After an epically bad day, the first sign of relief can be texting your partner to come over and console you—if your partner is someone who prioritizes your feelings. "I had a terrible day," you say "but you being here will make it better."
Turns out your partner can't come over though. They're making sandwiches for unhoused folks in the park—but maybe they can see you tomorrow after their volunteer shift at the free clinic.
While you admire their drive to make the world a better place, what you really want right now is for them to make your couch a better place.
Your partner’s brand of do-gooding is what philosophers call consequentialism.
A consequentialist is a person who determines if an action is right or wrong depending on its outcome. The best outcome for a consequentialist is the one that does the most good for the most people. That’s why your consequentialist partner thinks handing out sandwiches, an act that will help many is a better choice than coming over to snuggle you, an act that’ll help one.
According to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people don’t want a consequentialist as a partner. The study, which asked 192 participants to evaluate fictional characters making a choice between helping either one family member or a group of strangers, found that consequentialists are seen as less warm, moral, and trustworthy, and are less desirable as partners and friends.
The opposite of a do-gooder or consequentialist is a deontologist.
Deontologists, on the other hand, were found to be preferred partners and friends as they prioritize their loved ones. They also believe we shouldn’t treat people as a means to an end, ignoring their rights, desires, needs, and autonomy. A deontologist would come over instead of handing out sandwiches, even though that doesn’t do the most good for the world as a whole.
The study’s finding is interesting, but they aren’t really intended to have implications for everyday life. The authors simply wanted to know what the social consequences of being a consequentialist are; they weren’t making any concrete suggestions about partner choice or suggesting people should or shouldn’t date consequentialists. They wouldn’t tell you to dump your partner for handing out sandwiches instead of coming over.
But the study does spark some interesting questions about how we choose partners whose values align (or don’t) with ours, how we might respond when there’s a mismatch, and how we make decisions in relationships while also considering the impact our actions have on people in our lives, communities, and the world.
You’re probably not discussing moral philosophy with your sweetie (or maybe you’re kinky for ethics), so you probably haven’t discussed whether they’re a consequentialist or a deontologist. But you probably have had plenty of chances to observe how they behave toward you and others and how that behavior makes you feel.
How you feel matters more than whether your partner is a consequentialist or deontologist.
“We have these outward values of love, respect, altruism, helping people in need. And then we have inward-facing values that determine how we treat our partners,” relationship expert Jenny Glick, tells O.school “I’m all about 'celebrate diversity' until she plants the flower beds differently than I would or he doesn’t load the dishwasher the 'right' way.’”
We’ve all experienced some version of this. Our partners get the worst of us sometimes while the rest of the world gets our best, and it’s this mismatch between how we say we want to treat people and what actually comes out in our intimate relationships that can be the ground for some of the juiciest work on ourselves and our partnerships.
Jenny says, ”How do we bring alignment in those moments when we feel depleted — which is when our humanity comes forward — and we get to really wrestle and do the rigorous work of growing ourselves up. When I’ve closed the gap between my internal values and how I show up at work, in my activism, with my loved ones, when I’m alone– that’s when I love myself enough to show up fully.”
Maybe one of the things you love most about your partner is that they want to make sandwiches to give out in the park, and you also need them to come snuggle you. We contain multitudes. There’s no reason you can’t have both.