Wrong to leave? ARRs and Moral Obligations
by David Deutsch

Originally posted on the Autonomy Respecting Relationships list

[A claim was made that it can be wrong to leave a relationship. A poster responded that they did not understand how it could be wrong, since it is wrong to make people do things against their will. David Deutsch responds below]

Well "wrong about leaving a relationship" has several possible meanings, not all of which entail "it is right to force them not to leave".

A sportsman and his coach have been together for some time. They started out with high hopes and initially achieved great improvements in the sportsman's performance and results, using the coach's innovative training ideas. They worked together perfectly, but recently their relationship has cooled. The sportsman is no longer improving. He is beginning to believe that the coach's idiosyncratic approach may have no more to offer him, and that the enormous effort he is putting into training according to it may no longer be having any effect. In fact he is beginning to doubt that it *ever* had any effect. Just ordinary practice and working out, plus his own talent, would have achieved the same. Perhaps what he needs is a coach who really does have valuable new knowledge. And the clock is ticking. He won't be in the prime of sporting life for ever. He has already given the best years of his career to this coach, but if all he can ever achieve with him is minor successes, now fading...

So he decides to leave and find a new coach. The old coach is devastated. He too has devoted the best years of his coaching career to this relationship.

His view is: Yes, there have been problems recently, but fundamentally, there is no reason for despair. The Olympic gold is just round the corner, if only the sportsman can somehow find it within himself not to lose confidence, and to devote the same enthusiasm to the special training as he did in the early years.

Of course, the sportsman has an absolute right to choose his own coach, using whatever criteria he likes. And it would be very wrong to regard him as having any sort of obligation to stay with the coach if he doesn't want to, for whatever reason. And it would be very wrong of either of them, at the beginning of their relationship or at any subsequent time, to consider entering into any sort of agreement, legal or moral, that the sportsman will stay with that coach for his whole career. (Or that the coach will stay with the sportsman -- though it may be wrong of him to leave at certain crucial moments, say the day before an important sporting event where the sportsman has been relying on his support. Likewise it may be wrong of the sportman to sack the coach at certain crucial moments, say just after winning the gold, and so deprive him of his longed-for seat at the celebration banquet.)

However, there is another thing that might be described as "he is wrong to leave", which is this: as a matter of fact, it may be that the coach's methods have been working and will work if continued enthusiastically. It may be that the sportsman's lack of success recently has been simple bad luck, compounded by a sudden loss of self-confidence which was itself caused by a childhood hangup (not by the coach), but which would itself be cured by a combination of the coach's training methods and the success which would follow. His view of the coach is not just mistaken but unfair -- it is only his own hangup that is making him misinterpret the coach's past and future value to him. The coach has done nothing to merit this bad opinion -- on the contrary.

A friend might see all this. And if the sportsman went to him and asked for advice, the friend might say: "you'd be very wrong to leave; you have no justification for hurting him in this way; you'd be doing wrong to him as well as harming yourself; I say, stick with it for all you're worth, and it'll come right.".

And the sportsman might reply "but how can I be wrong to leave? Don't I have a perfect right to choose any coach I like at a moment's notice?"

And the friend would say: "Yes you do, but that's not what you asked me, and that's not what my answer was about. Note that you also have a perfect right *not* to leave him."