June 2, 2006

An extremely general, multi-part question about relationships.

If you wanted to be thoroughly selfish, concerned about your own pleasures and benefits, should you prefer living alone or with a partner? If you wanted to be unselfish, concerned about virtue and service to others, should you prefer living alone or with a partner? Which question has the clearer answer? Save all the hedging about how what matters are the details of the specific relationship. I want to hear you try to answer the question in the abstract. To help you focus: assume that in starting out in life, you are required to commit either to a solitary or a partnered existence, and you are making your decision by weighing the question first from the selfish perspective and then from the unselfish perspective. Is the answer from the unselfish perspective different from the selfish one? If it's not, were you really honest? If it is, which path do you choose? Does your answer to these questions match what you are actually doing? Are you sorry?


Dave said...

I think living alone is easier but living with a partner is more fulfilling.

As to which I'd choose, I would tend toward living alone. Women are too irrational for me to deal with.

michael farris said...

Selfish: living alone
Unselfish: living with a partner

Basically, 99% of the time living with a partner means you should pay attention to them (even if it's only to remind them they're insufficiently concerned with your interests and/or pleasure and get a move on it already).

Starting out with no clue as to which I'd prefer, just having to guess, I assume I'd probably guess for living alone (I'm pretty self-sufficient in most ways) but a more informed choice could only be made after having experienced both states.

But as it turns out, at present I don't live alone and I'm very happy about it.

CB said...

I think the question is ultimately paradoxical and can't be cleanly answered, but here is a part of the analysis: living alone is inefficient and expensive. Any household and its accouterments will serve two or three instead of one with no added expense. So if you are willing to spend more for housing and necessities, does that make you selfish or unselfish?

Truly said...

Being alone is, on balance, much easier than living with someone. If you're looking to take your selfishness a step further into cruelty, having a partner/roommate can be useful for taking out one's frustrations or other forms of mental torture.

This is something that I think gets missed in what our popular culture has geared toward "singleton" women--being single has some really terrific upsides. I love being able to come and go as I please, decorate (or not) as I please, pick up and move to another country when the notion strikes me. Finding a partner entails a significant loss of freedom that chick lit doesn't satisfactorily address.

What brought this question on? Are you looking for a roommate?

Henry said...

You may want to live with a partner for your own selfish purposes.

That's likely to breed conflict.

But if you happen to enjoy conflict, that would be a selfishness bonus.

Dave said...

"here is a part of the analysis: living alone is inefficient and expensive. Any household and its accouterments will serve two or three instead of one with no added expense"

Does that really follow?

My expenses are less now than they were when I was married.

Unknown said...


Ricardo said...

Good question. The answer is somewhat situational (Are you living alone on a beach or in a ghetto? Are you married to Bo Derek or someone really ugly and obnoxious?) But in general, I think the analysis below works:

The answer to both part A (concerned about own pleasures and benefits) and part B (concerned about virtue and service) would seem to come down to "the happier you are, the better you will perform" (both for yourself and others). So the next step is to figure out what will make you happier. Humans (unlike many other animals) are genetically programmed from birth to "learn" from both successes and failures, and to incorporate this learning into their lives. Although it's possible that you can hit on the right answer (living alone, or partnering) purely in the abstract, it is more likely that you will need to "learn" the correct answer by putting yourself into both situations in one degree or answer, and seeing which makes you the happiest. But I think this also answers why older people (even with diminished physical capabilities) are often happier than younger people (with all their superhuman physical and sexual energies). It's because the older people have tried a variety of different things and alternatives, and now know what it takes to make them (1) happy, and (2) productive.

Rendell said...

I think I need a partner both for selfish and unselfish reasons. I'm probably happier and a better person when with a partner.

Likewise, if you're somebody who prefers living alone, you're probably doing the world a favor by doing that. Heh. Or maybe you just need to learn the joys of relationships.

Freeman Hunt said...

I think that living alone covers both ends of the spectrum while living with a partner stands in the middle.

If you want to live life in the extreme of selfishness as an egomaniacal libertine, you'll need to live alone so as to avoid being hampered in your pursuits.

If you want to live a purely unselfish life, devoted to charity and the care of others, you'll also need to live alone so as to avoid being hampered in your pursuits.

