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.)



Dan 08.07.08 at 12:34 pm

There’s a nice bit in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman about his turning down a job offer because the salary was too high, which I quote for no better reason than that quoting Feynman makes you look clever, even though you have nothing original to add to the discussion.

So I wrote them back a letter that said, “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do–get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things.. . With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”


michael d 08.07.08 at 12:49 pm

I imagine it has to do with the perception of moral desert: Among the desires you want fulfilled is to deserve the success you enjoy. The only way you can win 100% of the time is if the system is rigged (not only an assumption you probably hold, but inevitably the perception of everyone who witnesses your incredible unbroken streak of good luck); this would thwart your desire for moral legitimacy. You need to sacrifice some of your desires to make the rest valid. As far as my philosophically uncredentialed self can make out, anyway.


matt 08.07.08 at 1:07 pm

_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._

This is a staple of a certain sort of kids movie (or at least was when I was a kid) where the kid in question becomes rich or gets magical powers and so can have every wish fulfilled but comes to learn that it’s not so good to have every wish fulfilled. As a kid I tended to think this was a bit of propaganda put forward by people trying to make me feel better about not having my every wish fulfilled but now I agree that there’s something to it. I’d add, though, that one ought to have a desire not to have things go too far from one’s desires since that also will be bad. (It’s also funny to think things like “if only I had some adversity I could over-come it and then be better!”) Maybe the right thing to desire is to have a rich and diverse life, and to see that this is incompatible with a desire to have all of one’s immediate desires fulfilled in just the way one imagines.


aaron_m 08.07.08 at 1:37 pm

No info on work in this area to contribute, but I find the topic interesting and there are many fun philosophical issues. Things get a bit unsafe (i.e. even more interesting) when extending the point from personal desires to lets say principles of justice.

One of the most widely accepted principles of justice across the political spectrum is equality of opportunity. However if we were ever to actually approach genuine equality of opportunity I suspect we would destroy some central features of what makes for a good life at the individual level and create some nasty side effects as well (surely there is some science fiction books with this theme). For example, the quality of my sense of individual self worth is tied tightly with achieving certain goals within the context of a life like mine , and if we all had nearly the same kind of conditions from which to act we might end up with exaggerated or even extreme feelings of guilt or pride about our lives. So the idea (which I know is not original in any way) is that equality of character V extended to realms W,X,Y to degree Z is essential for giving individuals access to a good life and high levels of self-worth, but beyond some threshold equality can also deteriorate or pervert these values.

ps. I am not of course in any way arguing against equal access to education, health care or even inheritance taxes (etc…). At the aggregate level there is a long way to go towards equal opportunity before the issue I introduce above could be relevant.


Dave 08.07.08 at 1:45 pm

The real danger of full-on equality of opportunity is that “we”, or the people “we” care about, might turn out to be *not very good at* whatever turns out to matter… This is why anyone who can, manipulates any apparently open system in their own interests, just in case. Public education in the UK is an excellent example of this.

Meanwhile, the problem with having everything you want is of not thereafter having anything to want; thereby relapsing into the vile vapid vacuum of self-indulgence so evident amongst the idle rich at all times. Has there ever been a moral system predicated on the *actual* [as opposed to potential/aspirational] fulfillment of desires?

Still, give me a lottery-winner-size fortune and I’ll devote my days to thinking about it…[promise]


Kevin Donoghue 08.07.08 at 1:55 pm

I’m not sure if this is relevant?

Fred Hoyle’s book, October the First is Too Late tells of a time-travelling scientist who passes up the chance to study the textbooks of the future because they contain the answers he has been seeking all his life. Surely John Holbo has written a lengthy post about this?


Kevin Donoghue 08.07.08 at 1:58 pm


James 08.07.08 at 2:11 pm

I always thought this about elections. You want your party to win, but you wouldn’t want them to win 100% of the vote/seats.


Justin W. 08.07.08 at 2:22 pm

Check out “The Idea of a Life Plan” by Charles Larmore. It appeared in Social Philosophy and Policy 16(1), 1999. It is also a chapter in his newest book, the Autonomy of Morality. In it he argues for the value of the unexpected.


Sam TH 08.07.08 at 2:41 pm

I think the Talking Heads song ‘Heaven’ is relevant here.


Delicious Pundit 08.07.08 at 2:45 pm

It is a condition for me to live the life of a happy football fan that they win, but not too much.

