Many people have bitter feelings surrounding Valentine’s day. And I don’t think it’s just due to the jaded corporatism surrounding the strong social pressure to spend lavishly to show your love. Rather, I think part of the frustration comes from a deep cynicism in our culture surrounding the topic of romantic love itself – the issue at the core then is not the corporatism but the very nature of love as a mental state.
Romance continues to be a popular genre but it’s often treated as a form of escapism because in the regular world most people seem to be skeptical about love as an emotion worthy of guiding major life decisions. Many people have been burned before and have thus, quite appropriately, become jaded about the whole idea of, e.g., grand and romantic gestures early in the stages of a relationship.
For example, when a newly in love couple announces they are engaged after only 2 months of dating, my guess is that most people would be polite and congratulate the couple but secretly think “Oh boy, that’s doomed to failure”. The feeling of doom comes from the general opinion in our society that love is irrational and any major life decision done in the grips of New Relationship Energy (NRE) is not done on firm epistemic ground.
Love and logic are often pitted against each other as opposites. People think it is risky to fall so strongly in love because you end up making rash decisions. But rashness doesn’t of course refer to just the short time-frame nor is it merely about how things happen to turn out: it essentially implies a decision made without enough evidence to rationally decide. We can always get lucky, of course, but the massive risk implies irrationality built into love-dominated decisions. And that’s what people say about this type of love: “You’ve only known each other for three weeks! How could you possibly [insert action]?”
And I think we all understand this skepticism at some core level – there is a sense in which it’s quite obvious that love is a biased decision making vector. From the outside perspective it’s easy to look at a couple in love and see them as being swept up in an irrational delusion that they will be together forever. We all know the statistics about divorce. I have certainly had skeptical thoughts about other couples – so I don’t fault people for having those thoughts towards me when I am in the grips of love.
But this raises the essential epistemic issue: we can’t ignore our own standpoints when making decisions. From the inside, everything makes sense. This creates a phenomenological sense of isolation akin to the Facebook algorithm bubbles we all live in: we will never break through the private barrier of mental life and understand the full context of someone else’s decision. Hell, we stand pretty much zero chance of properly understanding the scope of even our own decisions. So why would we expect to have any sense of why a couple actually decided to U-haul? This is why our own individual standpoints, histories, values, beliefs, and emotions must be accounted for in terms of accessing the rationality of decisions done under NRE.
You can never truly know the full set of information someone is utilizing to make a decision in the “throes” of love. When communicating to others “why” you two have decided to, e.g., move-in together, it becomes impossible to convey the full scope of relevant information in a digestable format. You end up just gushing out a soundbite like “we’re just crazy about each other”. Or at least that’s how it comes off to someone else: crazy.
Coming back to risk, there are individual differences in how much risk-tolerance each of us is comfortable with. There are also different kinds of risk: emotional risk, physical risk, financial risk, etc. These all interact with each other in complex ways. But just like in the investing world where some people are comfortable being highly leveraged, some people are ok taking great relationship risks in order to help bring about an even greater reward. What’s the possible max pay out? A life of happiness. Sounds great doesn’t it? What kind of risk is that worth?
But of course the best situation is where there is a low risk and a massive reward i.e. little downside, big upside. With relationships this can happen where there is liquidity to the relationship. This is often facilitated by neither party coming into the relationship out of a sense of pragmatic desperation. So here you can make an investment where, if things go sour, it won’t be the end of the world, but if things go well, it could make a massive positive change in the direction of your life. This is the sweet spot.
So according to the sketch of standpoint epistemology I just laid out, it is fully possible for a decision dripping with NRE to be fully rational according to a mutually beneficial rational alignment of values that can only be fully assessed by the two relevant parties.
Sounds romantic doesn’t it?
Happy Valentine’s Day!