Ethics & Public Policy Center

People and Their Relationships

Published in Public Discourse on March 12, 2020


I believe we create human relationships out of necessity and desire. We create relationships for utility, for pleasure, and for virtue. We create them for specific, common goals. Mostly, we create relationships because we are communal by our very nature, seeking to be with others for the sake of being with others.

Understanding why and how people build relationships helps us understand institutions and communities, and thereby how to strengthen them when they are fragile or broken. Today, in Western societies, our understanding of relationships and relationship-building relies not only on a distorted understanding of the human person, but also on an incomplete and faulty premise of sociology, promulgated by José Ortega y Gasset and others who thought like him: people do not come together to be together, they come together to do something together. This is a sort of reformulation of the philosophies of social contract theory. This is not a misreading of Gasset, who vacillates between saying that man “is social in his most intimate texture,” and yet that “living is always, ceaselessly, restlessly, a doing.” The doing for Ortega and other existentialists is what to be means.

When Western people form relationships today, too often those relationships are based (consciously or unconsciously) on this principle of doing—and, moreover, doing elective activities. These activities can be oriented toward pleasure-seeking, or toward a practical and utilitarian end. When this is how relationships are seen, forming relationships becomes a choice; and it is a choice like any other choice a person can make for themselves based on their desires and interests.

This type of thinking is in the air we breathe. It usually goes unnoticed, because it is an unquestioned assumption—unless you have been formed within a culture with a different view of human persons and their relationships. Even my friend and former colleague, the ever-insightful Yuval Levin, seems to accept this transactional understanding of relationships. In fact, it plays a foundational role in his newest book, A Time to Build. There, Levin writes, “institutions take shape and endure because they serve a practical purpose in people’s lives—often what we would now think of as an economic or political purpose, though at times also more of a spiritual, social, or cultural purpose,” (emphasis mine). This appears to neglect purposes for togetherness that may seem impractical, frivolous, or even counterproductive. It’s not that Yuval doesn’t understand or believe in the intrinsically communal nature of the human person. My concern is that, in what may become a consequential book, where he has the platform to influence, he did not go far enough on such a fundamental property of institutions, treating “spiritual, social, or cultural” purposes almost as an afterthought.

The fact that those who actively work in this area think in this way is a problem. The diagnosis offered by Levin is correct: we are fragmented and bitter, our institutions have failed and are failing. All have failed all—and we are weary. We need solidarity—a sense of responsibility for others—in all our relationships, across all our institutions. This solidarity can only grow when we realize that we need other people, and that they need us too: not only for the purpose aimed at by our practical needs, but rather for the deeper and more fundamental need humans have for other humans—for togetherness, for presence. Out of this grows our sense of responsibility, and therefore our sense that we ought to participate with others in the doing of things. But we’re never going to get anywhere on these issues until we reject the principle that relationships are fundamentally transactional.

Chosen versus Unchosen Relationships

There is a great gap between unchosen and chosen associations. Sadly, our society continues to spurn the former and espouse the latter. Even among conservatives, the answers to questions like:“How can we get people to stay married?”—“How do we persuade adults to take care of the elderly in their midst?”—“How can we convince employees and employers that they have a responsibility to each other and to the company?”—“How do we get our leaders to take their role of governing seriously?”—“How do we hold our religious leaders accountable?—“How can we convince the average person to make and keep any commitment at all, even if that person has little to gain?”—depend upon the principle of transactional relationships, which often leads—often unintentionally—to elevating and emphasizing the action of choice. And so the thinking goes, if we can somehow convince people that this choice is better, or more noble, than this other choice, we can show them that it’s worth it for them to choose a selfless commitment.

All of us begin life within concentric, unchosen relationships: we are born into a family, a kinship, a city, a nation, a heritage not of our choosing. Today, in the movement from unchosen to chosen associations, something has broken down. Acting under this faulty formulation of relationships and relationship building, we have undermined our ability to act in chosen relationships because of the overall cultural diminishing of unchosen relationships. Gasset’s formulation has flooded the system, making us believe that these practical chosen relationships are all that is valuable. Believing that, we continue to undervalue and diminish the unchosen relationship. When we diminish the value of unchosen relationships, we resist submitting to them; without submitting to them we are unformed, and therefore unfit for the exercise of chosen relationship building. There is a logic to the system. If persons do not learn loyalty and submission within unchosen associations, how will they hold on to their chosen associations? If the driving force is “to do something together,” what happens when people aren’t capable of doing something with other people? What if they don’t want to?—or they don’t see the point of it all?—or they are born into a situation where there are very few choices, or no choices at all?

Institutions are composed of people who have relationships with one another. Of course, some of these relationships are voluntary, entered into by choice. But, in another sense, they are at the same time also involuntary, because the human person by his very nature is driven to be with another person. Contra Gasset and all the rest, people do come together simply to be togetherThat social aspect of the human person is intrinsic to the human being. He is driven by his very nature to seek others for the sake of being in community with them. Without this fundamental understanding of the human person, people become commodities to be bought, sold, exchanged, and returned—to be chosen and then unchosen, to be used and then discarded. When the principle of relationships and relationship-building is based on a vision of the human person as an atomized choice-maker who forms bonds only for his or her benefit, we should not wonder why institutions decay. That is not to say there is no distinction between different types of associations—relationships formed to do something together; relationships sought for pleasure; relationships built for advantage. My point is not that relationships are only for the sake of being in community, but rather that being comes before doing, and thereby (with Aristotle) I stress that these relationships are more noble. It is these relationships that are neglected in our society; it is these relationships that help us become better at chosen associations.

