On Philosophy

May 5, 2007

Freedom From Desire

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

As I understand it the good life (a life worth living) is one in which the desires of the person living it are satisfied. Which requires of course that the person’s desires not be in direct conflict with each other, and not be self-defeating. Thus in one sense it is irrational to seek freedom from desire; having desires that are satisfied is what makes life worth living, so someone who ignored all their desires would be living the good life. But not all desires are equally worth satisfying or trying to satisfy. Of course something that is desired less strongly should have less resources devoted to its satisfaction. But desires that are fleeting are also not worth satisfying, in most cases.

We might be tempted to call such fleeting desires passions, but I think to label them as such would be to draw a misleading distinction. It is not the case that we have a clear-cut division between fleeting desires and stable ones. Instead we have a continuous spectrum of desires that persist for different amounts of time, from those that persist for an entire lifetime to those that persist only for moments. I advocate trying to be free from (be unmotivated by) passions when it is properly understood, as an attempt to ignore those desires that are short-lived and to favor more stable desires over less stable ones in most cases. However I will not describe it in those terms, because they imply that there is some simple way to categorize our desires so that we can keep one set as worth following and discard the other, which is not the case.

Of course I haven’t yet said why we should try to ignore these unstable desires. Consider then what it means to live a life in which your desires are satisfied. This doesn’t mean that at some special point, such as the end, that you feel your desires to have been satisfied. Rather it means that for all, or most, of your life, you feel that your desires have been, or are being, satisfied. I claim that trying to satisfy all of your feeling desires would frustrate this goal, leading to a life that does not, overall, have its desires satisfied. The reasoning behind this is best illustrated with an example. Consider a hypothetical person, me, with two desires. One is a stable desire to do some interesting philosophy every day*. And another is a fleeting desire to take a nap and then watch TV for the rest of the day. Let us further suppose that I desire the second more strongly, at least for today. Now if I didn’t resist my fleeting desire then I would in fact take a nap, and not get any work done. But that desire would be gone the next day. And the next day, and for some days after that, I would feel that my desire to do some interesting philosophy each day has not been satisfied, because of the day that I took off. So for the day in which I gave in to my fleeting desire I would be more satisfied, but in total, over the next days I would be unsatisfied. In contrast if I ignored my fleeting desire I might be partially unsatisfied for that one day, but I would be satisfied in the days to come.

Of course the example I have given is so clear partly because it involves incompatible desires. And incompatible desires can never work, no matter how permanent or fleeting they are. The conclusion does still hold for compatible desires, it just isn’t as easy to illustrate. It holds because devoting some resources to a fleeting desire reduces the resources you can devote to a more stable desire. Thus that stable desire will be less satisfied that day and in the days to come, giving you less total satisfaction, since ignoring the fleeting desire only reduces your satisfaction for that particular day.

Naturally looking at the situation in more realistic terms reveals that there may be times in which it is worthwhile to satisfy a fleeting desire, if that desire is strong enough, will persist long enough, or doesn’t significantly take away from satisfying more persistent desires. This is why I opposed simply splitting desires into passions and desires, as mentioned above, because the boundaries between which desires are worth satisfying and which should be resisted are ill-defined. But, even so, there are many cases in which it is best to ignore a fleeting desire, and the briefer the desire the more likely that it should be ignored. It is these desires we should want to be free from (to be able to ignore).

Now even though it may occasionally make sense to satisfy a fleeting desire I think that it is a good rule of thumb to try to ignore as many of them as possible. This is because almost everyone is bad at making a rational evaluation of what they should do when they are in the grip of some fleeting desire. If you are open to the idea that fleeting desires can be justified then every fleeting desire will motivate you to generate some justification. But often this justification will be a poor one, and bad choices will be made which will lead to short-term satisfaction at the expense of long-term satisfaction. So instead it is better to deny every fleeting desire until all your stable desires have been satisfied, and only then give into your fleeting desires, when they can no longer frustrate your stable desires.

And now I’m off to catch a nap and then some TV.

* But what about the first of the month? I write something then too, I just don’t publish it. It goes into a queue of posts I have, and I just select the one I like best each day.

Advertisements

10 Comments

  1. What about the fleeting desire to do something good? People who have bad habits yet feel guilty about this fact will often times feel a desire to do something to try and break out of those habits…people who are overweight can feel fleeting desires to exercise (fleeting because normally this desire is not felt strongly enough for it to take hold of someone).

    The “rule of thumb” to try to resist desires based on their “fleetingness” (and when in the midst of such a desire, how do you know it will be fleeting anyways? from the past? is the rule of thumb not just that “change is bad”?) is an atrocious one for two reasons:

    1. The aforementioned bad habit example, and, more importantly/intriniscally,

    B. It substitutes empty guidelines for real and genuine decision making. If we have learned anything from Socrates (and his foundational effect upon philosophy as a whole), it is that we are CONSTANTLY in danger of falling into the trap of confusing going by principles for what is really going on, which is just adhering to whatever gives us the most comfort. Thus, the approach to ethics of having empty “rules of thumb” is that they end up producing the very problem you are seeking to avoid, which is sticking with the pleasurable over making hard but correct ethical choices. Constant self-evaluation is our only defense against banality and its many consequences.

