Your Partner is not a Project
Against a certain kind of aspiration, when it comes to marriage—redux
The other day I wrote a post that was not as well worked-out as it should have been. That’s OK with me, really: I write in this space in order to put ideas out there quickly, often in an unpolished form. I like the idea of sometimes making my mistakes in a relatively open forum. Unlike an article, or a book, which are years and years in the making, this substack newsletter capitalizes on my strong desire to write, sometimes quickly: to seize a few hours or even minutes here and there, and try to articulate ideas which have sometimes nagged at me for a decade or more without ever reaching fruition. By and large, I think by writing.
What I was trying to wrestle with on this recent occasion was Agnes Callard’s idea of aspiration. Distinct from desires, intentions, goals, plans, or even ambitions (of which more in a moment), Callard explores a process of “rational value acquisition:” where we seek to acquire a value not yet in our possession. An aspirant seeks, in one of her leading examples, to become a classical music lover, despite not having much of a taste for the genre. Another aspirant seeks to become an oenophile, despite not really caring for vino.
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I argued that these examples and others reek of a kind of middle-class striving that I can’t help but find distasteful: seeking to become the kind of person who fits a certain mold, or label, that amounts to a kind of social capital to lay claim to. Of course, some people do have good reasons to aspire in much this way, as social circumstances may dictate, as I freely acknowledged. But isn’t there a case to be made for aspiring, for intrinsic, not merely instrumental reasons? Such reactions to my argument prompted me to wonder whether the problem here might lie deeper—and somewhere different.
As various correspondents and commentators pointed out, there’s nothing essentially middle-class about aspiration in Callard’s sense. I might seek, to use Irem Kurtsal’s nice example (offered via email), to become a country music buff, having previously found such music pat and whiney.
I agree that this is possible, but one thing to be on our guard for is that, once the phenomenon is leached of its social cachet, it begins to look like a niche one, and not the kind of central human project that it seems to be in Callard’s treatment.
But then I began to think that it’s possible that people simply have different temperaments. Maybe where I had been looking for a refutation, what I was registering was a difference.
I do not aspire in Callard’s sense. I do not typically seek to acquire values that are not in my wheelhouse. Rather, I am a relentless, driven pursuer of practices and projects which I already deeply value. More broadly, and perhaps descriptively, I rarely seek to become something for the sake of becoming it. I passionately want to do things for the sake of the activity. I didn’t want to become a writer; I want to write, intensely. I didn’t seek to become a mother (to invoke another of Callard’s examples); I wanted to have a baby, and to meet the child and eventually the adult who that baby would grow up into. I didn’t want to become a philosopher; I wanted to do philosophy. I am, in Callard’s sense, not aspirational, but rather, ambitious. Or, as I think I’d prefer to say, in my own parlance: I aspire de re not de dicto. I want to do the thing itself, not to be the kind of person doing it.
I am inspired here by the moral philosopher Michael Smith’s classic distinction between being motivated to be moral de re versus de dicto. In his discussion, the person who seeks to “be good,” to do the right thing as such, or to be a virtuous agent per se, is guilty of fetishizing morality and relating to its dictates poorly. They ought, rather, to seek to help their friends and family, to love their neighbor better, and to act with virtues such as kindness by doing kind things inspired by a sense of our shared humanity—for a brief, and rough, overview.
Smith’s point is much-discussed and controversial in my discipline. I confess: I have always found it entirely convincing.
When such controversies arise, it’s philosophically tempting to go to the mat for your view, and argue it’s universally better or always applicable. There’s an alternative, however, which I think is not always explored sufficiently in philosophy: maybe the controversy just stems from legitimate differences in temperament. Maybe there are people who aspire in different ways, in other words. And maybe that is a good thing, or at least nothing to be lamented.
Maybe I am on the extreme end of a spectrum that resists self-conscious value acquisition. Maybe it is fine to be this way—or the other way, in actively trying to become various things and to acquire various values that you now grasp only slightly. Maybe it is fine, if alien to me personally, to often view your life as a series of evaluative self-improvement projects: becoming a music lover, becoming an oenophile, becoming a philosopher.