I have known several families who moved across the country to join Benedict Option–style communities—leaving their churches, friends, parents, grandparents, and other family members behind. These were Christian families who praised multigenerational living and emphasized the importance of passing down their faith and heritage. Even those who claimed to believe in institutions could not tough out less-than-ideal circumstances in order to model institutionalism for their children.

The Failure of Institutions

There are four reasons why rebuilding institutions in our time and in our country is especially difficult: our existential homelessness (the unmooring that leads to despair, anxiety, loneliness and isolation), and our societal resistance to hierarchy, differentiation, and exclusion. (I examine these in greater detail in my forthcoming book Statue of Libertine.)

Institutions require hierarchy, differentiation, and exclusion. Without these three elements, an institution is not an institution. These same elements are also the bête noir of our modern society. After all, we live in a country that began with colonial slogans exclaiming, “We Serve No Sovereign Here!” Since that time, Americans slowly and steadily dismantled hierarchical structures, thereby weakening and dissolving institutions. And through ever more radical egalitarianism, our society continues to reduce differentiation and exclusion of any kind.

Life within institutions used to be organic. It was part of being born into this world, growing up and living within it. Living in, with, and interacting with the world took place through institutions. That required submitting to authority, giving up some independence, accepting some limits on liberty, and sometimes it meant coping with unhealthy or corrupt associations. Rarely was it conceivable to opt out, or to choose if and to what extent to associate within the world we are born into. That is no longer the case in America. Almost all associations, including the familial—even the most physical and basic relationship of mother and baby in the womb—are now within the purview of choice. The dictatorship of choice rules over everything in American life, making it very difficult for parents to pass on to their children a patrimony. Discarded are the family’s inherited customs and manners, religious beliefs, religious and cultural traditions, commitment to a particular place and community, family ethos, and preferred vocation (e.g. factory work, military, trades, or family businesses).

Until we are ready to submit to something outside ourselves and embrace unchosen obligations, things will not improve. We have gone through generations of this lesson’s being taught weakly, if at all, and we have neglected the formation of ourselves and our progeny. We have produced a society that is no longer in the habit and discipline of committing to and submitting to institutions—one that doesn’t see this as necessary for a life well lived.

Man’s Relation to God

Also in A Time to Build, Levin observes, “America has a long tradition of anti-institutionalism, rooted in our Protestant culture, in our liberal individualism, and in our cult of authenticity.” Still, he sees this tradition as merely problematic, rather than pathological or fatal. He believes that the redemption of our institutions can come through religious conviction. He writes, and I agree, that:

A recovery of institutional responsibility throughout our society would need to involve a kind of devotion, even submission, to institutional formation that is simply most likely to emerge from our experience of religious formation. And a recovery of the ethic of community, too, stands the best chance of beginning in the kinds of communities that first form out of common religious convictions. . . . The fact is that an attractive community, which plainly provides a venue for genuine flourishing, can change minds far better than an argument can. A way of life can be persuasive, even when we seem unable to persuade each other of much. But such community requires healthy institutions that attract our loyalty and devotion.

This is the paradox: we know we would benefit from cultivating strong, binding, unchosen relationships, and therefore this should be an attractive and compelling choice. When we believe this, however, it is usually only in the abstract. We might agree that “submission to unchosen relationships” is essential, yet we recoil at the concrete: going to Aunt Myrtle’s every Saturday for potato casserole and tea in the parlor. Moreover, we cannot impose or enforce such obligations on others using the tools of liberal democracy, and so we are left with options fundamentally rooted in marketplace metaphors. Historically, such obligations, and the impetus to socially enforce them, have come from religion. All our senses of duty and obligation flowed from who we were in our relationship to God: created by Him, in His image as communal in essence. Our institutions are in crisis because we are in an identity crisis. They are performative rather than formative because we are so, seeking to be honored by men rather than to honor others. They are anemic because our hearts and minds are weak. They are broken down because we did not become builders and givers but takers and destroyers. Even Aristotle’s friendship of utility acknowledges that there is a natural building and giving, even if it doesn’t directly aid oneself. Unfortunately, we are incapable even of that.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate:

In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfillment of humanity’s right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person; it needs God: without him, development is either denied or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. (Emphasis mine.)

Our institutions are failing because they do not have God. They don’t have God because, over the course of history, we decided man doesn’t need God, man can work with man on the purely horizontal plane through the competition of desires, and that would be enough to produce all the necessary cooperation for our needs. The transactional vision of the human person is bankrupt.

Like so many solutions to life’s problems, here too the response is multilayered and requires simultaneous action. Lately many have spoken of the need to recover, re-articulate, and rebuild on first principles. For example, Oren Cass in an interview about the launching of American Compass, a new organization aiming to re-orient the conservative economic vision, spoke of the importance of returning to first principles. When Yuval launched his new department at AEI he also emphasized that one of its goals is to study and restate foundational principles. I join their chorus.

Along with this is another type of work, one that is particular and more inward: the personal renewing of the heart and mind of individual people; a New Awakening as my friend and colleague George Weigel has called for; a turning toward God coupled with a rejection of the false anthropology we have been living out of. The goal of Christians is not and should not be “world domination, but the service of God,” as Cardinal Robert Sarah has said. However, “a society permeated by the Faith, the Gospel, and natural law is something desirable. It is the job of the lay faithful to construct it.” So yes, we work toward a just society, not so we can make life more comfortable for ourselves, but for the sake of others. Our aim is to attend to the good as we see it in others; it is the “development of each man and of the whole man.” But we begin, as we begin other endeavors, by “mobiliz[ing] ourselves at the level of the ‘heart.’”

Luma Simms, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies the life and thought of immigrants. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including National Affairs, Law and Liberty, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Institute for Family Studies, and others.

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