Philosophy Talk, Part II: Desire Is Complicated

Philosophy Talk hosts Ken Taylor and John Perry opened the 2009 Illahee Lectures on Friday January 30th, musing on the nature of desire as the source of unhappiness and woe. Unhappiness comes from frustrated desire. Even when we satisfy our desires it just leads to more desire. On the other hand, maybe desire is the source of happiness. It motivates us. We need desire to make things happen, to take action. And in human action lies all human satisfaction.

John and Ken had help resolving this conundrum from three experts: psychoanalyst Peter Armstrong, philosopher William Irvine, and Merle Kessler, aka Ian Schoales, the Sixty Second Philosopher.

In an interview with roving philosophical reporter Julie Napolin, Armstrong described psychoanalysis as more of an exploration than a quest for happiness. Indeed Freud said his goal was for his patients to be relieved of their hysterical misery and experience common unhappiness. Armstrong talked about helping people to mature in how they manage their lives, to experience things and regulate their desires. Napolin wondered if there was any end to the process of dealing with desire. Armstrong’s response: “Yes, and then they bury you.”

So much for psychoanalysis. Next up was William Irvine, professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, and author of “On Desire: Why We Want What We Want.” Irvine described how he first became interested in desire in high school, reading Walden, then studying Zen Buddhism, and then psychology, wondering why he wanted all the things he wanted. He found the answers very disturbing.

Ken and John wanted to know if there was a way to make sense of all our various yearnings and urges and goals and obsessions. Irvine distilled it down to instrumental desires, which are tools to get you to terminal desires. Wanting to go to lunch results in a whole chain of events that fulfills the terminal desire of stopping the rumbling in your stomach. Obviously eliminating a terminal desire gets rid of a whole chain of instrumental desires.

Ken was skeptical, wondering how you respond to someone who just wants to be famous, so he or she starts a band or takes up acting. Irvine would ask that person: why? Ken’s answer: because it feels good. Irvine would probe further: yes, but why does it feel good? At this point John Perry jumped in wondering if a “calling” couldn’t be seen as a desire as much as the urge to feel good.

This brought up the issue of passion versus the intellect. Do we just do what feels good, or do we follow a higher calling? It turns out that we don’t actually control a lot of the big things in life, like whom we fall in love with. But we do control a lot of decisions, and there are ways for the intellect to modulate passion. For one thing we can plan (for example, we can set up savings plans so we don’t blow all our income on lattes and iphones).

Still we are often buffeted by whims and urges that aren’t necessarily good for us. Irvine encourages us to listen to these urges. Sit with them. Recognize them. Overcome them.

A student in the audience asked whether desires are just latent in us. Are we all just waiting to be seduced? Certainly advertising finds desires lurking, and activates them. But where do desires come from? Scientists have shown that there are multiple centers of desire. People whose brains can’t communicate between the two hemispheres may pick up a cigarette and then slap it out of their own hand. We’re all more “split brain” than we’d like to think. For example, you know you have to do something, (you may even want to do it) but you still procrastinate.

Another question from the audience: Status is a big motivator. Could we morph status from consumption to contribution? Our philosophers agreed that if we weren’t seeking social status, most of our desires would disappear. Indeed, eccentrics have taught us that you can be very happy if you’re willing to accept “crazy” as a prefix to your name. It’s not a bad thing that we care what others think of us. It helps us be good. But in many cases we seek status so others will be envious.

But if we reject desire and status, aren’t we undermining President Obama’s goal to resurrect our economy? Irvine would say yes, and so what? There’s a very loose connection between consumption and happiness anyway. Our great great grandparents were happy, even without the Internet.

Another audience member asked about insights on desire from religion, and specifically from Zen Buddhism. Irvine studied Buddhism, and decided it wasn’t the right path for him. Then he read about the ancient stoics, and was surprised to find out he had them all wrong. They were a cheerful bunch, and he ended up becoming a practicing 21st century stoic.

If Buddhism is abandoning desire, Stoicism is more about limiting your desire in a number of ways. Stoicism provides techniques for overcoming negative emotions. Stoics were the pre-eminent psychologists of the ancient world. One of their precepts: learn how to want the things you already have.

But where would we be if our progenitors 100,000 years ago hadn’t desired more? What if they were happy living on the savannah without shelter, scavenging for food? In short what if they had been stoics? Irvine admitted that if that had been the case, there’s a good chance we would have gone extinct. We are programmed to be insatiable. Those ancestors who were easily satisfied, well they perished. We’re the offspring of the less satisfied ones. As a human, you cannot stop desiring. And you wouldn’t want to. You’d be a very depressed individual. Or a very enlightened one. So how can you be happy with the things you already have?

Ken wondered, suppose I was a slave in the antebellum south. Would you give me that advice to be happy with what I have? Irvine responded that the stoic philosopher Epic Titus was a slave. Ken still wanted to know, should he be happy or resist? Irvine would say, resist, but know that even without slavery per se, we are all enslaved by pleasure.

More questions from the audience:

What about examining our unknown desires that we may only discover later in life? The first half of life you have too much going on, and you take your desires for granted. In the second half of life we can slow down and examine ourselves and ask where our desires come from, and whether we really want them as houseguests.

Does desire result from the notion that action results in happiness, the ultimate currency in life? Our philosophers didn’t buy into happiness as ultimate currency. They agreed that a life lived well, making contributions to society, is the ultimate currency in life.

Why resist the very desires that have enabled us to survive? Because they’ve run amok. We’re not just surviving now. We have a Starbucks on every corner, (minus about 600 corners this fiscal quarter) and ice cream in every fridge.

Isn’t this all misguided? Socrates urges us to lead a virtuous life. Shouldn’t we all seek to be the best person that we can be and help create the best society that we can create? Irvine found this entirely consistent with stoicism: be a virtuous human being.

Was Socrates saying that the best life is to be a philosopher? No, no, replied Irvine, the best life is to be a philosophy professor.

So what did we learn about desire from our philosophers? Well it’s complicated. Desires are essential to rationality. We need goals. But intrinsically, desire can seem to come at us out of nowhere. Maybe it’s this: virtue is the highest form of happiness.

That doesn’t sound like much fun, so Merle Kessler punched it up with a sixty second observation drawn from the Sunday New York Times Magazine article, Feminine Desire: What do Women Want? (which assumes there’s no mystery about what men want). Researcher Meredith Chivers at Queens University wired men’s and women’s genitalia to measure arousal on a pethismograph and showed them bonobos and humans in various sex acts, plus a naked guy and an exercising woman. Women said they were more aroused by heterosexual footage than the machine said they actually were. And where have we heard that before? Women were aroused by ape sex footage while men were left cold.

What could this possibly mean?

Maybe this: Women are attuned to a wider variety of visual stimuli than men. (OK, but what about porn? Well, most porn is boring and predictable. Guys like that.) But consider this: sex is not normally a threat to men. Women need to be aware of all possibilities, just as a defense mechanism. But maybe the research is flawed. If you have some sort of equipment on your genitals and scientists are observing you, well that sounds like a pornographic scenario. Maybe you like being watched. Maybe you like to be punished. Maybe you like to be rewarded by authority figures like a good little schoolgirl or boy. Maybe you’ll be spanked or rewarded for the right behavior. Maybe we just don’t want to be abandoned.

From abandonment Kessler jumped to Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice, to the shadow of desire lying between the blues and psychopathic behavior, to Big Joe Williams and his refrain, “baby please don’t go, baby please don’t go, down to New Orleans, cause I love you so, baby please don’t go” and then Kessler had to go.


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