With a partner you selfishly form a union that places a single loyalty above loyalties to all others. The union also requires unselfishness to make it workable.

Me, I've greatly preferred my married life to my pre-married singledom. I can be both selfish and unselfish, so I suppose it fits. Do I feel sorry that I am not entirely unselfish? No.

Anonymous said...

Blogger keeps eating my comments! Anyone else have this problem today?

In the meantime, Freeman Hunt got it exactly right. In the abstract, living alone is optimal to both pursuits.

TW Andrews said...

Aren't both "selfish" and "unselfish" concepts which only have meaning in relation to one or more othe people?

How can living alone facilitate an "unselfish" lifestyle? Doesn't that imply someone which you put ahead of yourself?

Likewise with selfishness. It seems that in order to be selfish, you need someone whose needs are subordinate to one's own.

It's hard for me to see that someone living alone, who makes an effort to make themselves happy should be thought of as selfish...

KCFleming said...

Under the totalitarian communist governments of the 20th century, the family was often a target for destruction, precisely because it is a selfish and separate relationship, lessening one's efforts for the communal whole. During the 1960s, radical leftist groups like the Weathermen adopted this approach, forbidding marriage, and demanding group sex or polyamory as against mere couples. People were kicked out for such "offenses".

It rejects the commune for each other, and therefore was rightly recognized as a suspect institution, out of control of the state. Indeed, perhaps the most subversive and selfish thing left to humans is to form a union.

Freeman Hunt is most correct here.

Mr. Magoo said...

This is easy.

Which one do you do, Ann?

Well, there's your answer to Number One.

Maxine Weiss said...

Are these rhetorical questions?

Yeah, doesn't Ann have to answer first?

What about Nuns, they're single, and don't think of themselves as selfish.

Peace, Maxine

Rendell said...


>If you want to live life in the extreme of selfishness as an egomaniacal libertine, you'll need to live alone so as to avoid being hampered in your pursuits.<

Yea, but you're ignoring the fact that I can marry a really rich woman and then use her money to promote my interests.

Marghlar said...

For me, the selfish answer is having a partner, because I prefer it to any other way of living. My marriage is the best part of my life.

However, I would also say that my marriage saps my energy and willingness to throw myself into work, or to devote myself to causes that may be for the public good, but that demand more of my time, demand more travelling and hence separation, or don't enable us to have the lifestyle we enjoy together.

So I'd say that, on balance, marriage is for me a selfish choice, and if I was a perfectly unselfish, utilitarian robot, I'd choose to be alone, because the happiness created by my marriage is probably less than the sum total of happiness that could be created by my spending my life totally devouted to doing good things.

Joan said...

I'm surprised that people view relationships as sapping time and energy. Yes, you do spend time with your partner, but you also have two people managing one household, and theoretically sharing the household responsibilities.

If I lived alone, I'd have to pay the bills, look after my investments, take out the trash, change the A/C filters, and repair the watering system, among all the other things my husband does. If he lived alone, he'd have to do all the shopping, cooking, and laundry that I do. (I'm not even getting into childcare issues, as clearly this question is ignoring the possibility of offspring.)

For both selfish and unselfish reasons, I choose to be partnered.

reader_iam said...


I guess I'm more a "there is a season" type.

Frankly, I think I was both selfish AND unselfish when I lived alone, and I think that's true now, as a married person.

I do think that both the selfishness and unselfishness take different forms, however.

Eli Blake said...

You have to have the yin to have the yang.

The fallacy here is that 'selfish' vs. 'unselfish' is a choice. Perhaps the degree of selfishness is a choice, but in fact to be unselfish you must first be a little big selfish. To take a simple example, if you are committed to be working on an afternoon service project, and have a choice between taking fifteen minutes for lunch or going there directly, which do you choose? I would argue that being selfish (wanting to work fifteen minutes less, as well as stuff your face) or being unselfish (taking fifteen minutes to make sure that you have enough energy and that your hunger won't prevent you from doing the best job you can) lead to the same conclusion: that you eat lunch.

In the same way, even a single person will have physical and psychological needs, and will therefore periodically find a partner even if it is only for a one night stand. And a married person who has had those needs satisfied is better able to focus on helping others outside of the home.

