Tuesday, March 13, 2012



Harlan B. Miller

[A Polish translation,  by Marina Stepanenko, is available at http://www.onlinecarparts.co.uk/science/?p=368 ]

I want, this morning, to talk about wants, about how what we want makes us who we are, and how some ways of understanding our own wants and the wants of others shape our lives both personally and politically. There are five parts, respectively personal, political, personal, political, personal.

I - Personal - What we are and what wants are not

So what do you want? What do you really want? Tell me what you want, what you really, really want. I've listened carefully several times, and read the lyrics, but I'm still not at all sure just what the Spice Girls really, really want. But I'm sure that their desires, authentic and inauthentic, transient and more or less fixed, make them who they are.
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled, on cable, on an excellent British film from the 40s entitled Perfect Strangers. Greer Garson plays a mousy and sniffly and thoroughly submissive housewife and Robert Donat is her utterly drab husband. But it's 1940 and off he goes into the Royal Navy, and shortly thereafter so does she, into the Wrens. They are both transformed. I don't want to tell you much more, because I hope you'll have a chance to see it. The American release has the absurd and in fact insulting title of "Vacation from Marriage" - World War II as a vacation! Ignore that if you can.
Both characters become different people, and what really makes them different is not the squarer shoulders and the confident gaits but their completely different desires. What they want in 1944 isn't much like what they wanted in 1940. In fact their 1940 selves couldn't have imagined the way the world looks to their 1944 selves. One might say that a different sort of light shines on their 1944 worlds, painting quite different prospects in the colors of desire and of disdain.
What we want, to a very large degree, is what we are. But what is desire? What is it to want something? At the most basic level I'm afraid there isn't much to say. Desire is a very primitive notion, not really explicable in terms of anything else. We desire things and people and praise and pleasure, but to make sense of the whole range of things desired we have to take desiring that a state of affairs be actual to be conceptually fundamental. So all my desires are really of the form "I desire that p" where p is some proposition describing a state of affairs.
That is, I believe, true, but it isn't very exciting. What I want to talk about is the way our wants determine and are determined by our selves. But that is not to say that our wants are exclusively, or even predominantly, selfish. And that brings me to my first main point. A very bad theory of desire, of wanting, is intellectually dominant in our society. So my most important claim is not about what wants are, but about what they aren't.
According to what I will call the 'Homo economicus' or 'He' theory of desires, desires are simply given, they are exclusively oriented to the self, and they are all, in effect, founded on anticipated pleasure or satisfaction. This theory is most strikingly dominant in economics, with a few exceptions, but it has immense sway in all the social sciences, journalism, and popular culture as a whole. It is now dead in some parts of philosophy, but still thriving in others. All three of the elements of the He theory that I listed are incorrect. Desires are not just given, they are not exclusively selfish, and they generally do not concern anticipated pleasure.
On the He theory we are just born with some desires, others more or less inevitably appear in the course of maturation, some are the results of social conditioning, and some are just random. We don't choose our wants, and on most versions of the theory we can't rationally change them, though we might have ourselves deprogrammed or reprogrammed. This is just wrong. We quite naturally want food and companionship and sex, but not only can we choose anorexia, solitude, and celibacy, we can come to want them. Of course our wants are shaped by our parents and our peers. How could it be otherwise? But every parent soon learns that even very small children have wants, and propensities to form wants, that are very resistant to external pressure. The He theory is generally clueless about childhood, being, as it is, a theory of beings who suddenly pop into existence with a fixed inventory of desires and trade goods. This is a good place to acknowledge my debt to Roger Paden's delightful paper "The Lost Childhood of Homo economicus" from which I take the term and the abbreviation and doubtless more as well.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle explains virtues and vices as habits of choice, dispositions to make certain sorts of choices. The honest woman naturally tells the truth. Most of the time it simply doesn't even occur to her to lie. In difficult situations when it does occur to her she finds it very distasteful. The cowardly man is not the one subject to fear, for any rational being is subject to fear, but the one who is most likely to choose to abandon his duties in the face of fear. How do we come to have the virtues and vices, these dispositions to choose? By habituation. We become brave by acting bravely. In a word, characteristics develop from corresponding activities. For that reason we must see to it that our activities are of a certain kind, since any variations in them will be reflected in our characteristics. Hence it is no small matter whether one habit or another is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference. (1103b21-25, Ostwald translation)
Since our character is determined by our choices, and our choices are at least substantially free, we are responsible for our character. I have always found Aristotle here both convincing and sobering. My choices over the years have made me what I am. At the deepest level I am responsible for my sloth and procrastination and gluttony. The late Bill Williams used to sing a bit of an old Beatrice Lillie song.
  • And the very worst part is,
  • you know in your heart you
  • have only yourself to blame
