The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
March 03, 2005

Modern Relationships: where serious too often means shallow - and likely to end in violence

Posted by Anthony Daniels

Anthony Daniels examines the attitudes of some young Britons towards relationships - and finds them deeply wanting. He argues that both the political left and the political right - or at least parts of both - are to blame for this. With their respective emphases on rights and consumer choice, both the left and the right have promoted egotism.

What does the adjective serious mean, especially when used, as it so often is nowadays, to qualify the noun relationship? It means shallow but intense, and above all self-regarding. Serious means serious for me, and never mind anyone else. It also means likely to end in violence.

I was talking to a young man a short while ago he was twenty-two who told me that his girlfriend had just finished with him. It was, he said, the first serious relationship of his life (his girlfriend had ended up in the casualty department of the hospital I worked in). Using words which I have come to hear with foreboding, he said, "I love her to bits".

A little while later in our conversation, I asked him whether he had any children. As it happened, he did: a son aged one. But he and the mother of his child had not had a serious relationship. They had seen each other, in fact, for two months only.

I asked him whether he kept in contact with his child. He said that he had tried to do so, but the woman with whom his relationship had been serious had told him to choose between her and his child. He had chosen her, of course, and now that she had left him, via the casualty department, the mother of his child (who, of course, was herself in a new relationship) maintained her refusal to let him see his child.

I asked him why the young woman with whom he had had his only serious relationship did not want him to see his child.

"Because", he replied, "she said that she wanted to be the only mother of my children".

This is surely remarkable. First the birth of a child is not seen by the young man as automatically adding a degree of seriousness to his relationship with the mother of his child, irrespective of his wishes in the matter; and second a young woman believes that her petulant desire (to be the only mother of his children) could overturn an established fact, namely that another woman had already given birth to his child. The pair of them, then, are adults in name only: the egotism of childhood has remained with them.

The story is an emblematic one, for a very high proportion of young Britons think and behave like this. That it is a catastrophe not only for them as individuals but for the country as a whole seems to me so evident that only intellectuals could possibly find reasons to deny it, and it is very tiresome to have to argue in favour of something that is patently obvious. But it is important to be clear about the philosophical roots of this catastrophic thought and conduct, so that we know where to begin the long road to reformation.

The right and left have both made a contribution to the mess. The left has, by long and patient propaganda, and by its march through the institutions, instilled a deeply subversive sense of inalienable rights and entitlements, including those to tangible goods and benefits, into practically every young mind in the country. Here is true (and permanent) corruption of youth. But a sense of rights and entitlements inevitably concentrates a man's mind entirely on himself. It turns him into a childish solipsist, because a right, as popularly conceived, is metaphysically unlimited, or else it is not a right. If I have a right to play my music, therefore, I have a right to play it on all the occasions when it occurs to me to do so, or else I have no right to play my music: but I do have such a right, ergo I have a right to play it at all times, including three o'clock in the morning when others are trying to sleep. Everyone becomes a child stamping his feet.

The right or at least a certain fraction of the right has likewise promoted solipsism and egotism. It has overemphasised maximum consumer choice, excellent in its sphere, as the summum bonum of human existence. Intentionally or not, this has served to turn human life, at least for many people, into an existential supermarket: for if it is the ability or freedom to choose that matters, and not the quality of what is chosen, how is it possible to reproach anyone for choosing to live as the young man and woman I have described? What should be among the most important decisions in a human life who to live with, when to have children, and so forth are now taken as whimsically as deciding on a type of jam or breakfast cereal. If a jam disappoints, you can always get another flavour; if the mother of your child begins to pall, you find another woman.

The peculiar and deadly combination of a sense of entitlement irrespective of one's conduct, and a belief that the act of choice is more important than what is actually chosen, has resulted in a social breakdown of massive proportions. I have a right both to my choices and a right to protection from the economic and other consequences of my choices. In other words, I can father children as I choose, but I have a right to expect the state to pay them if (or rather when) I decide not to do so myself.

At one time I fondly believe people instinctively understood that moral and social obligations could be created irrespective of a person's individual wishes. They also understood that there were limitations on ways of behaving that nevertheless did not preclude freedom: indeed, that placing limitations on oneself actually increased rather that decreased one's freedom. Grammar, for example, places limitations on the way sentences may be constructed, but it places no limitations on the content of what sentences may say. Indeed, it is perfectly obvious that the person who speaks grammatically is able to say many more things than the person who does not, even though there are certain things he is precluded from saying.

It is the same with conduct. Limitation actually frees us rather than imprisons us. The problem is that it is not easy to explain why within the confines of a soundbite.

Anthony Daniels is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Dr Daniels again gives us a valuable essay. But increasingly I think that we cannot lay all the blame on the Left and it's culture of phony Rights, although they deserve all the criticism that we can manage.

There seems to be a process of 'category creep' or taking observable principles from one portion of life and improperly applying them to another. It may become possible as modern life becomes more complicated and the division of labour cuts us off from observing the broader process of society and economics. The oldest example I can think of is how people see advances in the physical sciences, or even social progress in the sense that society can develop better means of working together (such as abolishing slavery) and inappropriatey transpose that into believing that there is moral progress. This is the great folly of Whigs, Marxists and historicists.

Another is clearly transposed from the marketplace, where competition and advertising tell people that the customer is king. This is pretty clearly bastardised into the sort of beliefs that Dr Daniels describes, where how one feels and how one feels today, is all that matters. The message is reinforced by political leaders and pollsters, making it abundantly clear that they want to keep up with every popular whim moment by moment. Misapplied, it results in solopcism. I would be interested to hear Dr Daniels' thoughts.

Posted by: s j masty at March 5, 2005 01:50 PM

This is by way of a comment on a comment, namely S.J.Masty's reference to 'category creep'. Einstein's Theory of Relativity spawned a mass of this, some of it merely bizarre, as when > But much more of a disaster has been the abuse of the theory to 'support' moral relativism (with much reference to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet). Not only category creep, this shows that its perpetrators simply do not understand the basic principle of Relativity, whether Galilean or Einsteinian, which is that certain laws remain UNCHANGED, or things are CONSERVED, regardless of one's different observations or measurements.

The widespread misunderstanding of Quantum Theory is even more bizarre. The quantum is the smallest unit of action in any physical process, a sort of 'cent' in the currency of physical transactions. Not at all what people imagine by a 'quantum leap', especially the engaging speaker who came to our university with a talk on 'Quantum Theology'.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 8, 2005 08:02 PM

While I always enjoy Dr. Daniel's analysis of social and cultural problems I do feel that at times he finds the root of the problem in too great abstractions that seem, concurrently, excessively mundane and excessively complex. This is, in my view, the case with the thesis presented here - whether relationships between the sexes are influenced at all by political ideologies remains a question in my mind, for the simple reason that the majority of people in democratic societies do not have the vaguest idea about what is entailed by the Left or the Right.

In fact, if the truth be told, many people probably vote on the scientific basis of the quality of the photography evident in the candidate's portrait outside of the polling booth. And people who are largely politically ignorant are also culturally ignorant which consigns them to live with a worldview rooted in nonsense; a kind of cultural mythology with social schemas that form an independant iconography painted in layers of distortions. For instance, many people assume the default "right to a lawyer" if arrested, however in Australia (where I live), this assumption is actually false if a person is arrested for certain misdemeanors. The question is, where did this myth arise? Doubtless from popular television.

The point I make in relation to Dr. Daniel's article, is that a majority of the public know nothing about rights, other than the hazy concept that they have them and that crusaders who broaden their definition must be unspeakably noble. Likewise, most people do not really have a clear understanding of what is entailed by "choice" as an economic principle of capitalism that has nothing whatsoever to do with the choices of personal living.

The truth about human relationships - especially the failures thereof - is that it is largely the product of philosophy turning into practice. In other words, the dispensation with Christianity, the implicit belief in victimology, the uptake of socialism, and all the rest. It is indeed a complex world.

Posted by: Jason Landless at April 15, 2005 08:51 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement