Guest Post by Justin Clardy: Love, Obligation and Contracts

Our fourth guest blogger is Justin Clardy (also a speaker at this August's pilot workshop)!

The idea that love can be reasonable strikes many people as odd.  We might be tempted to think that love and reason do not have much to do with one another. In ground-breaking recent work, Niko Kolodny portrays love as a psychological state for which there are reasons: a state that, if all goes well, is an appropriate or fitting response to something independent of itself. I have been attempting to develop this view. While Kolodny’s account is stellar in many respects, it does not explain all aspects we would expect it to explain about our relationships. It does not explain how valuing our relationships in the right way relates to our action in loving relationships—particularly, how this valuing explains our acting in accordance with some obligations that we have to our loved ones. I suggest a refinement to Kolodny’s relationship account: namely, that relationships are contractual. This is particularly helpful in helping us decipher what obligations we have to our romantic partners.

Love consists, on Kolodny’s view, (i) in seeing a relationship in which one is involved as a reason for valuing both one’s relationship and the person with whom one has a relationship, and (ii) in valuing that relationship and person appropriately to the kind of relationship it is. When x loves y, the relationship r that x has to y provides both participants with reasons for certain emotional vulnerabilities and actions. The fact that they have this relationship to one another is also a reason for certain constitutive beliefs of love.

However these conditions do not tell us all we could reasonably expect them to. In laying out the conditions for love Kolodny mentions that love partly consists in believing that r is a noninstrumental reason for x to act in y’s best interest (in ways that are appropriate to the type of relationship, R, to which r belongs), and having on that basis, a standing intention to do so; and believing that the relationship r is a noninstrumental reason for x to act in r’s best interest (in ways that are appropriate to R), and having on that basis, a standing intention to do so.

From this we can reasonably ask: what ways are appropriate to R? And how are they determined? Kolodny’s account is silent on these questions. I suggest that relationships are also contractual, and the contractual element of relationships provides an answer to these questions.

When we are in loving relationships we do things for our beloveds that we should do. But what grounds this obligation? It is uncontroversial that the love that we have for our beloved can serve as grounds for the obligation that we have to them. On the account which makes love the valuing of one’s relationship to the beloved, then, it is the relationship that grounds the obligation to the beloved.

Relational contracts are informed agreements upon terms of relationship by participants. The fact that contracts are mutually understood is important. It is important that the participants understand the fact that there is a relationship of a special kind and what the terms of the relationship are—a mutual understanding between the parties to a relationship constitutes the relational contract.

The desires that a person has for their beloved and for the relationship with them inform the terms of the relationship. For instance, the desire that a participant has for the relationship to be sexually exclusive with the other participant would constitute a proposed term, when it is expressed for the contract in that relationship. Additionally, that a particular participant in a friendship will always drive the friends to the barber shop because the other friend perhaps does not have a car also constitutes a proposed term for a contract.

Not just any proposed terms will do for the constitution of the contract. The terms that constitute a relational contract between x and y are the terms that are agreed upon by the participants. So while x’s desire for sexual exclusivity in a particular romantic relationship might constitute a proposed term to be negotiated for a contract with y, it can only become a term of the contract with y when y agrees upon it as a term of the contract in the relationship between x and y. But how are the proposed terms of the relationship gathered?

Proposed terms can be gathered in different ways. Participants might explicitly verbalize the proposed terms with friends and lovers. This is not uncommon. Daniel might ask his friend Jack for a ride to the barbershop every other Tuesday. Additionally, we may be able to gather terms from given contexts. For example, if x makes a flirty gesture that is not positively received by y this is often an indication that y does not desire flirtatiousness to be a part of a relationship with x (perhaps y wants the relationship to stay platonic). Both of these avenues of proposed term-gathering depend heavily on honesty of expression.

When participants accept proposed terms from one another and mutually agree on the accepting of that term for their contract, they enter in to a binding agreement to one another. These contracts between loving friends and romantic partners typically involve an arrangement of desires and expectations the participants have of one another and of their relationship. Examples of this are the sexual exclusivity in romantic relationships or the agreement of platonic friends of the opposite sex not to engage in flirtatious activities with one another.

The contracts that we establish in our relationships are what provide participants with their obligations to the beloved. It is plausible that the contracts in our relationships can vary within modes (some platonic contracts are different from others), across modes (platonic contracts often have different terms than romantic contracts), and across time (a romantic contract between x and y at t1 might be different than a romantic contract between x and y at t2).

According to Kolodny and Macfarlane, an occurrence of “x ought to Φ” at a context c is true iff Φ-ing is the best course of action available to x in light of the evidence available at c. The evidence available to x involves the terms of his contract with the beloved y. Whatever the terms that have been agreed upon by the participants in a relationship will inform x’s set of beliefs (his evidence) regarding what courses of action are available to him that would not compromise his contract with y. The context-sensitive “ought” allows “ought” to be used in relation to any number of relevant bodies of evidence. What this means is that the participants in relationships are obligated to do what their contract would have them do, and what a particular contract would have the participants to do varies.

There are some positive corollaries of this account. The first is that contracts give us a way to determine what things are appropriate to our relationships in the sense employed above.

Second, the contractual element is how we understand just what actions are in the best interest of our relationships and our friends and partners. Kolodny deems these actions that are in the best interest of our friends and lovers “appropriate”. Inappropriate actions, then, would be acts against the best interest of the relationship and also acts against the best interest of the other participant. I am convinced that lovers and friends think that the actions that are appropriate to the relationship stem from the agreement that they have between one another—the terms of their contract. For instance, this is why relationships covered by the conventional term “swingers” can allow for sexual unrestrictedness without the love in those relationships being compromised, although the conventional paradigm demotes sexual unrestrictedness by promoting it as destructive to all instances of romantic love.