In contrast, look for example at Catholic priests, who take a vow of chastity and are supposed to be 100% committed to unselfishness, and yet in all too many cases we've seen have dabbled in the worst kind of selfishness. Many other religious figures have also had similar problems, in that they commit publically to eschewing physical compulsions, and sooner or later they get caught violating those commitments in a much more egregious way than simply spending time with a mate.

There are of course those who are totally selfish, but like Scrooge in the classic 'A Christmas Carol' it leads them to total misery, which can either lead to a realization that they must be more unselfish, or to even greater misery until they die. If they are alone, they generally stay alone. If not, then the relationship is likely to be negative, miserable and sooner or later end in divorce or the premature death of one of the partners.

In answer then to the question of which relationship is better, I would say with a partner, because then you can satisfy the selfish in each other so that you can each rise to the level of the unselfish.

amba said...

There's really not much to say after Freeman Hunt. She nailed it!

However, marriage demands a different, and in a weird way more difficult kind of unselfishness than Mother Teresa-type philanthropy. There's no glory in it. No sainthood.

Gahrie said...

Selfish: living alone (my actual choice)

Unselfish: getting married and raising children

reader_iam said...

With a partner you selfishly form a union that places a single loyalty above loyalties to all others.

Don't know that it really works that way, as a practical matter, all of the time--or, necessarily, that it should.

Plus that "selfishness," as others noted, can birth an awful lot of unselfishness (and by birth, I'm not trying to coyly suggest children, though that can be true, too.)

Diane said...

Freeman and Eli both have excellent points.

It definitely depends on the personality. When I lived along I was much more selfish and hedonistic. Living with someone and being married for 14 years has made be personally less selfish, but arguable we are still selfish as a couple together (vs. the rest of the world).

Ann Althouse said...

Amba: "However, marriage demands a different, and in a weird way more difficult kind of unselfishness than Mother Teresa-type philanthropy. There's no glory in it. No sainthood."

Some of the unselfishness in marriage is what could be properly called enabling, and even when it isn't, you have to wonder whether it might be. If you're into pure virtue, it's better to go solo. It's purer. The selfishness is purer too. It's more human and impressive, however, to take the impure route of trying to live with someone else.

I asked this series of questions mainly because I remember when women were criticized as selfish if they didn't marry. It's my perception today that people see marriage mainly as meeting basically selfish needs, and seem to forget the traditional notion that it is a way to avoid being selfish. People who are single often feel they are missing out on selfish benefits to be gained in marriage, and don't appreciate the selfish pleasures of singlehood. (This is probably a distinctly female perception.)

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

People who are single often feel they are missing out on selfish benefits to be gained in marriage, and don't appreciate the selfish pleasures of singlehood. (This is probably a distinctly female perception.)

If you're right on the last point (and I think you are) it's not because men are better at being selfish, it's because they're better at being lazy.

Thinking back, that's the biggest thing I miss about my single life. There's a lot more you can let slide when you're single. You work harder when you've got a partner, but as the man said, you give you get, you no give you no get.

Which is the argument for having kids, as well.

Anonymous said...

Ann Althouse said: "If you're into pure virtue, it's better to go solo. It's purer."

This is an excellent point. Think of Superman. He can't marry Lois Lane because he is dedicated to Truth, Justice, and the American Way. He loves Lois, but he knows that he must love humanity more. Remember, in Superman II, he gives up his powers for Lois. This is not selfless, but selfish. By giving up his powers, he leaves the world at the mercy of General Zod.

It's heartbreaking that Superman and Lois can never be. But thank God for it because otherwise we would all be doomed.

I wonder if this why the Catholic Church is so intractable when it comes to clerical celibacy. Perhaps they got the idea from Superman.

Wickedpinto said...

I reconciled myself to a solitary lifestyle a while ago, I knew also at about the same time, that I wasn't marriageable.

Since I'm not Marriagiable, does that make me selfish to isolate myself from others (at least in basic living, cooking, cleaning, waking myself up, doing the shopping and such.) To not latch onto the selfish solace of an in house lover that I wouldn't keep? To only attend the needs of the moment with others who are aware of my transience.

I don't know, in some ways it is.

Personaly, I live alone.
and I do not desire the company of a standing partner. I'm no good in the long term, and thats why.

Hell some of my flightiness has appeared in the comments of this blog. Live with that guy, you think you could? NO!

Peter Hoh said...

My intitial thoughts were expressed by Freeman Hunt. Entering marriage is both selfish and selfless. Those wishing to indulge one extreme or the other would be best advised to remain single.

Ann's reason for posing the question is interesting. Coming of age in the late 70s/early 80s, I never thought that women who didn't marry should be (or even could be) presumed selfish.

Now, it seems to me, men who hesitate to marry are regarded as doing so for selfish reasons. "He won't commit" is darned close to "He's being selfish."

The notion of selfish single women doesn't fit the wider idea that women don't need to be persuaded to marry. A single woman is someone who has yet to find Mr. Right. A single man, on the other hand, is someone who has avoided becoming "ensnared."

Let me suggest tweaking the question a bit. Would you rather be married to a selfish person or a selfless person? Of course being married to a selfish person sounds pretty unpleasant. But when I think about it, being married to a selfless person sounds pretty grim, too.

As for Superman, well, that's another can of worms.
Superman's dilemna is not that loving Lois Lane will make it difficult to serve humanity. Rather, his super powers make it difficult to love Lois Lane.

I suspect that love cannot flourish when there is an imbalance of power between the parties in the relationship.

Wickedpinto said...

Madame Ann's question was deliberately confining in it's nature.

We were give 4 variables, and 2 options, and we had to explain them. This was an educational thought excercise.

At least I think so. Since she's a law prof, she had to set strict rules to see what standard won out.

4 variables, 2 potential answers? no, with 4 variables, thats 23 potential answers, but she set the rules. The point was to understand the variables, and then to make a decision based on the restrictions.

It's like all of the constitutional crap. What is More important? The excercise of speech? or the ways in which speech might intrude on the rights of others.

A classical winner take all excercise, finding a majority concensus (my spelling is sucking) between 2 arguments, even though the ACTUAL number of arguments are much more numerous than the original question.

As a Law Prof, I think she is shrinky dinking us through a self inflicted adversarial definition.

Sorry if I am wrong madam ann, but This is one of my more thoughtful (though not at all well written) comments.

Ann Althouse said...

peter hoh: "The notion of selfish single women doesn't fit the wider idea that women don't need to be persuaded to marry. A single woman is someone who has yet to find Mr. Right. A single man, on the other hand, is someone who has avoided becoming "ensnared.""

Well, I think it is a terrible problem that we've lost the conception of the single women as selfish. It makes women too eager to marry, and it sets up bad relationships, if the man perceives himself to be making a sacrifice and the woman believes she's finally going to get a big package of benefits. Both sexes should be aware of the positive and negative on both sides of the marriage line. For one thing, it's true. For another, it's important to have a sense of equality, especially if you are going to start a partnership. If you don't think you're equal, you should want to remain single -- for both selfish and unselfish reasons. That is, you shouldn't want to go into a relationship as either the winner or the loser.

"Superman's dilemna is not that loving Lois Lane will make it difficult to serve humanity. Rather, his super powers make it difficult to love Lois Lane."

Peter, you're freaking me out. For 40 years, I've been watching this phenomenon of people who spell "dilemma" "dilemna." I did it for a long time (until I noticed it was wrong). So did my ex-husband, and so did quite of few quite smart people I have encountered over the years. My ex and I used to have a theory about it that involved a conspiracy of aliens. What the hell's going on? It's not an ordinary misspelling.

Ann Althouse said...

Wickedpinto: First, "excercise" is a much more boring misspelling than "dilemna." Second, you're right that this was structured like a law school exam. Third, you're wrong if you think formulating a series of questions in law school style is done just to jerk people around. Channeling a discussion can make it more interesting and exciting. Think of a narrowly channeled river as opposed to one with wide banks. The first will give us the more thrilling boat ride.

Peter Hoh said...

Ann, sorry to freak you out with the misspelling of dilemma. I really have no excuse. Not sure of the roots of my misspelling -- I certainly was not aware of it. Although I am not a champion speller, I worked as a proofreader and taught spelling. Alas.