This attitude might get you killed in the Southeastern Conference (Vanderbilt excepted). But that’s football (sic).


Otto B 08.07.08 at 2:51 pm

There’s an old article by Anthony Kenny on happiness in a moral philosophy collection edited by Joel Feinberg. He describes the situation as a kind of omega inconsistency: for all our desires we want them satisfied (because that is the nature of desire), but we do not want that all our desires be satisfied (because of the boredom argument). It has the same structure as the paradox of the preface.


Eric 08.07.08 at 2:54 pm

In his book “Well-being,” James Griffin talks about this problem for preference-satisfaction theories of well-being. An addict may have a global desire to drop his addiction but will continue to have local desires for the drug. Preference-satisfaction theories must differentiate between these different levels of desires (ie global or local) so as not to stray too far from our intuitions about what makes a person better off — most people would say that quitting the drug would make the person better off, while continuing to take it would not.

Clearly there are important differences between Griffin’s addict example and Chris’s own local desire for unlimited successes, but the point remains that preference-satisfaction theories need to distinguish between local and global desires.

The really interesting thing about Chris’s point though is that it hints at a major weakness of preference-satisfaction theories. We seem to have lots of “substantive” ideas about what makes a life go well — struggling, working hard, achieving. “Formal” preference satisfaction theories need to be twisted (as in the hierarchization of preferences) in order to conform to these substantive notions of well-being, but in doing so they give up the game, so to speak. If a preference-satisfaction theory of well-being admits that there are substantive ideas underlying our preferences, then it seems that we ought to look for a theory of well-being based on those substantive ideas rather than relying on the surface-level idea of preferences


Adam Roberts 08.07.08 at 3:22 pm

Aren’t you stumbling towards the elephant in the room (of Philosophy) called Jumbo Freud, here? This is for instance pretty much the whole of Zizek’s schtick, start to finish: we don’t know what we desire; we desire what we don’t desire; there’s a perversity to our desires that goes all the way down.


aaron_m 08.07.08 at 3:27 pm

Zizek’s schtick = the elephant in the room (of Philosophy)


Isn’t Zizek the kind of guy that says it is absolutely absurd to think about what makes us happy and then immediately offer a theory on happiness?


novakant 08.07.08 at 3:47 pm

We seem to have lots of “substantive” ideas about what makes a life go well—struggling, working hard, achieving.

Such ideas are easily ridiculed, however. Maybe they’re just devious propaganda by the rich and powerful to keep the rest of us more or less content with our lot in life ;) .


Sk 08.07.08 at 4:16 pm

Everything ever thought was thought better by Rod Serling ;)

There is a Twilight Episode, of a man who goes to heaven, that addresses this very question.



Z 08.07.08 at 5:07 pm

This is quite simple to me. I have desires, but I also know that men are fallible, including me, so I know that some of the things I desire would actually be toxic to me even though I don’t discern how with the best of my reason. Politics is a great example. I am absolutely convinced that some of my policies proposal are good and just, yet I know that in fact I am wrong. So I desire the victories of those defending these policies but I know that they should be defeated from times to times.

Parenting seems also a great example. I want certain things for my children but I really hope that they will not all come to pass, if only because I want my children to live autonomous lives. If they independently turn out to be exactly how I wished them to be, then I would rationally conclude that I have in fact manipulated them, and that would be painful to me.

In both cases, fallibility is the real key issue for me.


geo 08.07.08 at 5:12 pm

men are fallible

Women, however, are another matter.


Stuart 08.07.08 at 5:18 pm

It looks to me that the examples above aren’t really about higher-order desires, so much as merely conflicting or inconsistent desires. So, for example, you have a desire for your team to win, and another desire that pulls in a different direction. But the content of the latter antagonistic desire isn’t just that your former desire be unfulfilled; rather, it’s that watching football remain unpredictable (or something like that), and this of course is incompatible with the former desire. Why does that make it higher-order?

Similarly, Feynman has desires for (a) a high salary but (b) a happy home life; Hoyle’s time-traveller wants (a) to know the answers to various questions but also (b) the pleasure of finding things out; the addict wants (a) another dose of the drug, but also (b) the benefits of a drug-free life; etc. In each case there’s some independent content to each of the two antagonistic desires, which refers only to things in the external world, and not to first-order desires themselves. Doesn’t that mean we’re just dealing with two conflicting first-order desires, and no second-order desires enter into it?

As I (perhaps mis-)understand it, a second-order desire is something like e.g. “I want to be the kind of person who wants A rather than B” — that is, it should have some first-order desire as part of its content. It’s not enough just to have implications for some first-order desire, otherwise surely any desire with the potential for conflict would count as higher-order. Am I wrong about this?

On this understanding, a conflict of the kind that Chris is talking about, that genuinely involves second-order desires, would be something like wanting that some of one’s wishes remain unfulfilled, where this is wanted primarily for its own sake (perhaps because having unfulfilled desires is perceived as being character building, or morally improving, or some such). But that’s distinct from wanting some of your desires to be unfulfilled as a consequence of having other conflicting first-order desires. So far, I think we’ve only seen examples of the latter, not the former.


don't quote me on this 08.07.08 at 5:18 pm

I’m reminded of the so-called Zen View, as described in “A Pattern Language”:



Ben Alpers 08.07.08 at 5:18 pm


It’s Season 1, Episode 28 of The Twilight Zone, “A Nice Place to Visit.”

The full video is available here.


des von bladet 08.07.08 at 5:39 pm

Since I’m not the first to mention Freud, I’ll supply the appropriate quote:

“One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’. What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment.”
— Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents

I doubt that Chris is in a hurry to adopt a framework based on libidinal economies, but now that I am officially geographically “continental” I feel entitled to say that I would expect to prefer Freud to any theory of happiness that placed rationality front and centre. (Which is not especially intended to be high praise.)


noen 08.07.08 at 6:17 pm

The worst thing that can happen to someone is to get what they truly desire. The film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky lays out the territory of desire. In the film there is a rumored “zone”, supposed to have been the result of a UFO crash, where your inner most desires come true. The stalker, a local, contracts with two others to lead them into the zone. They don’t travel directly to the zone but take a highly circuitous route. The area surrounding the zone is filled with deadly traps and snares. When the UFO crashed the military sent in troops but they never returned. When they do finally come to the entrance of the zone, a small empty room, they decide not to enter it because in the course of getting there and talking about it they decided that it is not a good thing to get what your heart most desires.

Another good movie to see would be Slavoj Žižek’s “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”. I’d recommend it as an introduction to Žižek but it also goes into the function of desire especially as it relates to cinema.

Jacques Lacan on desire
Lacan’s désir follows Freud’s concept of Wunsch and it is central to Lacanian theories. For the aim of the talking cure – psychoanalysis – is precisely to lead the analysand to uncover the truth about their desire, but this is only possible if that desire is articulated, or spoken. Lacan said that “it is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire appears in the full sense of the term.”

I think this works out in the same manner in society as well. Take a look at the gay community. What was Stonehenge but being “named in the presence of the other”? We, I’m GLBT myself, didn’t even know we existed and had no real identity before Stonehenge where we proclaimed our selves before the presence of the larger society. And so now “gay” is a community with internal cohesion and an identity that advertisers market to.

But Desire should never be fully satisfied for if it were what would you be left with? Nothing.


mollymooly 08.07.08 at 6:26 pm

See also Chapter 10 of Julian Barnes’ “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters”.

I incorporate an ability to be blissfully content in the face of eternal perfection in my fantasy heaven.


dr ngo 08.07.08 at 6:27 pm

I always thought this about elections. You want your party to win, but you wouldn’t want them to win 100% of the vote/seats.

Unless you are among the leaders of Singapore’s People’s Action Party in the heyday of Lee Kuan Yew. Then when you win all but two seats in an election, you harass the winners of those seats in the courts on various trumped-up charges, in lieu of the genuine crime of having the effrontery not just to oppose the PAP, but actually to defeat them.


The Boundless Cosmopolitan 08.07.08 at 6:30 pm

Three thoughts…

I’ve always thought that higher gas prices would force us to find alternatives, which would be good for the environment, good for the geopolitical situation, and maybe even good for my wallet in the long run. However, now that gas prices are rising, they’re kicking my ass because I live in an anti-pedestrian locale and have to drive a great deal. I think I’m going to have to suck it up on this one.


I am desirous of a cosmopolitan future, you know, with peaceful integration, and perhaps a happy world federalist system, or some such. I am hopefully not too naive, as I think there’s a chance of this happening after another 10,000 years or so :) How would this satisfaction of my desire be bad in any way? (I guess I should watch the Twilight Zone’s A Nice Place to Visit first.)


