by Jason Stotts
This piece was written this summer and was revived due to a discussion we had at this week’s Objectivist Club meeting. I’m not sure any longer that I agree with the stance advocated in this piece, so think of this as an interesting starting point for discussion, but not as my actual position
The Morality of the “Bigger, Better, Deal”
-or- An Objectivist Disagrees with Orthodoxy
When reading Atlas Shrugged, one is confronted with the heroine’s (Dagny Taggart) search for a true hero as expressed in her romantic relationships. She starts with Francisco D’Anconcia – the man so full of potential that at that point he had only been able to actualize little of its true extent. She later moves on to Hank Rearden – the man who knows how to do things and do them well. Finally, she winds up with John Galt – who is of course the hero of the story and the man who becomes the iconic ideal for an Ayn Rand hero.
Now the question that I want to address is not specific to this book or this context, although I will draw from this as an example, it is my intention to arrive at the underlying moral principles regarding what I term BBD syndrome. Specifically BBD syndrome is when one is not content in a relationship if one knows that there is potentially a BBD, a bigger better deal (i.e. there exists a better person). More loosely I will use this term to designate a person who is not satisfied in a relationship not because of any flaws in the relationship itself, but rather because of an assumed potential for a better partner.
Now, the issue is that, like in the story, some people will go from one relationship to another with the only provocation needed is to observe a better partner and we need to investigate whether it is moral for one to do so.
In the story, when Dagny is with Hank, she is very much in love with him and finds herself very attracted to him – an attraction that becomes a relationship on both a physical and spiritual level. But, when Dagny meets John for the first time, she immediately falls in love with him and forgets Hank for him, even though at this point Hank is risking his life trying to find her.
Let me add another example here so that we may have a more clear cut case. Let us assume that there are two people in a relationship J and K, and that this relationship is a good one with very few problems and many positives. Now, consider the implications if K left J because she thought that there existed a potential for a better partner and she was determined to find this potential person.
Both examples are clear cases of one person leaving another: in the first it is for a specific person, in the second it is for a potential person – yet in both cases the person leaving did so because they hoped to find something better.
Now what can we say about such people? What sort of moral analysis do we have to offer to this situation?
My first inclination is to decry the actions of the people doing the leaving on the grounds that being in a relationship implies that one has some commitment to one’s word given to the other person, to the trust that one built up in that other person, and to the relationship that one is abandoning (provided that it had no serious problems or that the good greatly outweighed the bad).
My second inclination is to say that if we allow such action as moral on principle, then there would be no basis to stay in a relationship because all one would have to do is observe some other person who is better in some aspect. Let us say that one went through a number of relationships in the manner described above until she found the “best” person out there and was with this person for years, until she observes someone new that is better in some respect above the current interest and then she leaves her current partner for this new man. I ask: What is there to stop such a malicious chain? Given the acceptance of this principle will people ever have any reason to stay in a relationship? Wouldn’t such a principle destroy the very idea of a committed relationship? These questions seriously disturb me and I think them warranted given that we are speaking of principles of action and in particular what sorts of things are permissible for relationships.
Let me just say that it seems absurd to me to leave a good relationship with someone who loves you merely for the potential to find something better. Such a potential may or may not actualize, but either way there still remains the fact that you destroyed a perfectly good relationship and caused much suffering to another merely on speculation.
I think part of the problem that people need to recognize is that the word “best” is a relative term and an objective term. By this I mean that one can only be “best” in relations to others – if there is only one ball it is neither the best nor the worst, it is the only one (it would be absurd to claim it was the best and the worst at the same time). It is also objective because the standard of comparison can be objective. One knife is better than another (in a teleological sense), one person is better than another (in a moral sense), one actor better than another (in the sense of skill) – all these things presuppose the fact that there is an objective telos for things by which we can measure their success and/or failure.
When a woman is looking for a better man she needs to realize that this implies that this man is in some respect better than her current partner, however just because one man is better than another objectively in skill or morally, this does not make him better for her. In a relationship you are not looking to date the best person possible in some abstract objective sense – that person may be a real ass who you don’t get along with. In a relationship you are looking for the best person who is also the best person for you!
Let me end by saying that I do not think it is morally permissible to just jump from relationship to relationship – I think that one is obligated to a relationship to which one has committed oneself until such time as that relationship proves untenable and/or problematic.