On Philosophy

November 21, 2007

Destructive Desires

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

If we call something a destructive desire it is intuitively clear that we mean a desire whose goal is to tear something down, rather than to build something up. And we might comment in vague terms about when this tearing down is good or bad. But what exactly is a destructive desire? Consider, for example, a demolitions expert who enjoys their job. Some people might see this as a destructive desire, a desire to destroy buildings. But I doubt this is what it really is, because for the expert each demolitions task is a problem, how to set up the explosives so that they collapse the building in a certain way. Thus what the demolitions expert really desires is to create a solution to these problems, not simply to destroy buildings. And clearly this is a better explanation of their desires because if they really wanted to destroy buildings it would be strange if they were able to tolerate living in an undestroyed building. Additionally, not only may “obvious” examples of destructive desires turn out not to be best characterized as such, but there is also the risk that a large number of clearly creative desires could be construed as destructive. For example, consider a philosopher, who in putting forward a point of view must necessarily argue against the alternatives, even if their argument against them is simply the strong reasons they provide to believe the theory that they present. Thus this activity might be construed as a desire to destroy other philosophical positions, or at least containing such a desire. But clearly this is not the philosopher’s actual desire, the philosopher desires to create better philosophy than what currently exists, and destruction is simply a necessary prerequisite for that.

Thus we must get clear about what destructive desires are if we want to say anything about them that isn’t wide open to misinterpretations. But, clearly, directly approaching the problem isn’t getting us much of anywhere, so we might try tackling the opposite instead, and define what creative desires are, and to understand destructive desires as the inverted shadow of them. Creative desires seem relatively easy to understand as a desire to bring something new into the world. And, to free this from the possibility of misinterpretation, we can simply stipulate that if the desire contains a mixture of creation and destruction that it is creative, although we might revise this when we are more sure about what exactly a destructive desire is. We may even interpret what a creative desire is in a loose fashion and allow them to include desires such as the desire to own something. Obviously the desire to possess something doesn’t add anything new to the world, but it does add something new to the person’s world, some new object that wasn’t there before.

But, even so widened, whatever is not a creative desire doesn’t necessarily seem like a destructive one. Consider, for example, the desire to avoid pain. Obviously this is not a creative desire, since we aren’t trying to create something new. We of course might play language games and say that it is a desire to add an absence of pain into one’s life that didn’t exist previously, but let’s not. Not only are such games beneath us, but it grossly misinterprets the psychology of the desire; people do not hold up a life without pain before themselves and decide that that is desirable, rather they hold up painful moments before themselves and decide that they undesirable. On the other hand, when looking at them in this way it may be that the desire to avoid pain isn’t a desire at all, properly speaking. Rather it is something psychologically similar that works on a principle of avoidance rather than attraction. And what we are looking for is desires that embody an attraction to some kind of destruction for its own merits. As such only certain dislikes and hatreds may qualify as properly destructive desires, because only they represent a drive towards a world without something in it. And, as such, they are very different from the desire to avoid something, because avoidance works on a principle of “out of sight, out of mind”. Once you have successfully managed to avoid pain the existence of pain doesn’t bother you. But if you desired to destroy pain that would not be enough. If you were out to destroy pain you would only be satisfied if pain was somehow made impossible. Which is why a desire to destroy pain doesn’t make much sense. But the desire to destroy specific things or kinds of things is quite possible, and not that uncommon. Naturally such hatreds are different in a number of ways from creative desires, most strikingly in their origin. Creative desires may arise in a quite gradual fashion from considering what is valuable or worth doing, and from such considerations a desire may arise to bring about what is deemed best. However, similar processes do not give rise to destructive desires, no one ever comes to a desire to eliminate certain things from the realization that they are bad. Psychologically destructive desires seem to find their origin in specific events that lead people to resent certain things, often cases where those things have harmed them or frustrated their other desires. Thus they seem much less “rational”, although whether that is a problem is something I will consider later.

In general society will obviously frown upon destructive desires, and many of them will be considered unethical. Because, in general, society thrives on creation, and indeed there must be substantially more active creation than destruction if society is even to continue to exist (both because it is easier to destroy, and because things naturally fall apart on their own). Thus clearly no society could successfully encourage destructive desires in general. There are cases, however, where specific destructive desires or forms of destructive desires may be encouraged. For example, if someone desires to destroy something that is bad for society then their destructive desire may be tolerated, so long as it doesn’t bring them outside of the law. (This is the classic problem of law enforcement gone too far, although the police might catch more criminals by going outside the law they shouldn’t because of the other negative social consequences of doing so.) Similarly society may encourage destructive desires toward some external entity, such as another society, although if it does so it is more likely because of the unifying strength those desires can have, and not because they are particularly productive in themselves.

The fact that society as a whole will disapprove of destructive desires isn’t particularly interesting though, because society will disapprove of a number of desires. It is better to ask whether such desires are good or bad for the individual who has them. And, again, obviously anything that goes against ethics and the will of society in general will be bad for a person who lives in society to some extent. So we will set such concerns aside and simply consider destructive desires on their own merits, without any thought to society. One obvious problem with destructive desires is that they require something to destroy in order to satisfy them, in contrast to creative desires where the possibility of creating something new always exists. Thus whether a desire to destroy can be exercised depends on the existence of something to destroy, and this makes such people dependant on the creators of those things. Another problem with these destructive desires is that they tend to be strong and rather specific, which is a bad combination when it comes to desires of any kind. In general it is best to only put a substantial amount of effort into desires that will provide us with sustained satisfaction over a long period of time, rather than those which will provide simply momentary satisfaction, because after that momentary satisfaction is achieved all the work put into getting there is effectively wasted.

Now we might think that both these problems could be solved in the right individual, and are thus no more problematic than creative desires can be in certain combinations. Such an individual would have to have destructive desires that are wide in scope, targeted at a general kind of thing rather than at specific objects. And they would have to possess a matching creative desire so that they can provide themselves with the things they want to destroy, in order not to be at the mercy of creators. But, while logically possible, such an individual is psychologically impossible, because a creative desire and a destructive desire directed at the same things are simply unimaginable in the same individual. How could they both hate and love the same things? More importantly we desire the creation or destruction of things because we think those outcomes are important, but clearly a belief of that sort is incompatible with such a pair of desires, since they counter each other so that nothing is accomplished. Because of such problems I am driven to conclude that we should do all we can to avoid destructive desires, and that if we acquire them that we should resist satisfying them. Not because they are unethical, at least not only for that reason, but because they are the kind of desires where a successful pursuit leads to frustration.


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