There are many European soccer leagues where only a small group of teams seemingly ever have a legitimate chance of winning a championship. (Anyone willing to put money on a team other than Celtic or Rangers in the Scottish Premier League?) While this doesn’t exactly meet the threshold you’ve set for losing interest, can we say it approaches it? I suppose the difference between winning a championship and winning a game makes the difference. Even if the bottom dwellers never win a title, a victory over the top team becomes a memorable experience.


shpx.ohfu 08.07.08 at 6:45 pm

Shorter Chris Bertram: DO WANT; do not want to want.


neo-geo 08.07.08 at 7:12 pm

Hm..perhaps it is my simplemindedness, but I could watch the Lakers win championships year in and year out without getting “tired.”


Paul Gowder 08.07.08 at 7:18 pm

I feel like Jon Elster must have touched on this somewhere, like in one of his Ulysses books, though I can’t remember a specific ref.


blah 08.07.08 at 9:42 pm

“Oh, hold on; there’s plenty of pain here – but it don’t kill. There’s plenty of suffering here, but it don’t last. You see, happiness ain’t a THING IN ITSELF – it’s only a CONTRAST with something that ain’t pleasant. That’s all it is. There ain’t a thing you can mention that is happiness in its own self – it’s only so by contrast with the other thing. And so, as soon as the novelty is over and the force of the contrast dulled, it ain’t happiness any longer, and you have to get something fresh. Well, there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven – consequently there’s plenty of contrasts, and just no end of happiness.”

Mark Twain, Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven


g 08.07.08 at 10:01 pm

Distinguish between these two:
* what you want now (you want your football team to win)
* what you would want if you always got what you wanted (you would want your football team to win, but with some number of entertaining and unpredictable close games or losses).

Distinguish between these two:
* You always want your football team to win.
* You want your football team to always win.


bianca steele 08.07.08 at 10:41 pm

So, at what point do those who follow the New England Patriots stop getting satisfaction from their winning nearly all the time?

Why is Chris’s example a second-order desire? Presumably, his satisfaction in seeing his soccer team win is dependent on their winning being a part of the institution called “competitive soccer.” He has a second-order desire to enjoy competitive soccer, and if this institution seemed endangered, his pleasure in participating in the institution (which participation includes wanting strongly for his chosen team to win) would lose its basis. If his desire were really for his team to win no matter what, to the point where he was willing to disregard or violate the “principles of competitive soccer,” he would be doing something different.

Does this desire to participate in the institution of competitive soccer amount to a vision of the good life? If so, would a really rational person be willing to transcend the principles of this institution when reason demanded that? Interesting questions.

Justin, thanks for the reference to Larmore’s new book. He taught my Intro course many years ago.


John Quiggin 08.08.08 at 12:04 am

The idea of probabilities that are themselves uncertain raises plenty of difficulties, which I’ve been working on for some years with only limited progress. The problem is that if your uncertainty about probabilities can itself be expressed in probabilistic terms, then you have a compound lottery that can easily be reduced to an ordinary set of probabilities. There are various ways around this, but none of them are entirely satisfactory (to me at any rate).


quanticle 08.08.08 at 12:54 am

…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.

Well, I’m not sure about that. I mean, look at casino games. The probabilities for casino games are fixed, and, for most of the common cases, can be memorized. Yet, that doesn’t stop many many people from finding enjoyment from a casino.


Joshua W. Burton 08.08.08 at 1:30 am

“And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.”

Must we dismiss the conventional answer? When we have it all our own way, we find we’re not very good company, even to ourselves — nor would we be, even with all the parts and virtues of Milton’s antihero. By contrast, Rabbi Tarfon (Akiva’s generation, fl. 100 CE) had a formula for joy that reminds me how little time I spend wanting when I’m doing.

It is not upon you to finish the task;
Neither are you free to desist from it.
The day is short, the job is enormous,
The workers indolent, the reward bountiful,
And the Master insistent!


rea 08.08.08 at 3:11 am

Second order desire? Just a cheap trick . . .

I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
Id love you to love me.
Im beggin you to beg me.


jf 08.08.08 at 4:31 am

I don’t know about the general issue/puzzle, but the football example seems to me not so puzzling. You just need to ask about the reason that you desire your team to win. If a big part of the answer is that you get satisfaction out of seeing them struggle against adversity and manage to overcome it, then you simply can’t have this without the possibility that they will be defeated. And this is different from wanting them to win with a certain probability chosen, say, by a random device, since that would not entail any struggle or effort or outcome conditional on performance. No?