On the last page of my desk dictionary, I've written a list of the words that bedevil me. Consistent or consistant? I can't trust myself to remember which is correct.

When I write (or type) certain words, I can't help but remember the mnemonic tricks I learned or taught. Pronouncing the U in tongue, for instance. Or the professor who expressed his annoyance that people ever misspelled tomorrow with two Ms. "Don't they know it's to the morrow?"

A high school friend of mine jokingly exaggerated the common misspelling of several words, such as et cetera. He would go out of his way to pronounce et cetera as "EK-cetera." Our principal made that error, and Kevin liked making fun of that. I strongly suspect that Kevin pronounced dilemma as "dilem-NA." And instead of catching the joke, I caught the virus.

Ann Althouse said...

Peter, there is also this thing, and I've noticed it for 40 years, of pronouncing the "n" as you note, but I believe this is done by people (aliens) who think the word is spelled "dilemna" and that it's funny to pronounce the silent letter. I know that's what my ex-husband did.

Sally said...

Interesting conundrum.

The answer? Selfish, you'd live with a partner; unselfish, not.

Why? Because, assuming you chose the right one, a partner would add more to your own pleasures and benefits than he/she would detract. Whereas, if you were truly "concerned about virtue and service to others", a partner would distract you more than her/his individual worth as an other would compensate.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Hoh said...

I wonder if Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck (or some other character) emphasized the silent (and absent) N when pronouncing dilemma, and that mispronunciation wormed its way into the culture.

Carlo said...

"imapacted being a medical condition of the bowels - of course

Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

To be thoroughly selfish, you must serve self, and marriage instantly diminishes the attention you can give to yourself. Invariably it will be impossible to bend the other person entirely to your will and make them serve you, and to your satisfaction, without you in turn having to deviate from that satisfaction to reciprocate.

But also, to serve others, you must be single and for the same reason. The marriage will demand a first loyalty to those within the home--the family--and often at the expense of serving others. Those things you might go without, when on your own, might be forced upon you by the spouse, so that instead of giving X amount of dollars to help others, you are instead buying the wife a mini-van or your kids a trampoline.

So in the first instance, it's the family versus you, and in the second instance, it's the family versus "the other".

I believe Paul or someone hanging around in the Bible suggested that one is more effective in doing good, when doing it single, though, if your loins are burning, well, go ahead and shack up.

What cannot be accurately accounted for is the question of whether the combined capabilities of two people will offer greater good than the individuals alone.

So the question is not whether you will be more effective, more able to help others, and with more resources, when married, but rather, will the combined effort of two people be more than the individual efforts of those two people.

The answer is not so much as "Oh, I am married, more energized and thus I get more done for others". We have to see if BOTH people actually do more. Or rather, does the PORTION you are responsible for (when married) outweigh the good you would have done alone.

(For too often people compare the combined marital output of good to the good they might have done if single, ignoring the spouses "singlehood" statistics).

That is all hard to calculate. I remember reading some study that suggested that as scientists married, their level of output deteriorated. I suspect that the passion that marks the beginning of a marital situation saps the energy that would be applied to the outside world, with efforts focused on securing the marital unit (opting for money over the greater good, for example) at the expense of wider world.

I am single, and in my head I want to do good for the world, and my situation should be ideal with no wife and kids to hinder me. But alas, I have bad habits (food, lack of doing what I know to do), so the things I know to do, and want to do, and am in a position to theoretically do, as a single person, I do not otherwise do.

I am a slave of my selfish nature, dreaming of being free to help others. My mind is concerned with virtue, but my heart is selfish, and I am at war in my own body.

Ann Althouse said...

Finn: It's quite possible that getting into a situation where you don't have to think about yourself so much will serve your selfish interests. Single people can be selfish in a self-absorbed or negative way that isn't really pleasurable. Many single people go around thinking they aren't lovable. They reinforce their singlehood by mulling over the idea that they have too many quirky ways and bad habits for someone else to be able to live with them. They might be far happier if they just had someone around to demonstrate the opposite, that they are loved and they can be lived with. Then they could think about something else -- or someone else. That might be much more pleasurable. They could feel good about caring about someone else too -- which would be a selfish pleasure. I tend to think the sum total of selfish and unselfish benefits is greater in a relationship.

Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

Ann, you might be right in terms of self-hating single people being quite unhappy in their "singleness", though that factor might be offset by any number of mindsets created by the marital condition.

That is, if that quirky self-hating single person manages to marry, he realizes he can in fact be loved and is happier. However, that burst of joy is offset by new complications: arguments over money or sex, increased bills and responsibilities, having to put the toilet seat back down, moving here or there for the spouses career, falling in lust with a co-worker or barista at Starbucks.

I suspect it is really impossible to calculate though, because so many factors can offset each other. I do think it is better for people to have someone though, and if one wants to reach the heights of altruism, when married or attached, one can do so if that is the resolve.

While I believe that being single lets you "will to power" in any direction (for good or evil) and easier than if married, I think reality strips that fact of some of its accuracy, given the variabilty among people.

Ann Althouse said...

There just aren't enough people who, when keeping single, go to heights of altruism. Marriage, especially with children, forces some midlevel altruism on people, and it's an achievable kind of virtue, even as it's full of selfish aspects. It's also more grounded in reality. This idea of a single person with a "will to power" -- I'm not betting on that coming out well. I'm not seeing many examples of that in real life. I think most single people are either enjoying the selfish pleasures of singlehood or not doing very well. That said, some of the very best people in the history of the world have been single, altruistic types. But American culture does almost nothing to encourage that sort of behavior (outside of the Catholic Church).

Jen Bradford said...

I'm forty and single, and would say that in a daily way I'm generally pretty selfish. Not self-absorbed, necessarily, but my meals, sleep schedule, dishwashing (or not), reading time, remote control, and music selection are usually down to yours truly.

At the same time, it's gratifying to be in a position to be there for friends (and their kids) during illnesses and emergencies in ways that wouldn't be possible if I had family obligations of my own. I just got back from that sort of trip, which I probably wouldn't have offered to make otherwise. I would have said, "well, if there's anything I can do..." (heavy on the ellipses), not "Say the word and I can be there in five hours."

It balances out.

Melissa Clouthier said...

A girlfriend of mine lives essentially in a parallel universe to mine. We are very much alike in personality, education and profession with similar hobbies and interests. The only difference (besides age) is marriage status. She is single. I am married.

On a visit a few years back, I marvelled at her freedom. She ate what, when and how she wanted. She left dishes in the sink. She had a huge library where I had many books, but must hem in my habit. She has everything she wants, when she wants it.

I asked her if she'd ever get married. "I'm never doing a man's laundry," she said. Yet, she was so lonely. And in her older-middle age, alone. She had a serious injury and had no one besides friends to lean on and that was tough.

I came home from the trip. Quit complaining (as much) and promptly got pregnant with #3. The alternative life I dreamed of (my way, all the time)seemed emptier than I had imagined.

So some of my way gets mutated into his way or our way or the kid's way. Ultimately, I think the unselfishness of marriage over singleness yields more satisfaction. Isn't that selfish?

Jen Bradford said...

Yet, she was so lonely. And in her older-middle age, alone.

But there are levels of loneliness. I've been very happy with a partner, but have also been far lonelier in a clunker relationship than I am on my own. And I think I've been more selfish (and self-absorbed) at times when I've tried to "make it work" with the wrong man.

The times I've been most needed by friends had largely to do with the fact that their husbands found it hard to handle their need to talk through a trauma/illness/death. That can be lonely also. But in a daily way, I'd say they're probably more satisfied and less neurotic than me.

Maxine Weiss said...

Wicked: Is "marriagiable" a word?

I think it's "marriageable"---but it still sounds strange. Not exactly one of those words that rolls off the tongue.

How about "marriage material"?

By the way, I like a river with a wide channel because I like to sway and drift. I don't think a narrow channel will allow for that.

And, I don't always need my boat rides to be "thrilling".

I like serenity more than thrills.

Peace, Maxine

Anonymous said...

i prefer to live with a partner or even somebody to live with me than live all alone. i'm not a selfish person. the feeling that sharing gives is comparable to nothing.a frien of mine from wealthymendotcom inspired me more on giving without expecting nothing in the end.he's blessed with more compared to others but he exemplifies a good value.