Saturday, May 13, 2006

On rejection, taste, and value

Recall that the self-deprecating romantic might (negatively) revise his opinion of any goddess woman who would settle for so lowly a creature as he. I now want to explore the opposite idea: that someone with high self-esteem might think less of anyone with the poor taste to reject him!

It's a familiar enough idea. A young child, pained by another's insults, might be comforted by his mother with the suggestion, "You wouldn't want to be friends with such a nasty person anyway." Similarly, a person whose immense beauty was "all on the inside" (so to speak) might be comforted in face of romantic rejection with the friendly suggestion that "Such a shallow person doesn't deserve you anyway." In both cases, the sheer fact that someone would devalue you in such a way is presented as a reason for not taking their evaluations seriously. It's a comforting thought, to be sure. But is it a reasonable one?

We surely cannot be granted universal immunity here. Another's low opinion of us can sometimes be justified, after all. If we want an accurate self-conception, we must be willing to consider others' criticisms seriously, painful though this may be. On the other hand, this may only apply on a fairly specific level. A person may be sub-par in various particular respects. But I have trouble imagining a person being thoroughly worthless in themselves (or "in general", where this is not the same thing as averaging their particular qualities; rather it is the idea of 'bare personhood', or what lies beneath the particulars. Cf. Velleman on Love). It's all too easy for us to not truly see each other, to not appreciate all that is there. Whenever I've caught glimpses of that "all" in another, I can't help but feel a kind of awed respect for it, i.e. for them. So if someone were to devalue you generally, I'm inclined to think this must be an error on their part. They simply aren't seeing the light that would dazzle them if they could.

Still, such glimses are so rare that it would be unreasonable to blame someone for failing to see this light. Iris Murdoch once wrote that "love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real". There's something to that - it's very hard to fully comprehend the reality and value of others. Especially if we don't much try. Such blindness might be blameworthy in some specific circumstances, say if one failed to love a family member. ("You've known each other your whole lives! How could you still not see them?") But in most cases, that's simply the way of things. Every person deserves to be loved. But not every person can love them.

So rejection needn't entail wholesale despair. To be unloved - though undeniably painful - is not to be unlovable, for no person is ever the latter (in either its modal or normative sense). But we may accept this without thereby blaming the rejector. Their oversight is understandable. At most, the rejected might reasonably feel disappointed that the other wasn't more willing to "look" for them. But of course disappointment is not condemnation.

The above arguments are very general in scope, however. Perhaps we need instead to address the more specific circumstances described at the start. So let us move beyond consideration of self-love (the recognition - and hence valuing - of one's own personhood) to that of self-esteem (the valuing of one's own particular qualities). The person with high self-esteem takes themselves to be skilled or talented, or otherwise worthy of note, in various particular respects. These are taken to not be outweighed by particular vices, such as being a dirty, smelly, asshole. As the qualities in question are readily recognizable, one would expect others to hold you in similarly high esteem. They should thus want to be closer to you, want to get to know you better, and so forth. We might say that to have high self-esteem is simply to take oneself to warrant this kind of response in others. But then, insofar as the rejector fails to respond in the appropriate way to your obvious qualities, they might be held to demonstrate poor taste. ("Their loss," you might say.)

I've yet to bring into consideration the distinctive feature of romantic relationships, i.e. sexual attraction. It might well be that the other recognizes and is appropriately (albeit platonically) drawn to your obvious qualities. But they just think you're batshit ugly (nothing personal, I'm sure).

Is it "shallow" to avoid intimacy with someone solely on the basis of their physical features? I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I'm inclined to go pop-sentimentalist and say, "You can't help who you're attracted to. It's just the way things are." But on the other hand, I'm not convinced that's true. If one's spouse has a disfiguring accident, one wouldn't cease to love them, even romantically. I've read a bit from conservative Christians - like Macht - who have a rather "unromantic" view of romantic love as a choice rather than an uncontrollable feeling, and a lot of what they say here (as opposed to every other topic under the sun) sort of makes sense.

