Hello peanut butter lovers,
With Valentine’s Day upon us, it is quite understandable if we all have romance on the brain. This past summer I read Karol Wojtyla’s Love & Responsibility and ever since then I’ve been looking at relationships in a whole new light. We’ve been talking a lot about dating at Avila House of late and some ideas have really seemed to stick.
What is Utilitarianism?
In Love & Responsibility, Wojtyla writes about utilitarianism, a theory in normative ethics with very practical applications and implications for interpersonal relationships. The word utilitarianism comes from the Latin verb uti (‘to use’ or ‘to take advantage of’) and the adjective utilis (‘useful’) and it posits that the right course of action in one that maximizes utility or, put more simply, brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
Utilitarianism puts the emphasis on pleasure and rejects that which is not pleasurable. Does this not seem so prevalent in dating relationships today? If it’s easy and it makes me feel good, count me in, right?
But radical, authentic human love needs to be free of the utilitarian impulse. Happiness is important but it’s such a transient thing and, as Karol Wojtyla argues in Love & Responsibility, can lead to egoism. And while two mutually satisfying egoisms can appear to an outside observer to be a pretty strong love : “It makes me happy to make her happy”, this affection has an expiration date because when loving and caring for the other no longer brings the lover in question joy and pleasure, he or she checks out in pursuit of something more fulfilling. Thus, utilitarianism in incompatible with true love.
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
– C.S. Lewis
No, we are not called to mutually satisfying egoisms! We are called to something far greater: radical, sacrificial human love. But how the heck do we do this?? Fortunately there’s an alternative norm that I think everyone should have in the back of their minds when dating or discerning new relationships.
Introducing…the Personalistic Norm
Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century philosopher, described a moral imperative later termed the ‘personalistic norm’. The idea here is that a person should never be treated as a mean to an end, but rather as an end in itself. In fact, the ONLY right response in the face of another human being is love and people must be treated in all things as an object of love, rather than an object of use.
The personalistic norm helps reveal the weakness of utilitarianism: if pleasure is our aim and motivation, everything we do to get there—and everyone involved in that pursuit of pleasure—becomes a means to an end. Myself and everyone else in my life become tools for obtaining maximum pleasure.
This has particularly weighty implications when it comes to intimate relationships, dating, and sex. So often we may be using people as a means to an end without ever realizing it. So here’s a quick list of faux-pas and some practical tips for abiding by the personalistic norm:
1. Perhaps the most obvious: dating for the sake of being in a relationship
This is clearly using your partner as a means to an end and it’s an affront to their inherent and inalienable human dignity. Don’t do it! Instead, use your time as a single person to develop strong friendships and discover who you really are so that when you meet someone who makes you feel alive, you’re the kind of person they’ll want to fall in love with.
2. Open relationships
It’s understandable to want to keep a prospective relationship on your radar even if you don’t know exactly where it is heading but it’s extremely easy for someone to get hurt in this scenario. Don’t use someone as your human security blanket. Discern it, be intentional, and if it doesn’t work then move forward.
3. Never talking to your ex again
Admittedly, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I know so many young Christians who are so fixated on meeting ‘the one’ that they become serial daters, or at least wonder if every new person they meet is their potential spouse. And then, when it doesn’t work out, they never talk to their exes again, saying, “Well, what’s the point?”
If you care about someone enough to date them, you need to care about them forever. This means not dropping them like a hot potato as soon as you know a relationship is not heading towards marriage. Otherwise you’re using your partner as a means to an end (marriage) and this contradicts the personalistic norm.
We are called to love radically and unconditionally, even after breaking up. Eventually romantic love can turn into philia, the love between friends.
Are you up for the challenge?
With you in prayer this Valentines Day,