Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Phenomenological Account of Commitment

Commitment is what separates out successful relationships from bad ones. It is the word most associated with comedically about how a man will fail to live up to the virtues of monogamy. We have an entire cliche industry about this phenomenon. This is my first real attempt at a solo phenomenological description of commitment.

In the Same Sex Marriage Debate (SSM hereafter), someone may claim that commitment and the conventionality of marriage alone give us reason to allow for SSM. I reject straight out relativism about the conventionality of our moral practices, but think that in the SSM debate, there is something about commitment that features in our experience of love. This experience seems common enough to both hetero and homosexual couples that I posit its essential featuring.

In commitment, you take on and internalize living-for-another. You are not obligated to anyone other than someone you have sworn a vow of commitment towards. You are allowed to be partial in this experience. Let me elucidate the structure of this experience.

In living-for-another, the meaning of my actions are defined in relation towards the other. To lay claim to a practice as one's own is a reflection of the other's character. If I go out and steal TVs, I embarrass my wife since my actions reflect on her. The reflecting on her is the fact that my actions chosen in this way are oriented towards how I have chosen to relate to others through her. When I do something shameful, I have forgotten how I ought to live-for-her since living for another requires a moral orientation towards one's partner that makes one's life completely suffused with the my partner's presence. Living-for-another is, then, a normatively driven disposition to take on someone else as the condition for which you will always act.

Living-for-another is a surrendering over to the promise of the partner's transcendence. When I need something, I simply call out and my wife will be there-for-me. Regardless of what she is doing, she will come, even if begrudgingly, into the room to answer my question or get what I need. In this way, commitment requires a devotion to surrender, and it goes both ways. In traditions past, men had a more active role and women reacted to their wants and needs. However, this ethically unsustainable, and gives reason to reject any form of relationship in which both partners are not equally surrendered. It is the possibility of equal surrendering that separates out good relationships from bad relationships. Moreover, the surrendering over explains why it is that one's actions reflect on the other, as explained above. To be committed is to be promised and deliver over to another. It is through this mutual surrendering of wills that one finds their partner worthy for the respect of love.

Commitment cannot simply be about attracted love. It is a deeper type of love than simply liking another person. Many people substitute the concept of attracted love for something deeper than what it is not. Attraction can lead to sexual possession of the other. However, purely physical and attraction are not substitutes for mutual surrendering. The confusion lies in that surrendering the body over to the other in the sexual act is not surrendering it in a sexual act in the sense of living-for-another. The sexual act in living-for-another is carnally about possessing the other's flesh, but it is an enactment of surrendering to the point for that mutual surrendering. Mere possession of the flesh can lead to transcendence of the other in mutual surrendering only if that possession is directed towards that mutual surrendering. This is best captured by the vernacular phrase "making love." If it isn't, it is something else, superficial, hedonistic or otherwise.

The mutual surrendering of the other's transcendence creates partnerships. Yet, in living-for-another a partnership cannot be a sustained relation only between two parties once consummated in a ceremony. Instead, it is like faith in that it requires renewal. Mutual surrendering will be renewed in the act of each surrendering to the other. The submission required for living-for-another enacts a promise a new to sustain what has been, or to correctly re-establish where the couple ought to proceed. The renewal enables us to see that we are once again anew, the newness of re-invoking the vows of commitment. They must be taken on again every so often in order that we may sustain the awareness that living-for-another requires.

Living-for-another can be suffocating and you will see many couples assert a separation from living-for-anotherness. The man may do something like carve out a space in the garage to work on his life-projects or establish a man-cave. He will go out with single friends and act as if he were not living-for-another. If this breaks down too much, then the living-for-another will become threatened, and hence will not be renewed as it requires. Infidelity is one example of the ultimate break in which commitment breaks down the possibility for renewal since so much of the renewal of living-for-another takes place in the transcendence of the sexual act. For living-for-another, the sexual act takes on the mutual surrendering required at all times in life, but within this act, sexuality is a surrender of the body to symbolize more than the bodily possession of the other. It is an opening of promising where the other's pleasure becomes your own, and the union of flesh (no matter heterosexual or homosexual) becomes shared between two. To break that bond and transgress against the possibility of renewal is what is so devastating about cheating on one's partner. It disrupts the security and sanctity of the renewal commitment necessitates in its own structure.

Given that I have described commitment as a living-for-another. It follows that part of this experience allows me to see what types of relationships do not have commitment in them. They are, as it were, substituting the concept for the experience, superficial pleasure for commitment itself. In this way, all relationships can be judged accordingly to how committed the partners are within that relationship. We have a way to view in some sense how it is that living-for-another takes shape in the concrete experience of our lives and know how silly counterfactual reasoning is when they assert wrongly that sincerely committed relationships are not enough for marriage. Rather, it is commitment that makes possible our ability to share in a commitment with a loving partner.

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