But the point is that we do in fact choose our wants. We are capable of cultivating new tastes, and at least sometimes of overcoming vices. We overcome addictions. In childhood we transform our wants successively time and again. As we get older it becomes more difficult and we often fail. But we sometimes succeed, which should, on the He theory, be impossible. I want to ride my bicycle rather than drive a car when I travel about Blacksburg. I'm rather proud of that desire. Our wants aren't just given.
Nor are they exclusively selfish. The claim that all desires are selfish, that all desires are for one's own good, is called 'psychological egoism' by philosophers who confront it in every introductory ethics class. Psychological egoism is an astonishingly popular view, despite its obvious falsehood. The psychological egoist has to hold that the soldier throwing himself on the grenade is motivated not by duty or by love of his comrades but by an intense feeling of pride and anticipated posthumous glory in the couple of seconds he has before most of his internal organs are shredded. There is something not just wrong but indecent about such a position, yet millions of decent people believe it or think that they do.
That many of our wants are for the good of others has been recognized for millenia. Both David Hume and his friend Adam Smith stressed the power of sympathetic as well as selfish desires in our makeup. But that's a part of Adam Smith that many (not all) economists ignore. I want Montgomery County schools to be well-funded and well-staffed. I will never attend school here, my only child has passed through the system, and the chances of any grandchild of mine attending these schools is remote. But the schools are a public good of my community, and I care about them.
Nor, and now we come to the third egregious defect of the He theory of wants, are our wants based on or constituted by anticipation of pleasure. This is true of almost no one, but I will use myself as an example, since the data are readily at hand. I'm sure that very similar stories can be told about you. There are many things I want to do that do not give me pleasure. I give blood, I spend lots of money on life insurance, I grade seriously.
Every couple of months I go to the blood center. I lose an hour or so, most of the time I am quite bored, and it hurts. I always flinch when I'm stuck, and that always embarrasses me. I get a cookie and a cup of coffee. Why do I do it? Why do I want to do it? Well, I often say that it is one of the few things I do well, except for the flinching. But actually I do it because I think I should. Blood is needed, some people have a hard time donating and I don't, so I should give. But don't I do it for the satisfaction of having done a good deed? No, that gets things backwards. It gives me satisfaction to do a good deed, perhaps, but because it is a good deed, not because it is a satisfaction-producer. Giving blood is not like eating candy. I do it because I think I should, and then, perhaps, I am satisfied with myself. But the goal is not satisfaction, it is duty.
I spend a lot of money on life insurance. I'm pretty old, and I've made the actuarially clever move of avoiding death, so some of my older, smaller, policies are now paying for themselves. Still, I spend over $300 a month on life insurance. Why? With that money I could buy things that please me, such as computer hardware or books or beer. Instead I spend it in a way that is guaranteed to give me no pleasure. It will pay off only when I am not around to enjoy it. So why do I do it? Because I care about my wife and daughter. In fact, but please don't tell them, I love them both. What that means is that I am very interested in their welfare in the broadest sense. I want them to be happy, to live lives well worth living. My daughter is now making her own way in the world, but I'd like for her to come into a little estate some day. My wife will probably outlive me, and I want her to be reasonably comfortable. Those are the things I want, and so I pay for them. But notice that my pleasure or satisfaction is not in the picture. I will be dead, and thus incapable of pleasure or satisfaction.
I certainly don't believe in life after death. But suppose there is such a thing. Would it then be the case that I purchase life insurance because I anticipate looking down from Heaven (or, more likely, up from Hell) and being pleased by the flourishing of my wife and daughter? This still gets it backward. I would be pleased by their flourishing because I care for them. I do not care for them because I would be pleased by their flourishing. (Why would that be? Why their flourishing and not someone else's flourishing? Why their flourishing and not their misery?)
Third example. (I'm really beating on this horse because it refuses to die.) I teach at Virginia Tech, and I'm a pretty hard grader. I flunk from 5% to 20% of the students, and As are hard to get. This does not give me pleasure, and it does not give the students, except a few, pleasure. It certainly does not help my teaching evaluation scores or get me better raises. I could join the nearly universal flow of grade inflation and give lots of As and Bs and give Ds to those who never showed at all. It wouldn't hurt me, though it might lower me in the eyes of some of my colleagues. It would certainly avoid a number of unpleasant scenes. So why don't I do it? Why would I be ashamed of myself? Because I care about maintaining some sort of standard, because I want grades to mean something. But again, I maintain the standards not because it would be painful not to. I maintain the standards because I believe in them. I know full well that selling out, after a couple of semesters to numb my conscience, would produce more pleasure.
The He theory of desire is massively flawed. We can and do choose our wants. Our desires are not selfish. Our desires are not based on anticipated pleasure. But the He theory is not just an intellectually defective theory, it is a corrupting one. As Aristotle said, our choices determine our character. When we accept the He theory we act upon it. We take it for granted that our desires are selfish. And when we believe this long enough we make it true. Our choices form our character. When we are convinced that our choices must be selfish, our choices become selfish. And the consequences are serious indeed.