John Quiggin 08.08.08 at 5:45 am

Seth, if you had even once, in your long history here, contributed anything valuable, or even coherent, I might be inclined to pay some attention to your assessment. As it is, I can only invite you to take yourself elsewhere. Whatever others here may decide, I’ve certainly had enough of you. Consider yourself banned from commenting on my posts.


Chris Bertram 08.08.08 at 6:59 am

John, I’ve now removed all SE’s comments from this thread by marking them as spam. He’s banned from my threads too.


bad Jim 08.08.08 at 8:22 am

I probably shouldn’t comment, because I’m a hunger artist in many ways, but nevertheless:

The problem of always getting what you want doesn’t exist as a practical matter and perhaps cannot exist for a human. I live in Laguna Beach, California, where the weather is much the same year round and is nonetheless a constant focus of attention. The fact that it’s nearly always pleasant doesn’t matter as much as the variation from day to day or month to month.

We change our norms rapidly. Visiting Rio de Janeiro I got a rise out of the tiny tanga bikinis for all of about ten minutes. I would like to have tarried longer at Barceloneta, where the lovelies wore only the briefest of thongs, but my friend Diane was hungry for paella … I recall a hippie gathering in Mendocino where nudity was de rigeur and it wasn’t long before my thoughts turned to sunburn and I put on a shirt.

Contra Faust, I’ve often had occasion to say “Moment, stay, thou art so fair”. One summer evening on vacation at age 8, when my sister and I followed a trail in a glen in upstate New York to its end; a morning in the Tetons with one brother when we just wandered out of camp by ourselves; another at Patrick’s Point in Northern California, cool and foggy, and I think it was all four of us following a cliffside trail (no, we weren’t trying to drive our parents crazy, that was just a useful side effect).

Days like that still happen. An impromptu family gathering one soft September Saturday made me skip my 20th high school reunion. The first evening in Florence (with the above-mentioned lady friend).

No matter how comfortable your daily experience, some events will rise above the others. My favorite moments seem to require other people, who can be depended upon to be undependable. My policy is to cling to those moments in the certainty that they’re transient.


Chris Bertram 08.08.08 at 9:28 am

#20 Hi Stuart.

Very helpful comments!

On the terminology, the issue is complicated a bit by the fact that when Frankfurt introduces the terms, he is writing about action. So a 1st order d is when someone wants to phi, and a 2nd order d is when someone want to be moved by a d to phi. In my post above, I’m dealing with wanting that (some outome) as much as wanting to (some action).

But I’m not sure whether that matters a great deal.

My contrast was between a desire for particular outcomes, and a desire that the overall pattern of achievement have some properties such that many particular desires have to be thwarted if the best outcome overall is to be achieved.

On this view my life goes better in the world with the better pattern, than in the one where I achieve a greater success in overall desire or preference satisfaction (even with desires somehow “cleaned up” with perfect info, rationality etc). Since some views (e.g. Arneson at some points in his evolution) identify overall well being with the sum of such particular preference satisfaction, I think my remarks ought to cause difficulties for them. But it may not, I’m just floating an idea here.

It may be, though, that the examples I’ve chosen to illustrate the idea don’t in fact do so, since they just show conflicting desires. Not sure what I think about that, just yet.


noen 08.08.08 at 5:49 pm

What does it mean to have a life worth living? Are humans even meant to be happy? I can imagine people reporting being unhappy and yet generally satisfied. My team didn’t make the playoffs but I’m satisfied because they showed courage (or some other such value) in the face of adversity. Yes I would have been happy is they had won, but not if they had cheated in order to win. Or… Couples report being less happy when they have children. Children are a major source of stress. But I can imagine many who would consider a childless life to be unsatisfying. People are willing to endure a great deal of unhappiness if they believe in the end they achieve a life worth living or some sort of greater satisfaction. I don’t believe for an instant that “Unhappiness comes from the lack of support from government and society.” Happiness is not only external.


Jenna Moran 08.09.08 at 1:30 am

Here is a thing I have been thinking.

It is my impression that one cannot judge the world as a thing. It is an experience. It is inextricably entangled with its valence.

Nor can one disentangle valence from the situation, or even cleanly isolate it into the experience of self and the experience of the world.

