Pursuing your goals in a world with other people.

Apropos of the discussion here, I offer some general thoughts on pursuing partner, career, family, or other aims one deems important:

  1. Knowing what you want can be handy. Among other things, it can help you identify when you've found it. If you have no idea what you want, recognizing it when you have it can be harder.
  2. On the other hand, being able to specify exactly what you want is not a guarantee that you can or will attain it. It could be, for example, that your desired simultaneous combination of partner-career-family-other aims does not exist.
  3. Hypothetical people that meet all our desiderata may be easier to get along with in our imagination than are actual flesh-and-blood people who embody those desiderata. Happily, it often turns out that actual flesh-and-blood people who significantly depart from some of the desiderata we set a priori are wonderful to be with.
  4. It's possible that there's something creepy about choosing a life partner on the basis of an a priori list of criteria (as opposed to, say, getting to know hir and deciding zie is a person whose companionship you value), especially if those criteria tend to specify services that imagined life partner will provide in advancing your aims. It kind of sets you up to be a self-serving creep who doesn't care about your partner's needs or aspirations.
  5. If your aims matter to you -- if they're really worth pursuing -- sometimes this requires that you sacrifice other aims.
  6. If you, personally, are unwilling to sacrifice aim X to pursue aim Y, that probably means that, push come to shove, you value aim X more. That's fine -- but it might be a good idea to make your peace with the possibility that you can't have both X and Y.
  7. If you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X, you might have to adjust your expectations about the level of attainment that will be possible. (Depending on values of X and Y here, this might involve ratcheting down career aspirations to something slightly less competitive, lucrative, prestigious, and/or time-consuming, scaling back on the projected number of your progeny, ratcheting down your expectations for a spotless home, what have you.)
  8. On the other hand, if you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X and you therefore make it someone else's job to pick up the slack on one of these two goals, it strikes me that you ought to make damn sure that this someone else (a) values the goal you are asking hir to pursue on your behalf and (b) that zie is not being forced thereby to abandon the pursuit of some other goal that zie values more.
  9. This is a good moment to remember Kant's insight that treating others as mere means to advance your goals rather than recognizing them an setters of their own goals is thoroughly assy behavior.
  10. In some circumstances, the least exploitative way to achieve the goal that matters to you but not so much that you'll sacrifice pursuit of your other goals to attain it is to pay someone else to do it. After all, money can be exchanged for goods and services, which might make it useful to the person whose assistance you are getting in pursuing some of hir goals.
  11. Institutions that stack the deck in favor of some classes of people being expected to sacrifice their own aims in order to accommodate (or actively support) other classes of people in the pursuit of their goals suck big bags of crap.
  12. When you recognize that institutional structures support your pursuit of your goals by limiting the options of others to pursue their goals, it would be a real show of humanity (and of not being an entitled ass) to do what you can to increase the potential for those other people to pursue their goals. It would also be cool to examine the institutional structures that stack the deck and figure out how to start dismantling them. (If you need a self-interested reason to do this, consider that fate may conspire to make you care greatly for the happiness and well-being of someone on the short end of this institutional structural stick.)
  13. In an environment where some people's goals are presumed to matter more than others (because of what class they are in rather than anything to do with the particulars of their goals), or where certain goals are judged in advance to be more appropriate (or "natural") to members of some classes of people, it is hard as hell to identify "freely chosen goals" that are actually free of the influence of various institutional structures. But, people who don't live in vacuums can't set goals that don't assume the persistence of certain features of our background environment.
  14. Sometimes taking your own goals seriously may require imagining -- even working for -- the non-persistence of certain features of our background environment. This may also be required to take seriously the goals and aspirations of other people who matter to you. It doesn't mean changing those features will be easy, but few goals worth pursuing are.

I hope I can be forgiven the Xs and Ys in the discussion here, as I think what's at stake ranges far beyond the traditional work/life balance issues about how to divvy up housework and parenting, whose career advancement to prioritize, et cetera. I think it cuts to the core of treating other people as fully human.

And, for some reason, it seems an awful lot like politicians, policy makers, and pundits are having a harder time with that lately than they should be. It feels like the rest of us have to pick up some of that slack.

4 responses so far

  • 1. Your point in paragraph 13 is troubling: "But, people who don't live in vacuums can't set goals that don't assume the persistence of certain features of our background environment." It sounds as if you're arguing that even when both members of a dyad claim to agree on who will trade off pursuit of which goals in favor of shared, mutually-high-priority goals - even then, these two parties can't be relied upon to know their own desires, and to have 'freely chosen goals.' In which case, I'm concerned that any discussion about what goals a couple wishes to pursue will necessarily devolve into mutual condescension and suspicion about the pernicious background influences that might be influencing every word either person says.

    2. In a larger sense, dyadic asymmetry =/= exploitation. Mutually-agreeable taking on of complementary roles does not imply that anyone's goals have been devalued, even if it happens to be the case that a particular configuration of roles has a history of goal-devaluation attached to it. Yes, of course we’re influenced by that history, and our role preferences have the potential to be startlingly irrational. But as adults, aren’t we entitled to have our decisions taken seriously, even ones based on irrational preferences, and aren’t we obligated to take others’ equally irrational but independent decisions seriously?

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I'm sympathetic to these worries, and I'm certainly not arguing for a mode of engagement in which we assert that others don't know their own mind, or that their professed desires are inauthentic, of what have you. Rather, I think the best way forward in our suboptimal environments is to make the space in which we can really examine our own desires -- for example, to consider whether we would still want them in a world where certain social or economic forces (for example) did not make them expedient -- and to make a habit of examining them.

      And, while it's possible to construct particular situations in which dyadic asymmetry is not necessarily exploitative, the tendency for such asymmetries to produce results that are strikes me as good reason for the people existing in settings which encourage (if not enforce) these asymmetries to be vigilant and not take for granted that the outcomes will be OK for everyone. I'm inclined to view this as a special duty for those on the end of the asymmetry that tends to be more highly valued.

      Of course, the clearest way to establish that one's choices are authentically one's own would be entirely to dismantle the societal structures that impose the asymmetries by selectively rewarding some of those choices and punishing others according to your group membership.

      • I'm interested to know what process we could use (short of dismantling the entire system) to meaningfully examine our desires in this case. In general, thinking about unequal or asymmetrical configurations is well-served by a Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, in which one retreats to a position of not knowing which side of an asymmetrical arrangement one would end up on, and questioning whether the arrangement would still be preferred over other possible ones. (In other words, I'll divide the pie, you pick which slice you want.) But it seems like this framework (and any others I can imagine) would be irretrievably broken by the problems of incommensurability (apples-to-oranges nature of the features on either side of the asymmetry) and value relativity (since maybe women and men -- just to take an example at random -- might really value certain roles differently even without pernicious social influences, but who can tell?).

  • Rugosa says:

    One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet, as far as I've read, is that the letter writer apparently hasn't considered that sometimes things don't work out as planned. Mr. Paycheck may not have the career success he assumes he will have, and find that supporting his family in a nice house in a good school district requires more income than he can provide. Hypothetical Mrs. HappyHousewife may like being home with small children, but find the role constraining as the kids become more independent. Maybe he should think a bit about how he would deal with the inevitable bumps in the road that life will hand him.