Of course, even people like me will often be open to new practices and activities: we want to try something, to see if we value it, with an openness to value acquisition. (Other people much like me really like Pickleball, and perhaps I will too, if I try it.) Or we want to fill the time or find a hobby and so give new things a try, this time hoping to acquire a new value—some value or other—and thereby a new pastime. (I might try puzzles, chess, and video games, in an attempt to give myself something more to do during lockdown. I’ll see what sticks, and hope something does, without being all that invested in what does.)
So maybe we can let many flowers bloom, and divergent temperaments prosper. Vive la différence, and so on, and so forth.
But not so fast, perhaps: I think there is at least one exception. Aspiring to value other human beings within a relationship, especially an intimate partnership, without doing so already, still strikes me as problematic. As well as, perhaps, a recipe for unhappiness.
And that’s why I wrote my first piece, ultimately. I was trying to put my finger on why, like most philosophers I know, I was so baffled and disturbed by The New Yorker profile of Agnes Callard. True, her words there struck me as historically and socially naïve, to the point of being embarrassing for the profession—as if nobody had ever thought about love before from the perspective of a lover. I remain appalled not by the unconventional marital arrangement (who cares?), but what strikes me, I’m afraid, as an abuse of power vis-à-vis her first year graduate student. But, more than anything, it was the way she seemed to treat her second marriage as a project roughly on par with taking a music class that vexed and perplexed me. She even seemed to have aspirations for her second husband that floated free of his own predilections. (“A common refrain in their fights was whether Arnold, who became an assistant professor in 2021, should aspire to more:” specifically, whether he should write a book about Aristotle.)
I think there is something troubling about viewing human relationships, or indeed humans, as having a kind of telos. I think there is something unpleasant, and probably counter-productive, and quite possibly toxic, about self-consciously trying to become “a loving partner” de dicto. You should instead do the sometimes hard, sometimes easy, daily work of simply loving your partner. Don’t get me wrong, of course: my appreciation for my husband Daniel grows on and deepens on a daily basis. But that’s because our attention is trained together on mutual interests and shared projects and joint challenges: in this phase of life, on those of parenting a young child, and seeing her through the ups and downs, expected and unexpected, of early education.
I love nothing more than thinking through with Daniel something we share together: parenting challenges and joys, the vicissitudes of teaching, the minutia of daily living. Or, for that matter, a favorite podcast, a shared book, a film or TV show, which we both look forward to discussing when the parenting day is done with. I would always rather be looking out together on a shared horizon, talking, than staring into each other’s eyes, dreamily, hoping to be thunderstruck. And, unlike the latter, the former can be self-sustaining and sustained indefinitely, and not exhausting or prone to end in heartache.
Photo credit: Luke Ellis-Craven
That’s me anyway. My life is not a series of self-improvement projects, as a matter of personal temperament. And my marriage is strong, and stable, and beautiful, because we are not going anywhere. And maybe there is something to be said for that way of mutual being. Not a becoming, or an aspiration, but an active appreciation of what—and who—is already right there in front of you. For as long as you’ve been together, they always have been.
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As I said on twitter, I think the next step in this argument is a consideration of children's rights. Spouses sometimes express aspirations for each other in ways that don't account for each other's agency, but parents do this to children *all the time*, and it's widely culturally validated, encouraged, and excused. Hitting kids (called "spanking") to make them conform with your aspirations is widely praised and accepted; parents pretty regularly will force kids out of the house if they're queer, parents feel they should be able to determine who their children marry, what professions they take, what their hobbies are, whether they are allowed privacy—the list goes on.
Edit: "Your partner is not a project" is a relatively uncontroversial statement, I think—but if you say "Your child is not a project" people will get very, very prickly.
This all makes sense to me and it seems right that how we think about aspirations/ambitions may just come down to temperament. And the relationship issues do seem fundamentally different. There seems to be a problem of treating people as means and not as ends going on there.
Not the main thrust of the post, but I love the country music example. I have foibles and flaws like everyone else but one thing I really like about my character is I hate not liking things. If a lot of people appreciate something, I usually think there must be some value in it that I'm just not seeing. So I work to see that value, not to "gain the value" myself but to appreciate what value one could find. Country music is an example of this in my own life.
This even points to a way that aspiration can work *against* the inegalitarian side of bourgeois striving. I learned contempt for a lot of harmless cultural things as I was clawing my way out of my low socioeconomic status Oklahoman origins. As an adult I have ... striven to unlearn that contempt and see the value in country music, clothing and linguistic affects, etc.