If we try to model the “thing” that makes us happy in a fashion that is distinct from our experience of self and the situation at the time, then inevitably we shall run into difficulty. We shall begin to hem and haw, interjecting elements of the recent past and/or the self to fix the context of this thing.

I would argue that the experience of happiness is produced by a certain situational congruence and harmony between the self, the world, and, lacking the knowledge of some appropriate Greek or Latin word to make the distinction I’d like to make, the self again—the self as actor, the self as witness, and the world as the medium between them, could be close.

There is a certain happiness that comes from a dammed-up desire being granted; oh, absolutely. To go from poor to able to buy groceries—that’s happiness! But it strikes me as kin, not to the experience of buying groceries the next time (if money sustains) but to the experience of looking at the ocean when Maslow’s pyramid permits; or to the joy of loving, or writing. That is, it is the joy of seeing the numinous beauty of existence close at hand, of having the marvelous and amazing interwoven with your flesh and blood and mind, the cloud of Heaven’s grace lowering to filter through your pores. We do not see it in such fine terms when we are winning a hard-fought tennis match or whatever because such fine terms are not necessary: there we look upon a sweaty and physical Heaven, so we rhapsodize with muscles and adrenaline instead of thinking about the numinous. But it’s the same—I think. And that’s why no amount of analysis of the actual thing that is giving happiness suffices: because it’s not the tennis match, or the groceries, or the sunset, or the sports victory, or the words on the page that are Heaven, but rather the alignment between who we are and what we feel and what we are doing—that the world is giving exactly the amount of grit in the experience between witness and actor to suit us as we are.

That’s sort of it, anyway. I’m not a philosopher so the boundaries of my rigorous thought and my emotional exuberance may be more permeable than they ought.

Best wishes,



Kenny Easwaran 08.09.08 at 3:02 am

Bernard Reginster gave a very interesting talk on this sort of stuff at Berkeley in the fall, explaining Nietzsche’s view of boredom and challenge and the will to power and stuff like that. Not stuff I know anything about, but it still sounded really interesting.


Kenny Easwaran 08.09.08 at 3:03 am

Also, consider the case of Ulysses and the sirens, though I guess that’s the same description of a very different phenomenon.


John 08.09.08 at 3:20 am

Tao Te Ching:

That which a person knows he has
is known to him by that which he does not have,
and that which he considers difficult
seems so because of that which he can do with ease.

Through sight, the colours may be seen,
but too much colour blinds us.
Apprehending the tones of sound,
too much sound might make us deaf,
and too much flavour deadens taste.
When hunting for sport, and chasing for pleasure,
the mind easily becomes perplexed.
He who collects treasures for himself
more easily becomes anxious.

The wise person fulfills his needs,
rather than sensory temptations.


John 08.09.08 at 5:55 am

In other words, according to my interpretation, much of our judgement is based on comparisons of relative worth. If you get everything that you want, you lack a basis for comparison with the experience of not having something, and the value of what you have decreases.

Since so many of our mental heuristics are based on comparison, this explanation seems like a good, simple starting point to me.


smmyray 08.09.08 at 10:02 am

Which I think, John, is Mr. Clemens brilliant point as posted by blah…


tom hurka 08.09.08 at 1:00 pm

How much is this *really* about preference-satisfaction, and how much about the feeling of satisfaction or pleasure you can get when something you want comes about?

Imagine that I have a set of desires for after my death: that global warming be avoided, that there be no large-scale wars, that my son live a happy and prosperous life. Do I have Chris’s higher-order desire that some of those desires not be fulfilled? Not at all. My ideal pattern is that they all be fulfilled. Likewise for my desires about the present whose fulfilment I can’t know about, e.g. that people don’t laugh at me behind my back, etc. I want all of those fulfilled.

The only case where I want a desire not to be satisfied is when my knowing that is a condition of my getting a greater feeling of satisfaction from the fulfilment of some other desire. Which suggests that the underlying value is really pleasure, not preference-fulfilment, and that sometimes (not always, contra Mark Twain and thousands of first-year undergrads) you need some minor frustration to get major enjoyment. But that’s primarily a fact about the causes of pleasure rather than one about higher-level desires., i.e. it only applies to desires when pleasure is at stake.


