Don’t Always Desire Your Desires

When we reflect on the many things that we could have, some will produce feelings of desire. But when we take an extra moment to reflect on these desires themselves, we find some to be undesirable. The desire to fit in with the crowd may be accompanied by a contrary desire to be unconcerned by what other people think. Or we might long to be reunited with an ex, but feel averse to having those feelings.

When our desires and our desires about these desires come in conflict, how can we decide what we really want? The question is ill-posed. It’s not that we must only fundamentally¬†desire one thing or another. We can have genuine conflict in our wants, truly desiring a thing and wishing to not desire it at the same time. That said, a strong case can be made for discrediting some desires. It is worth making an effort to weaken or ignore a desire if it is:

1. About the future and likely to change. Suppose that right now you want yourself to live a life without childen, but you expect that ten years from now there is a decent chance you’ll change your mind. In that case, to get a sterilization procedure performed now would be choosing to value your current self over your future self. You might be able to justify valuing your current self somewhat more than your future self (after all, your future self could turn out not to exist, your future self is not fully you, and you can be more certain about your desires today than about your future self’s desires). But to not value your future self’s desires at all is very likely a mistake. Desires about the future that flip back and forth are worse even than ones that you merely think are likely to change. If today you want to be a doctor, but yesterday you didn’t, though you did the day before, it’s probably not the time to commit to medical school.

2. In conflict with other desires. Sure, you may really want to eat that cake now, but avoiding those empty calories may also have value to you. If a desire is pitted against a contrary desire, we should ideally feel less motivation to fulfill it. Unfortunately, the moment-to-moment strength of each of those desires may depend on what happens to be salient to you. But choosing to act a certain way merely because you reflected on one desire and not the equally strong desire that opposes it, is effectively like making an arbitrary choice.

3. Based on false beliefs or ignorance. Suppose that you desire for a person to go to prison because you think he has committed murder, but he is actually innocent. Presumably you’d no longer desire his imprisonment if you found out the truth. And likely, you’d desire that you would stop desiring his imprisonment the moment strong exonerating evidence became known to you. So, hopefully you wouldn’t let your current desire (based on inaccurate information) stand in the way of acquiring further evidence that might cause this desire to be extinguished. That means that, ideally, you wouldn’t flinch in the face of desire destroying information.

4. Caused merely by context. Short-lived desires can be created by a particular context. For instance, suppose that you see an advertisement for a brand of clothing that shows people looking ridiculously stylish. You might, momentarily, feel a previously nonexistent desire to buy that clothing – a desire which, if ignored, may not even persist for another half hour. If you happen to be standing in a clothing store when you see the ad though, an unplanned purchase may be around the corner. But merely waiting it out might be the better option, respecting your previous and future lack of desire over the desire created by the context.

5. Likely to be regretted. You may strongly desire something now that you are very likely to ultimately regret. For example, some people feel a strong desire to cheat on their significant others despite a high risk of a regrettable outcome. Knowing about the possibility of regret may not immediately change your current level of desire, but allowing yourself time to reflect on this regret may ultimately influence your behavior.

So beware of desires that conflict with other desires, and those that are likely to change. Delay acting if a desire may be based on inaccurate information, or is the result merely of context, or seems like it could lead to a regrettable outcome. Not all desires are created equal.

One thought on “Don’t Always Desire Your Desires

  1. Grognor says:

    This advice is consistent with the newish neurological evidence that wanting is *distinct* from liking. There are so many applications of this obvious-in-hindsight research it’s staggering.

    Proposed desires can also appear temporarily for signaling reasons. Draw an intricate model of a Batman action figure riding a T-Rex action figure for April Fool’s day; nerds respond “I WILL GIVE YOU ALL OF MY MONEY FOR THIS” because nerds are supposed to like Batman and dinosaurs, and if it happens enough the temporary desire can turn into a permanent one. Which is weird.

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