Love and Autonomy

I’m writing this post after a rather exhausting day toddler marshalling, so apologies for any errors.

Earlier today I posted a link to my draft paper: Love, Plural Subjects & Normative Constraint on twitter which triggered an interesting response from Yvonne Aburrow which she wrote up on her blog: “We”, or “I and thou”?.

In my paper I claim that part of what it is to be in a committed romantic relationship is to become a plural subject, a ‘we‘, with your partner. I take myself as defending Margaret Gilbert’s notion that being in such a we involves direct normative constraint by the ‘plural will’ against Andrea Westlund’s notion that it is an evolving framework requiring continuous recommitment.1

Aburrow raises the important question of the relationship between autonomy & the notion of being a ‘we‘. She, correctly, points out that apparent unity can mask the domination of one over another:

” The trouble with a heterosexual “we” is that it is all too likely that the woman’s subjectivity and autonomy is subsumed in that of the man.”2

This I take to be a real problem, it is a problem that Andrea Westlund is keen to deal with in her paper ‘The Reunion of Marriage‘ (which my draft paper is an attempted response to). Westlund quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s description of the ‘dark side of love’:

” ‘I am Heathcliffe’, says Catherine in Wuthering Hights; that is the cry of every woman in love; is is another incarnation of her loved one, his reflection, his double: She is he”3

Here the autonomy of one partner (the woman) is subsumed by the autonomy of the other (the man).4 We might worry that, even in a post-sexist world, where men had no systematic relationship of domination over woman, talk of a unified we must necessarily privileged one view or another.

Why?: Well, given that each individual is in fact distinct, we might argue that, reference to a singular thing (‘our view’, ‘our action’, ‘our perspective’ etc.) must in fact always just really be a reference to whichever is the dominating individual. This appears to me be implied in Aburrow’s blog post, for example when she says:

” I am in a relationship with another person, and I say “We think x, y, and z” then I presume to speak for my partner. … if someone invites us to dinner, or away for a weekend, I think that I can accept on my own behalf, but not necessarily on behalf of my partner.”

On such a view if Mary and Jane are in a relationship then all this means that there is Jane’s view and Mary’s view and any view expressed as of the we which they form is in fact just the view of which ever of them is dominating.

While I think that the worry about power relations and domination is a real one, I reject what we might call, in an ontological sense, the individualism of the above argument. It seems to me that Gilbert is right to think that there is in a real sense a third perspective, the perspective of the we. This exists not in the mind of some spooky super agent but rather comes about through the joining (or as I prefer entangling) of the wills of the individuals.

On this view if Jane says “We think X” she is not necessarily either giving her view or Mary’s view, but rather she may be giving the view that genuinely counts as their joint view. This joint view may have been created by them in a situation of complete reciprocity & democracy or it may have been created in a situation of domination. The former is clearly morally better than the latter; the later ought not to be their plural view. However, this doesn’t change the fact that there is a genuine plural subjectivity in both cases.


  1. Aburrow (2012) “We”, or “I and thou”? The Stroppy Rabbit (blog)
  2. Beauvior (1989) The Second Sex
  3. Westlund (2008) sees the solution to this problem as requiring the building in of ‘mutual answerablity’ into the very conception of plural subjectivity. The Reunion of Marrage

About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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One Response to Love and Autonomy

  1. Interesting. I am not saying that the “we” is always a result of the view of one partner dominating that of the other. I just think it sometimes happens that way, and it is something that ought to be guarded against.

    I have frequently experienced moments of the “entangling of wills” that you describe – nice phrase. Because one spends time discussing things with one’s partner, one is bound to reach some sort of consensus, or a view in which each has adopted ideas from the other. After all, one was probably attracted the other in the first place because of a similarity of outlooks on life (unless one enjoys being constantly challenged by a contrary view).

    So the entangling of wills is not at all a bad thing provided it is done in the context of intersubjectivity (both parties being seen as subjects by each other). My problem is when the we is assumed without thinking, instead of negotiated.

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