A key question here is whether romantic rejection entails a kind of devaluation. The pop-sentimentalist view provides a convenient way to deny this. You can say, "Oh, no, I think you're wonderful in every way, I just don't feel that way about you." - and that lack of feeling is taken to be a brute fact about the speaker, and not any kind of rational response to, or evaluation of, the rejected. But is this really plausible? I don't think our emotions are so disconnected from our reasoned appreciation of value. Indeed, the claim in quotes sounds deeply incoherent to my ear. Surely if you considered someone wonderful in every way, then you would feel "that way" about them? So the fact that you don't entails a kind of negative evaluation of them. For whatever reason - and there must be some reason, even if it's not transparent - you think they're not good enough for you.

That's why it's so painful to be rejected. There's no reason to feel bad about someone lacking some brute inexplicable feeling. But if they're judging you to be "sub-par", then that's clearly something different.

What if they were to make the more qualified claim: "I think you're wonderful in every non-physical way, and would love to be friends. I just think you're batshit ugly, and so don't feel 'that way' about you."

The discussion above suggests that it might still have been possible for you to have a great relationship. But that alone doesn't suffice to establish that the rejector is "shallow" for not wanting to try it. That would be to disallow the consideration of aesthetic values, and it isn't clear that there's any reasonable basis for such disqualification. Sure, aesthetic values shouldn't trump all; it would be shallow to consider them and nothing else. But it is surely reasonable to consider them alongside everything else ('depth' doesn't require blindness), which opens the possibility of their outweighing other values, depending on what precisely one is looking for in a romantic partner.

This complicates the rejection-as-criticism account, because aesthetic criticism seems less objective than other sorts. So perhaps we can cede some ground to the subjectivity of pop-sentimentalism after all. One could be judged to be batshit ugly, without this judgment necessarily reflecting poorly on either you or the evaluator (depending on who is "right"). Reasonable people may have differing tastes. Though it's always a pity when someone you like doesn't have a taste for you, I suppose.

Anyway, I'm all reflected out. I'll leave it to any commentators to figure out the appropriate response to rejection in light of the above. As far as unreflective intuition goes, "forget about it and move on" sounds pretty sensible to my ear. And they do say that our gut reactions are surprisingly reliable. Perhaps not quite so fun, though ;-).



  1. Richard,

    I don't see why we can't have it both ways. Because it seems to me that while an initial attraction may be something we can't control--that just "happens." That pursuing that attraction or nurturing it, or ignoring it is something we can do.

    And I don't think it's even clear that we dont' have some sort of choice when it comes to that initial attraction.

    I would say (prelimarily) that there are three levels to attraction.

    (1) seeing (or recognizing) that someone is attractive.

    (2) feeling attracted to someone (where ther is a "pull")

    (3) sense (2) plus letting that attraction take hold, and actively allowing it to grow (or at least not actively suppressing it).

    I would say that sense (1) is involuntary. But that (2), while not voluntary per se, requires a certain opening up of oneself to the possibility of another person. (this is wishy-washy i know, but i believe it nonetheless)

    And if the above doesn't hit home, (3) certainly involves a choice, because if we find ourselves attracted (pulled) to someone else, we can make the choice not to hang out with them again if we really don't want that attraction to grow, and i'd also say we can try to ignore the feeling or push it down everytime we feel it.

    In this way there can be both involutary attraction and attraction that involves choice.

  2. Yeah, that sounds right, actually.

  3. Out of curiosity, on what grounds do you say that no one is either normatively or actually unloveable?

  4. "I've read a bit from conservative Christians - like Macht - who have a rather "unromantic" view of romantic love as a choice rather than an uncontrollable feeling, and a lot of what they say here (as opposed to every other topic under the sun) sort of makes sense."

    That's not really my view of love. I'd say my view is closer to what Ben said above. My two main points in that post were that life-long marriage commitments shouldn't be based on the feeling and that a large part of keeping the love-feeling alive involves actions and choices. I don't think you can just go create romance with any random person.

    (I also don't see what being a conservative Christian has to do with it. It seemed to me to be a rather straightforward argument that didn't rely on of my Christian beliefs. But it's good to know that despite my stupidity in all other matters, I managed to get one thing right.)