II - Political - Selfish Bargainers

If we are indeed all motivated simply by selfish desires for our own anticipated pleasures then we live in a world in which the public interest is a fraud or a mere average, love and commitment are simply delusions, and the price of everything is determined by the market.
In a sloppily written but otherwise admirable book, The Unconscious Civilization (American edition 1997, The Free Press, New York), John Ralston Saul argues that the whole notion of the public good, and, in effect, of citizenship, has been corrupted and displaced by the culture of selfishness and of individuals as members of interest groups, not as citizens.
We can see this quite dramatically on a small scale. Think of the last half-dozen committee or small group meetings you have attended. One goes to such a meeting, typically, with some idea of what is at issue and some preferences about the decisions to be made. Once there, one can listen and discuss, or one can bargain. If one actually enters the meeting as a cooperative undertaking, one's preferences, one's wants, are very likely to change, to evolve toward a group consensus. If, on the other hand, one enters the meeting simply as a bargainer trying to maximize the benefits to oneself or to the subgroup one represents, things are very different. In the latter case the positions and desires of other participants are simply tactical information. In the former they are claims with which one might well have some sympathy.
All of us have been in meetings in which most or even all participants are genuinely cooperating. Committee and juries work pretty well pretty frequently. But all of us have also been in meetings in which some participants have steadfastly refused to do anything but bargain for their own profit.
If one accepts the He theory of desire selfish bargaining is not only ubiquitous, it is the only rational form of behavior. In fact 'rational' is so defined in some contexts in economics.
The political effects are disastrous. Once we are reduced to interest groups the public good becomes irrelevant. Any attempt to appeal to it is instantly interpreted as a cynical ploy to gain some advantage. Lobbyists and money hard and soft become completely dominant in politics.
The last Virginia gubernatorial race was an exceptionally striking demonstration of the eclipse of the public interest. What was the pivotal issue? Was it the protection of our environment? Was it our children's education? Was it the jobs they will have and the lives they will live? No, of course not. It was the car tax. Vote for me and I'll give you a couple of hundred dollars.
The most shameful thing about the 1997 Virginia election is not that such a craven appeal was made but that it succeeded. I have no way of knowing how many of the Virginia voters who put a few bucks in their wallets above any appeal to the public good were affected by the He theory, but surely some were. The dominance of that theory poisons public discourse by branding any appeal to unselfishness as spurious and insincere.

III - Personal - Disorders of Desire

Let me go back again from the political to the personal. Some of our desires can be quite unfortunate, even destructive. The cocaine addict has an overwhelming dominant want that can, and often does, destroy him and those around him. I want to focus on different sorts of, as I shall call them, disorders of desire. I have in mind inauthentic desires, tyrannically limiting desires, and wantlessness.
About the first I will be very brief. Our peers or our fears or a suffocating system may convince us that what we want is to live happily ever after as a submissive housewife, or to join Rho Rho Rho fraternity, or to have a bright green lawn or a new car every year. And in fact these things may not be at all satisfying and may divert us from those goals, those wants, that would really give us direction and at least episodes of satisfaction. It's hard to know what you'd really really want if all those people weren't telling you.
But even a genuine desire can be or become tyrannical. When one is prisoner of a single dominating desire, even a basically reasonable one, one's life can be horribly constrained. When absolutely everything is subservient to saving souls for Jesus, or overthrowing capitalism, or patriarchy, or to attacking Hillary Clinton, or to getting into medical school, or to getting tenure, one is trapped. One is also very poor company.
But for most of us relatively comfortable people, the biggest threat is not becoming this sort of single-drive robot, not having overpowering desires, but rather drifting rudderless.
We had on our refrigerator, until it finally disintegrated, an Andy Capp cartoon in which Andy is sitting at the bar, staring into his pint and sighing. The barkeep explains in the next frame. "There's a lot of it going around. Not really knowing what 'e wants, but being sure 'e doesn't have it."
The perils of wantlessness have been fairly well explored in a wide range of literature. There was a striking episode in Upstairs, Downstairs in which James is at a weekend party of the idle rich. Except for James, none of them work, none have any responsibilities, and none have any real desires that give a structure to their lives. They are dreadfully bored and devote all their energies to the search for amusement. They are rich, many are physically attractive, but they are pathetic.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams describes archeological digs on various planets in which the uppermost stratum of the remains of a dead civilization consists entirely of shoes. He explains it as follows. As things are running down and people are ill-motivated and depressed, people tend to look down. What they see, then, is their feet. And then they think "That's it, what I need is a new pair of shoes." Happy people with things to do and places to go buy shoes when the old ones wear out. Surely you've noticed how many shoe stores there seem to be in every mall.
Wantlessness, either chronic or episodic, is epidemic in our society. When we don't really want anything enough to do anything about it we fritter, we waste, we eat even though we're not hungry, we watch bad television, we drink, we smoke, we visit malls. Our survival needs are met. We should be enjoying ourselves. But we're like Andy in the pub, ordering another pint because he's got nothing to do and no place to go. I know the feeling well.

