Comedienne Margaret Cho opened my eyes to modern “transactional relationships” in her early-2000’s show “I’m the One that I Want.” Cho glibly compares being in a live-in relationship to being a “very cheap prostitute“—a series of trades to get everyone’s chores finished. (I think the full clip is here.)
The first time I explored the idea of relationships as transactional was at the tender age of 15 when I read Atlas Shrugged. Objectivism requires tangible returns for each and every action. When I learned more about Rand’s personal life—a lonely existence fraught with infidelity and hypocrisy—I dropped her philosophy as impossible or, at the very least, miserable.
As I get older and meet people seasoned with various sets of bitter herbs, I wonder whether Margaret Cho and Rand are right. But what an unhappy approach! Whatever happened to gallantry, courtship, and love?
I understand the “transaction” mentality. I’ve long considered the question “Do you believe relationships are inherently transactional?” among those critical life-defining questions each person must answer for herself. Though I emphatically reject a transactional lifestyle, I’m always interested to redefine the terms, or indeed, to learn more about what people mean when they answer that life question in the affirmative.
For the record, my take on the “transaction” question falls somewhat into my “optimist” paradigm: Be good, and goodness will come back. I embraced the idea of “karma” (the idea that life is a series of opposite but equal actions and reactions) fully three years ago while walking my roommate’s dogs. She kept three dogs in her posh townhouse, and we always took two out on leashes and let Winston the standard poodle run to do his thing in private. I opened the door to let Winston out, following barefoot like a redneck behind with the two leashed smaller dogs.
After about two blocks I heard someone angrily calling for Winston and ready to confront me. I was in no mood to deal with angry neighbors—they weren’t even my dogs!—so I pretended I didn’t hear and rounded the corner to walk back on the grass. No doubt the neighbor had caught Winston doing his business on her lawn, and as she chased me home Winston bounded by towards our porch. I took one more step, and *splat*—landed, barefoot, in precisely the business that angry neighbor wanted to prevent.
And that, kiddos, is how I learned to be respectful to my neighbors and to pick up my dog’s crap even if it wasn’t necessarily my job. I’d much rather believe in interpersonal “interest”—being nice and hoping it will come back in droves, even if the return isn’t imminent or certain—than promote a meager dollar-for-dollar (or barren quid pro quo) emotional trade.
All of that said, I liked The Atlantic blog’s look at dogs as transactional parasites. My parents brought a puppy home for my brother and me when I was about two years old, ostensibly to teach us responsibility and kindness. Robert Wright’s take below suggests another excuse for young families to keep a pet; namely to teach kids not to pull even tempting puppy tails, and to love simply for the joy of love, rather than expecting some requisite toll in return:
Apparently we don’t have to worry about Jonah Goldberg writing a book called “Canine Fascism.” Turns out he loves dogs—and indeed approaches liberal levels of sappiness in talking about them. I love dogs too (especially Frazier). But I must take issue with Jonah’s formulation of a question that, he says, is now raging in philosophy-of-dog circles: Are dogs “social parasites” or do they “actually love you”? Putting the question this way suggests that Jonah may be confused about doggy love—and, indeed, about person love. I’m here to help!
With all due respect for the intelligence of Jonah’s dog, I doubt he/she is consciously choosing to be a parasite. Then again, you may say, neither is a tapeworm—but it’s still a parasite. Exactly my point! Parasites can be parasites without any awareness of the fact. Parasitism is a behavioral relationship—profiting at the expense of the host–not a state of mind. So in principle Jonah’s dog (in contrast, by the way, to the average liberal) could be feeling deep love for Jonah even while harming him.
In fact, in principle the love felt by the dog could be something evolution built into dogs as a way to aid in the parasitization of people. After all, any good Darwinian would expect animals to feel love when it is in their interest (or, strictly speaking, the interest of their genes) to feel love—regardless of whether it is in the interest of the animal being loved.
I suspect the historical relationship between dogs and humans has been mutualistic, not parasitic; humans have probably been pragmatic in choosing what kinds of dogs to associate with during dog-human co-evolution, thus keeping wantonly exploitative tendencies out of the canine gene pool. (If anything, the parasitism has probably worked in the other direction.)
And as for the question of whether, evolutionary history aside, the average dog is now parasitic upon its owner: Well, these days we own dogs mainly for the joy they bring us, not to warn us about wild animals. So the question is simple: Does your dog bring you more joy than pain? With Frazier that’s a no-brainer (unlike Frazier himself, I hasten to add!). I’ll let Jonah speak for his dog.
And as for the implications of this Darwinian view of love for human-on-human affection: Well, it turns out I don’t have time to get into that. But that’s probably just as well. The last thing I want to plant in the mind of Jonah or any other married person is the idea that their spouse could feel love for them yet be exploiting them. Best not to think about it.