social purposes or you can believe that this is illegitimate. (You are not forced to make any real trade-offs in the optimistic model, since it assumes that the consequences are benign for everyone save a few lonely men.)

But so, how should we react to "leaving"? By "leaving" I mean exiting an LTCR despite the commitment to stay. (It wouldn't count as "leaving" if both partners had agreed that the commitment would only last, say, 5 years, and one of the partners left at the end of the 5-year term.)

On a philosophical level, one might say that leaving should never be stigmatized, because any stigma would interfere with women's autonomy. This is most obvious in the case in which the woman leaves the man, but it is also true when the man leaves the woman. (I am, again, focusing on heterosexuals - the logic is not too different for homosexuals, though.) If a man leaves a woman, then he becomes available as a partner for other women, allowing them to exercise their autonomy. In fact, he may have already started sleeping with a new woman by the time he leaves his LTCR partner. This new woman's autonomy may be frustrated by any stigma that attaches to the man when he leaves his LTCR partner.

On a practical level, one might say that it is nevertheless okay to violate women's autonomy if it brings about good results, particularly if it brings about good results for women. (This would be controversial, of course - arguably women's autonomy should be respected in every case, even when it has devastating results.) But so, what results from a stigma against leaving?

Well, if LTCRs are not valuable, or if they are only valuable when both partners want to be in them, then it is unclear what we could achieve by stigmatizing leaving. Leaving is actually a good thing, from a sorting perspective: it removes an unsuitable partner from an LTCR, leaving everyone better off.

Things are more complicated if the partner has "relied" on the LTCR in making his/her decisions. So for instance, if a woman had children in the expectation that she would have a partner to help raise them, then she might be disadvantaged when her partner leaves (even though the children are, of course, better off when their father leaves). However, if we generally think that LTCRs do not generate a lot of social welfare (their insurance function is overrated, not many people do inter-temporal bargains through LTCRs), then we should expect reliance to be minimal. And, as noted, the children will be better off no matter what.

One might stigmatize leaving, not to prevent people from leaving, but to prevent them from entering LTCRs in the first place. However, this seems like a perverse mechanism - it would basically punish people who want to leave LTCRs by forcing some of them to stay, to the detriment of everyone.

So the surprising result is that we probably shouldn't look down on a man who, for instance, leaves his wife while she battles cancer. He is doing everyone a favor. So while Newt Gingrich has taken some criticism for his habit of leaving wives for younger women, this criticism should be seem as misogynistic and outdated. If anything, Newt Gingrich's behavior evinces great respect for women's sexual autonomy.


Blogger Sarang said...

I think this is based on a slightly confused notion of blame. An obviously consistent position is: X is a bad person who left his wife when she had cancer; that he did this is a manifestation that he was always a bad character (this might not otherwise have been apparent); but given that he is a bad character the wife is better off being rid of him.

11:52 AM  
Blogger James said...

But on what grounds do we say that he's a bad man?

12:25 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Oh, treat "bad" as a basic primitive involving "lacking in loyalty," "lacking in courage," and other stuff of the sort, a la virtue ethics. As for why these things are "bad" well there is no underlying justification for ethics, they are bad because we consider them unpleasant. This is not a wild argument: there are various conditions under which courage is pernicious and should be / is deterred but nevertheless we consider courage the sign of a good character.

1:43 PM  
Blogger James said...

Okay, but so this is a sort of archaic morality that might also lead us to look down on gay people. It's not compelling to anyone who doesn't subscribe to outdated concepts of honor, disgust, etc.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

A sharper thing to say is that it isn't a position that gives you a principled argument against homophobia. But if you do not think there are any principled arguments out there in the field of morality (except stupid arguments from incorrect premises like utilitarianism) this is not an issue.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Generally I do not find myself compelled by arguments of the form, "what X did didn't actually make the world worse off, therefore it wasn't a bad thing to do."

2:14 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

I agree with Sarang's first comment. In this post and a few of the others you don't take into account that two people in a relationship might actually care about each other (A foreign concept to the econ-minded, to be sure!).

What does it mean to 'care'? From my limited experience, it means that even if a relationship situation isn't immediately pleasant (due to one partner's illness, eg), the other partner doesn't stick around just because he/she feels duty-bound to do so, but because he/she actually wants to do so. Because of, you know, love.

In an ideal world, romantic partners would never be financially dependent on each other (and note that the model of a woman relying financially on a man while 'paying him' in sex, which you seem to see as the gold standard, is quite new in historical terms). Only relationships motivated by love, not some cruel sense of debt (oh she had sex with me 20 yrs ago when she was hot so now I guess i have to give her money), can be considered truly equal.

1:06 PM  
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