  5. Ha, 'tis nothing personal, I just thought the rare occasion of our (possible) agreement was worth noting ;-). Thanks for the clarification, though. Now that you mention it, it would seem a bit silly to say that "you can just go create romance with any random person". A more plausible (and qualified) version would build on Ben's insight that we have some control over factors which can in turn influence our involuntary responses.

  6. Dr. P. - I talk a little about that in the third paragraph, mentioning some (admittedly weak) inductive and conceivability grounds. Note that on some views, to love a person just is to really "see" their personhood. I guess it would be harder to justify on other views, perhaps becoming an article of faith in humanity.

  7. A better way to phrase it would probably be something along the lines of "we disagree on every topic under the sun" (which is true, if we don't mind a little hyperbole) rather than Macht doesn't make sense on every topic under the sun (which isn't true). (I'm assuming you agree with me that we can have genuine disagreement while at the same time both of our positions "make sense.")

  8. Do you think that all emotions are such that there are certain circumstances under which one would be rationally required to have them? Or would you be happy to have a picture where, say, in different circumstances there are different sets of emotions that would be appropriate responses. So long as one has one of these appropriate emotional responses, one is being rational. But there may be some emotions that one could never have, while always having an appropriate emotional response. ??

    It seems completely wrong to me to think that romantically rejecting someone implies that there's some way in which you don't value them. Not valuing someone is certainly one reason you might not want a romantic relationship with them, but it is not the only reason (or even the only good reason).

    We don't have relationships with other people simply because we recognize things of value in them. Our strongest and most fulfilling relationships may not be our relationships with the people we value the most, or even our relationships in which the sum of the valuations of both parties is the highest. Part of what makes a relationship good is the way in which the people in it relate. The "fit" of the people to one another.

    You could ask me to list the qualities I thought it most important for a person to have, the qualities that would make me value them the most. And still, it would be possible to design a (beautiful) person with just those qualities who I wouldn't want to be romantically involved with. The things that go into how well one person "fits" another needn't be the sorts of things that make them more or less valuable. They're just things that make your interactions with them more smooth and fulfilling.

    What the heck do I mean by "fit"? I doubt I can give a very good account. Habits that mesh well with the other person's, patterns of interaction that work well together, styles of communication that complement the other's, shared experiences that give you a common background for having new experiences together, a look or particular tender sort of touch that the one finds comforting. Lots of things that are often very small in isolation, but compile into something quite important, even if hard to put your finger on.

    These things aren't always subtle. A holocaust surviver might have a particularly strong bond with another holocaust surviver, in part because they share an experience that's affected all aspects of their lives so deeply. Is it reasonable for her to prefer a relationship with this person over someone else who she takes to be of greater worth, but with whom she does not have this shared experience? Absolutely. Having survived the holocaust doesn't make the one person more valuable than the other. But it may make them a better person for Suzy to marry. Does Suzy's romantic rejection of the other person imply that she doesn't value him fully? Certainly not. She rejects him romantically because the connection wasn't there. That seems entirely reasonable to me.

    (It's rather aggravating that this thing doesn't let you preview comments if a tag isn't closed, and doesn't alert you in an obvious way that THAT's what's wrong.)

  9. Interesting! I'd definitely agree that issues of "fit", or how the couple relate, will greatly influence the quality of the relationship. Still, there may be an earlier stage of assessment where each person has to decide whether they are sufficiently interested in the other to warrant the effort of finding out how they would get along together (since it may not be immediately obvious). And I would expect that general evaluations of their quality as a person would at least play some role at this stage.

    (I'm also drawn to the slightly nutty view that pretty much any two reasonable people ought to be able to get along pretty well. So it's more in our control who we end up forging connections with: prior commonalities help, but shouldn't be essential. But perhaps I am being unrealistic here.)

    On the emotion question, I think there are some essentially irrational emotions (e.g. envy, schadenfreude, etc.), so a fortiori there are no circumstances under which they're rationally required. But I assume you mean to ask whether there could be a plurality of permissible emotional responses for any given situation (or whether every particular situation entails a uniquely ideal emotional response). I'm not sure about that. Pluralism certainly sounds like a reasonable and easy way out. So I'm tempted to pick up the more extreme position, just to see how far I can take it...


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