Chris Bertram 08.09.08 at 4:15 pm

Well that alone would be an interesting result, Tom, because it would torpedo those accounts of well-being that reduce it to (suitably-adjusted) preference satisfaction (e.g mid-90s Arneson).


bianca steele 08.09.08 at 5:17 pm

Another example, probably different from the original one: I do not want to get food poisoning. Regardless, I choose to live my life such that I probably have, say, a 0.01% chance of getting food poisoning. You could say I do actually want to get food poisoning 0.01% of the time, but this would be wrong, and I think it should be possible to distinguish the two cases. (Certainly it would be wrong to conclude that I think the best possible world is one in which in the total population there is a 0.01% overall incidence of food poisoning.)

One way to generalize this might be to say that I have a desire not to get food poisoning, but that I also want the freedom to have other desires that might contradict that one. However, I don’t think this quite gets at what I mean.


engels 08.09.08 at 5:28 pm

But Chris if your higher order desire not to have things in your life turn exactly the way you want them to were satisfied wouldn’t that mean that in one crucial respect your life had turned out exactly the way you wanted it to? And wouldn’t that be… boring?


engels 08.09.08 at 5:43 pm

Perhaps the only real way for someone who has a central desire to experience the (partial but substantial) frustration of his desires to really experience frustration is for most of his other desires to be satisfied…


noen 08.09.08 at 6:50 pm

bianca @ 52
People aggressively pursue food that poisons them. They circle it, play with it. Alcohol is a poison to all living things and the effects that we deem pleasurable are bits of our brain dying. Yet we have built up elaborate rituals around it, dancing with death. Fugu would be another example.

The trick here is in knowing what you want. It’s often preferable not be aware of what that is.


bianca steele 08.09.08 at 7:15 pm

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say or how it has anything to do with my comment.


tom hurka 08.10.08 at 1:42 am


Yes, the point was to question the importance of preference-satisfaction in an account of an ndividual’s good. It can’t be to eliminate it entirely, if it’s relevant to one’s good to have desires about events after one’s death or about situations one can’t know about fulfilled. But I think many self-styled preference-theorists are, at bottom, in large part hedonists. Think of the key examples motivating informed-desire theories: they’re ones where you won’t get felt satisfaction or pleasure from the thing you now desire, and wouldn’t desire it now if you knew that. So what’s really driving the argument is a concern with self-satisfaction.

Btw, last time I looked Dick Arneson had an objective account of the good (yay!).


noen 08.10.08 at 2:15 am

bianca – I read you as saying that people do not want to get food poisoning. But people do, by consuming alcohol or Fugu or other things. They know it’s poison and that it’s harmful, that’s the whole point. Like jumping out of airplanes, bungie jumping, mountain climbing, the whole idea is to walk up to the edge.

Wouldn’t risky behavior fall under “wanting not to get what you want”? Or perhaps one could say there is a dynamic tension between what I really want and what I say I want. Our conscious desires are not the whole story.


Righteous Bubba 08.10.08 at 2:45 am

Noen, that’s an awfully strong judgment of alcohol. Most users of the stuff are not flirting with death.


engels 08.10.08 at 2:45 pm

You have a set of central desires, for health, happiness, etc, c1, …, cn. In addition you have a central desire c* that none of your central desires should be completely satisfied. Taken together these are all your central desires. Suppose that none of c1, …, cn are completely satisfied. Is c* completely satisified? If c* is not completely satisified, then one of your central desires must be completely satisfied, but since none of c1, …, cn are it follows that c* must be completley satisified. If, on the other hand, c* is completely satisified, then none of your central desires are completely satisfied and in particular c* is not completely satisfied.


noen 08.10.08 at 8:17 pm

Thanks engels. Are people really that linear, like a computer program? Or is c* more like a node on a network? I guess I was focusing on the desires c1, …, cn and noting that for me and I think many people, we have multiple competing desires. I say and do many stupid things. I have desires that undermine other desires or are in direct conflict with each other. More importantly, I feel I have desires of which I am unaware operating in the background that influence my behavior.

Chris Bertram says: “In fact we can rule those out by stipulating that I’m rational, fully-informed”. I don’t believe that people are rational. Even those who may seem rational on the surface are a mass of conflicting irrational desires below the facade. But it’s just a stipulation, ok. Turning to the sport example: “the probability of winning must itself be uncertain if I’m to get the necessary satisfaction.” I take to mean an upset win where an underdog defeats a stronger team. The win is a surprise that we didn’t see coming. Sort of like the structure of a joke where the punch line is unexpected. