Monday, December 21, 2009

Critiquing Philly Kendall's Deep Thoughts on Relationships

On my last trip to New York City, I had the pleasure of meeting fellow blogger Kendall J for lunch as I was passing through Philadelphia. Kendall and I used to kick around ideas quite a bit over at Objectivism Online Forum, and I’ve been a fan of his blog for several years. I was very much looking forward to meeting him, and he did not disappoint. The greater part of our enjoyable lunch was consumed by a discussion of an upcoming post he was planning on relationships. He wrote that very interesting post soon thereafter, and I’m finally getting around to responding to it, as promised.

Kendall’s post, titled How I’ve Changed – Part 1, Personal Relationships, reads at first like a public journal entry. He takes a bird’s eye view of how his perspective on relationships has changed over the years, and attempts to analyze the data of his experiences. The best summary of Kendall’s conclusions can be found at the end of the post, in his effort to “operationalize the principles” he’s learned about relationships. Here are his shorthand “operationlized principles”:

1. Find people of the highest character you can.
2. Know why you like them.
3. Seek to understand them.
4. Act to express your admiration, respect, and love.

This essentialized advice is accurate and powerful in more ways than Kendall covers in his post. I want to focus on one of Kendall’s points that particularly hits home with me: that a great relationship, whether a friendship or romance, is a value that one must act to gain and sustain. (I found it very cool that Kendall and I raised this same point in different contexts in two different articles that were posted around the same time.)

Kendall’s operationalized principles are in fact principles of action. To put Kendall’s principles into my own words: 1) People of high character do not just appear in your life – you must seek them out. 2) For those individuals with whom you already have an emotional connection, work to understand the nature and cause of that emotional connection. 3) Continually evaluate your relationships to more fully understand the nature of the values you have gained. 4) Using this greater understanding of your relationships, creatively express the admiration and love that naturally grows from a properly valued friend/lover.

Not only are these principles of action true, they are interrelated and reciprocal. In order to find people of high character, it is necessary actively to evaluate new people that you meet. When meeting new people, one evaluates both the potential value of the new person (are they of high moral character?), and he evaluates his own psychology (what aspects of this new person are my emotions responding to, and why?). If one actively and continually evaluates his relationships, then he will find many attributes of his friend/lover that are worthy of praise and admiration, which he then can express in a variety of ways. Expressing praise to a friend/lover concretizes that person’s value in your life, which can further cement your emotional connection to another. The relationship grows stronger, both emotionally and in terms of explicitly shared values. All this takes work! And that is exactly Kendall’s point. I very much agree.


On an entirely different note, I’d like to issue a challenge to Kendall for any follow-up to his article: to concretize his operational principle regarding chemistry. (I preliminarily define good chemistry as “the existence of complimentary differences and complementary similarities in optional value judgments between two people, and the positive emotional response generated from these factors.”) In his article, Kendall argues that, “Where chemistry is concerned, it’s ok to seek more optional factors, but seek out those that ultimately stem from character…” I challenge Kendall to explain, by means of examples, what exactly it means for an optional factor to “ultimately stem from character?” It’s not that I disagree with Kendall on this point, in fact I generally agree with him. But this issue remains the biggest gap in his article.

Kendall is writing here about optional value judgments -- individual choices regarding career, hobbies, humor, artistic tastes, etc. He uses the example of meeting a woman who loves the Philadelphia Phillies. Assuming that one is also a huge Phillies fan, how much weight ought that shared optional value have in evaluating the potential of a relationship? I’m assuming that Kendall uses the Phillies fan as an example of an optional attribute that does not “ultimately stem from character.” But why, Kendall? Why is being a Phillies fan not an expression of philosophical values? And what would qualify as an attribute stemming from character? Being an avid chess player? Loving Bach over Beethoven? Choosing a career as a chef over a career as a painter?

In my view, any legitimate optional value judgment ultimately stems from character. By definition, an optional value judgment is an individual choice one makes which is fully moral within a range. For instance, when choosing a career, one may ethically choose to be a banker, a chemist, a teacher, etc., but not a bank-robber, terrorist bomb maker, or televangelist. This includes one’s choice of hobbies, favorite baseball team, taste in jokes, etc. Morally optional choices that individuate elements of one’s character have value by virtue of the fact that they make one unique. (I argue this point more extensively in Part II of my essay The Psycho-epistemology of Sexuality).

For this reason, I would place a higher emphasis on the importance of chemistry. Kendall and I agree on the importance of finding individuals of high moral character, but I don’t think that this diminishes the importance of having good chemistry with people in one’s life, especially with lovers.


Kendall and I hit it off from the beginning when we met in Philly. Honestly, I expected him to be a little dorkier based on his online writing. But in person, Kendall is actually a very cool dude. I mean: he’s not only cool, he’s a dude. He’s friendly, funny, and intelligent, but it wasn’t foregone conclusion that I could quickly wrestle him to the ground using only my left hand (a very positive characteristic in male friends and Spanish swordsmen). I look forward to Kendall’s next post in this series, and I hope to meet him again the next time I travel to Yankee-ville.

--Dan Edge