Wanting not to get what you want

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2008

I’m guessing that there’s already a ton of papers about a certain sort of second-order desire, so people can tell me in comments …. The sort I have in mind is the following: I, trivially, want my desires to be satisfied. But over the course of a life, I want for some of my desires not to be satisfied. Now this is clearly the case for desires I ought not to have. But I’m not thinking of _those_ cases: cases involving desires to drink the clear liquid on the table (which turns out to be sulphuric acid) etc … In fact we can rule those out by stipulating that I’m rational, fully-informed, that my desires are filtered by some guardian angel (or whatever desire-cleaning tweak we choose). I’m thinking about the case where my satisfied desires wouldn’t give me the satisfaction they give me were it not for the thwarting of many similar desires. So, for example, I always want my football team to win, but if they were to win all the time it would be rather boring and I would lose interest in football. It is a condition for me to live the life of a happy football fan that they win, but not too much. Maybe we could express this with the thought that it would be good for me to have those desires satisfied with a certain probability, but I’m not sure about that, either, because it seems that the probability of winning must itself be uncertain if I’m to get the necessary satisfaction.

In other words, then, it is a crucial component of the good life that my life be unpredictable and that I don’t get many of the things that I want. Not just that I don’t get many of the things I think I want (but wouldn’t if I were fully rational, informed etc), but that I don’t get lots of outcomes I would actually want on the best account of wanting, desire, etc. As I mentioned above, sports are a good example of this phenomenon. But my guess is that it generalizes and that it is good for me not to get a lot of what I want across a whole range of activities (maybe nearly all of them): career, parenting, politics, whatever.

(I’ve rescued the above post from the CT drafts folder, where it has been languishing for months. But Harry persuaded me that I should press “publish”, even though I’m not sure there’s a lot there. Harry thought it relevant to “the discussion over at 11D about happiness and parenting”:http://11d.typepad.com/blog/2008/07/little-bundles.html . I’m not sure I quite see the connection that Harry sees, but commenters who do (or don’t) might like to tell us.)