    Comment by Brian — May 5, 2007 @ 11:35 pm

  2. Your example relies on assumption that the fat person desires to weigh less. If he really desires to weighless then the desire to exercise may itself be fleeting, but the desire to weigh less is stable, and is thus worth satisfying. If the desire to weigh less is itself fleeting then if he starts exercising he will be in total less satisfied, because the next day he has excercised but derives no satisfaction from that fact. As to determining which desires are fleeting, simply wait a bit and see if they go away.

    Comment by Peter — May 6, 2007 @ 12:09 am

  3. Desires don’t work like that; you can’t easily categorize everything into “fleeting” and “stable”. The self is a cacophony of shifting, conflicting, and both intra- and inter-mutating desires, guilts, convictions, norms, prohibitions, etc. To navigate this constantly stormy sea, one needs to have GOOD spontaneous self-understanding, which your approach of sticking by pre-decided maxims PREVENTS (which was my second and more important point, that you ignored).

    Comment by Brian — May 6, 2007 @ 12:49 am

  4. Allow me to quote myself, since you seem only to have skimmed what I have written: “We might be tempted to call such fleeting desires passions, but I think to label them as such would be to draw a misleading distinction. It is not the case that we have a clear-cut division between fleeting desires and stable ones. Instead we have a continuous spectrum of desires that persist for different amounts of time, from those that persist for an entire lifetime to those that persist only for moments.” As for you second point, I have adressed it elsewhere, and didn’t see any benefit in repeating myself. There is a difference, I should also point out, between noticing what you want at any given moment, i.e. understanding yourself, and acting on that desire.

    Comment by Peter — May 6, 2007 @ 12:55 am

  5. I read that, but since you drew the wrong conclusion from that observation, it needed to be restated. It is because desires defy such simple categorization that your rule of thumb is so misguided.

    Where exactly have you addressed my main point? Nowhere, since you don’t understand it. When I said “understanding yourself” I do not mean “noticing what you want at any given moment.” That is not anything approaching understanding!!! That is like saying one understands gravity because they saw something fall once. Understanding of the self entails understanding first who you are, what kind of subject it is that could have this desire, and why.

    The very thing you’re seeking to avoid with this post is to be driven by desires that are not *meant* in the fullest sense. But coming to deal with that involves that deep and constant self-understanding to get at the root of what desires resonate *throughout*. Temporality has NOTHING to do with this; coming to grips with what kind of “I” is projected in the self’s essential will-to-become, however, is. Trying to base ethics on convenient rule of thumbs like this is counter-productive on every level.

    Comment by Brian — May 6, 2007 @ 8:33 am

  6. I don’t think I can address your concerns in the way you want unless you express them more clearly.

    Comment by Peter — May 6, 2007 @ 11:41 am

  7. The original problem is in question. Whether a desire is fleeting or stable, the initial logic is now at issue.

    To desire to lose weight is to experience good life. To experience a life worth living. By contrast, the polarity exists too in logic, To be overweight is to experience life as not worth living. This is rather an extreme approach to life and death.

    Or, if you can do what you want, life is worth living. Or, if you cannot do what you want, life is not worth living.

    If I want chocolate right now and cannot have it, I might as well die as life won’t be worth living.

    Comment by rdn — May 12, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

  8. What’s wrong with being overweight?

    Comment by Peter — May 12, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  9. I was attempting to find a quote in philosophy that I (barely) recall regarding becoming a “slave to one’s desires” and I found your blog. First, do any of you have reference to this idea? Maybe it was Camus?

    Next, I can’t help but comment on the following:
    “I advocate… favor[ing] more stable desires over less stable ones in most cases. However I will not describe it in those terms, because they imply that there is some simple way to categorize our desires so that we can keep one set as worth following and discard the other, which is not the case.”

    Can’t these stable desires be considered ‘values’? (I can explicate if necessary.) If so, there must be some way that we arrive at holding particular values, and while it may not always be simple, I think it is wrong to claim that it is not the case that we do this. I believe that there is evidence to the contrary, and feel that in order to achieve some sense of the good life, it is necessary to employ some method of distinguishing fleeting and often irrational desires from those values that are practically worthwhile.

    Comment by Kristina — May 14, 2007 @ 6:47 am

  10. I think the point was missed to assume that anything is “wrong” with being overweight. Being overweight is unhealhty, but as to any ethical judgment, that wasn’t related to the response that I posted.

    The issue that I addressed was that that which is desired is representative of the good life. I lack the desire to be overweight, so I would consider being overwieght to be “not the good life”.

    The second point that was made was concerning “life was worth living” or that what was desired made life worth living. As I do not desire to be overweight, this would not make life worth living. By contrast, being overweight would not make life not worth living.

    This a problem of how logic was being applied to the phenomenon of desire.

    If, for example, sex makes life worth living, not having sex for one day does not make life unworth living. This would be a drama queen (or a man’s approach) to not having sex at any given time.

    Comment by rdn — May 14, 2007 @ 3:08 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: