Structures of Desire (Part 1)

How often do you wake up naturally and lie peaceful and still? Nothing moves or impels you, you’re an ‘unmoved non-mover’, not doing but being? I’m guessing never. What normally happens when you first wake up? You spring out of bed to quieten the damn alarm (in my case it’s AAAAAAAHHHHHHH-SEVENYAAAAAA from the Lion King – nothing if not joltingly rousing). There’s a moment of indecision while you decide whether you’re more hungry than thirsty, before crawling to the kitchen to shove some Hovis in the toaster. The need to spend the proverbial penny probably already woke you twice. In other words, we wake up in a state of desire; we immediately want something and act promptly to fulfil that want, whether it’s emptying our bladder or filling our stomach. Once these are satisfied, more intellectual wants start to enter the mind – ‘I really want to sell five hundred thousand dollars worth of software today’; ‘that blog post looks super interesting, I can’t wait to read more’; ‘I fancy going to the gym after work’ – interspersed with ‘I’m craving a Thai green curry right now’ (me, every time).

Hierarchies of desire in everyday life

Life is a constant cycle of desire to fulfilment to desire again. This operates on multiple micro and macro levels. Weaker, shorter-term and easily fulfilled forms of micro-desire might include physical needs such as hunger, thirst, and the most primitive of lusts. Mid-level desires might include a pay rise or to finish War and Peace. Macro-desires are worked towards, struggled over, achieved through strife, and bring deeper satisfaction: landing the dream job, getting married, having a child, reaching nirvana. They are otherwise known as ‘drive’, that which gets us out of bed in the morning. These different drives can co-exist, as shown in this handy graph:

desire 1
Obviously all desire reaches its pinnacle at Christmas due to the Father of, and the fatted goose.

As the graph shows, desire is temporally linear:

desire 2
At the same time, it is structurally circular:
desire 3
However, these sketches are not designed to imply that the cycle never yields anything more than a return to the beginning. A better shape would be a conical spiral:

desire 4

The vertical axis represents passing time (and perhaps diminishing levels of desire?), and the other axes represent increasing breadth of life experience, and increasing breadth of something like oneness with life and the divine, or progress towards the best that we can hope for from this life. I can’t resist mentioning Dante here. Funnily enough, two of his underworlds are similarly shaped (Hell is a conical hole in the earth; Purgatory is a conical mountain topped by the Earthly Paradise), and the moral and poetic structure of the Divine Comedy also reflects this, describing how the human will and desires develop and progress over time – of which more in Part 2.

Types of desire

Many ethical frameworks can be classified as encouragements to refute immediate goods or pleasures in favour of ‘higher’ more remote goods. Fast now in order to train your mind against excessive consumption; ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’ (to quote my mother again); tie up available cash into rising stocks; stay in a crap job because it will give you the experience you need to jump ship later. In our careers, we are instructed to constantly desire (be ambitious), almost to cultivate dissatisfaction and want; there is a very delicate balance to be struck between enjoyment of the present (sometimes termed resting on one’s laurels/complacency/stagnation), and striving towards your goals. Are present and future goods really incompatible – can you have your cake and eat it? Is my initial analysis just a convenient formulation? Is a longer-term macro good always qualitatively better than the object of a micro-desire? Probably not always. Some objects of desire are indeed qualitatively better, but not because they are closer or further away from us at the present time.

The qualitative differences have been defined in various waysfor example distinguishing between:

  • intrinsic desire (desire for something for its own sake)
  • instrumental desire (desire for something as a means to an end)
  • realizer desire (desire for something that would realize an intrinsic desire)

There are other ways of slicing the pudding; is there a difference between desire as a product of bodily need (for food, for physical pleasure), and as a product of the mind (for a better job, for learning, for love)? What happens when these converge? Isn’t this why the topic of sex has been so tricky for theologians and thinkers down the ages; isn’t this why a commonly held philosophy of sex still mostly evades us, as we struggle to navigate the peculiar mix of (qualitatively different?) desires that converge in this one set of actions as it does nowhere else – for pleasure, for personal intimacy, for a child, etc etc.

Desire in ethics

In some cases, the deferral of immediate pleasure in favour of future pleasure (where this is anticipated to be greater) is clearly the better option. We could conceivably get so bogged down in fulfilling our micro-desires that we’ve no time or mental space left to pursue our macro-desires. In the end I’m not sure any of us would consider that an attractive way to live. However, there does also seem to be a natural tendency towards deferral of satisfaction and prolongation of the period of desire, sometimes for its own sake rather than in service of a goal. In honour of Mothers’ Day, I’m going to quote mine yet again. She is a firm believer in the deferral of satisfaction – ‘don’t eat all your sweets at once’ – seemingly for the sake of it. But is it ethically better, or wiser, to have greater pleasure per minute (more sweets in my mouth) over three minutes, or less pleasure per minute (fewer sweets) over seven minutes? Or is this purely sound advice based on the psychology of how we perceive satisfaction given variables of time and intensity (e.g. this)?

While our desires drive us forwards and impel many of our conscious and subconscious actions, and while we are encouraged to cultivate wants and ambitions, it’s also clear that allowing all our actions to be influenced by desire and desire only is not necessarily A-OK. 

Our decision-making capabilities include many components: not just our desire, but also our rational powers, for example. For Kant (paraphrased here), ‘a person is only praiseworthy for doing the right thing if the person acts only from the motive of duty, and not from an “inclination” (a desire) to do the right thing’ – and duty is discerned rationally. Similarly, in Catholic ethics the value of an act is judged on both its inherent worth and the intention behind it: an action can still be judged bad if its effect is good (praising a colleague) but the intention is bad (making yourself look good).

While some ethical systems may prioritise different types of desire or encourage sublimation of our desires, there are also systems that prompt us to get rid of it altogether. Epicureanism endorses indulgence of what is pleasing to us; Christianity exhorts us to temperance of desire and purification of the will; whereas Buddhism sees one type of desire (tanha) as the foundation of unhappiness, something to be expunged in the attainment of enlightenment (Christianity done wrong leans towards this too). In our everyday lives, this makes sense – you’d notice an uptick in your day-to-day happiness if you could only stop fancying that boy, for example. 

Still, desire is what gets us going in the morning, and keeps us going throughout the days and years. It can be unwieldy, changeable, and an unreliable decision-making tool, and we learn this as children: ‘because I felt like it’ is not a good reason to hit your brother. As our primary motivator to action, something we struggle to understand in ourselves (just why do we want this and not that other thing; why do we love one person and not another) but something that fundamentally underpins our existence, it’s not surprising that the same structures of desire I’ve talked about above should recur also in our acts of creation.

Stay tuned for part 2 – less Microsoft Word ‘smart art’, more about how desire structures art.

rodin kiss
Bonus: a depiction of (a certain type of) desire, to be preferred to my diagrams

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