IV - Political - The Desires of the Disordered

Here we are, pretty well off in our lavishly wealthy but significantly unjust society. We can do pretty much what we choose. And there is much to choose. We could struggle for economic justice, or for a rational health system. We could learn new skills or new sports, enrich our bodies or, especially, our minds. There are literatures upon literatures, histories upon histories, bodies of learning and art, archaeology, astronomy, botany, and on and on. World upon world of things to learn.
But that's not what we do. We either pursue power and possessions or we sit watching the Home Shopping Network, hoping to find something to want. Homo economicus is subject to one sort of manipulation, the wantless to many sorts. The wantless are especially vulnerable to advertising. Lacking any wants that are really theirs, they can be persuaded to desire beanie babies, or to purchase goods that are actually just advertisements. Why would anyone want to spend good money to buy shirts with other people's names on them? Who is Tommy Hifiger?
Not all of these bizarre pseudo-desires are the products of commercial manipulation. The very strange Princess Diana phenomena indicate to me that millions and millions of people were badly in need of something to care about. We're looking for needs in all the wrong places.
The poverty of our desires is perfectly reflected in the current state of national politics. Homo economicus belongs to that party that is an unstable alliance of the greedy and the resentful. And its only real rival is the party that no longer seems to stand for anything at all.

V - Personal - Desire and the Good Life

What should we want to really really want? We want to live a good life both on the large scale and on the small, to live well, to be happy. Happiness, said Aristotle, is essentially a matter of activity. To live well is to act well, to actualize our potentialities. A good life is one of action and engagement. Even on the smaller scale the things we really enjoy are activities that fully engage us and draw upon our abilities. That's the point of that most Aristotelian of bumper stickers "Are we having fun yet?". If that question can be asked then a negative answer is necessary. If the activity is really engaging so little of your attention that you can ask whether or not you're enjoying it, you aren't.
What sorts of desires are likely to lead us to this sort of excellence-in-activity, not just in episodes but in our lives? As Aristotle says, "One swallow does not make a Spring, nor does one sunny day; one day or a short time does not make a man truly happy and fortunate." (1098a17-19)
Really happy people are those actively engaged in the pursuit of something they really want. Very extensive wantlessness is completely incompatible with happiness.
But Homo economicus may well be happy for a while, accumulating wealth and power, clawing his way up the ladder of success. This game, like many others, may be highly enjoyable. But without genuine commitment to other people or to communities of any sort the rewards turn to ashes in the end.
A much more promising candidate for happiness is she in the grip of a single desire, tyrannical but genuine. It may be that the happiest, the most blessed lives, are led by happy warriors wholly and single-mindedly devoted to a cause or to a love.
Maybe so, and maybe it's just because I am myself incapable of such totally dominating commitment that it seems to me a sadly closed and less than fully human life.
The challenge is to combine love and freedom, to join, somehow, deep motivation and real openness to change, genuine membership in community and true autonomy. A worthwhile life, it seems to me, must be sufficiently open and reflective that elements and episodes of wantlessness are inevitable. They may, or they may not, enrich the satisfactions of commitment. I am sure that the most desirable life is not one in which one always knows, much less always gets, what one desires.

Copyright 1998, Harlan B. Miller. All commercial use is prohibited. A talk to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the New River Valley, 13 September, 1998.

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