Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Just like honey

The same stuff that caught my eye about promising love in this review by Ralph Wedgwood of Elizabeth Brake's Minimizing Marriage also caught Eric Schliesser's eye:
Chapter 1 discusses whether marriage involves a promise. First, she argues that the typical marriage vows -- "to love, honour, and cherish, until death us do part" -- cannot literally be taken as promises. It is not clear that we can promise love at all. If we could, it would follow, counter-intuitively, that divorce counts as promise-breaking.
I'm with Jon Cogburn and BioethicsUK (in comments here) on divorce involving promise-breaking (i.e. I think it does, although not necessarily culpably). I also agree with Cogburn that:
More generally I think that you can (and must actually) promise to love. You and your spouse are going to change quite a bit over your lives in ways that neither of you can foresee when you get married. As a result of this it is vitally important to commit to the relationship itself, and a promise to love is a vital part of strengthening the bond through changes rather than weakening it.
I have nothing much to appeal to other than intuitions here (which Schliesser doesn't seem to like), but here's something. You cannot enjoy the joke in "Honey" by the Marine Girls unless Cogburn is right about this. In fact, there would be no joke. Here are the relevant lines (the last from each verse):
I know I'll love him forever/ Or until I find another boy
I love him every day/ Or at least until this feeling goes away
But honey knows I never lie/ And I'll be his until this feeling dies 
The point is: this isn't love. The character portrayed in the song has no deep feelings for, let alone commitment to, the boy she says she loves. It is not this kind of love that is promised at a wedding. I can't say what love is, but I know enough about it to get the joke. (And baby I can guess the rest, as Lynyrd Skynyrd would say.)


  1. nietzsche, HAH I sec. 58:

    what one can promise. - one can promise actions but not feelings; for the latter are involuntary. he who promises someone he will always love him or always hate him or always be faithful to him, promises something that does not reside in his power; but he can certainly promise to perform actions which, though they are usually the consequences of love, hatred, faithfulness, can also derive from other motives: for several paths and motives can lead to the same action. to promise always to love someone therefore means: for as long as i love you i shall render to you the actions of love; if i cease to love you, you will continue to receive the same actions from me, though from other motives: so that in the heads of our fellow men the appearance will remain that love is still the same and unchanged. - one therefore promises the continuation of the appearance of love when one swears ever-enduring love without self-deception.

  2. That's about right. Thanks.

    Although you can also, surely, promise to try to love someone, to do your best to see what they do and say in a positive light, not to dwell on anything bad, and so on. It's not just the reality of love and the mere appearance of love. There's also the attempt to recreate or regain the reality if it ever dies or fades or gets chipped away at all. It's true that one can promise actions but not feelings, but actions can be internal as well as publicly observable.

  3. yes, i think you could draw various implications from the passage as a description of e.g. marriage or declarations of undying love. one has to do with a tendency toward inner emptiness, dutifulness. another has to do with how bringing love under the institutions of promising, etc., involves one in a project of cultivation with respect to some ideal, one of the confounding factors in which will just be that one of the motivating forces in the project (or in initially taking it up) is not really to be relied on to continue to keep the project going or vital.

    'promising to try' sounds kind of like the late-liberal, post-permissibility-of-divorce regime of companionate marriage. 'i will try but i might leave if it fails to work.' which is admittedly different from never expressing any intention to try ('first sign of anything i have to work at, and i am outta here!').

  4. Yes, 'promising to try' isn't quite right. 'Promise to cultivate' might be better.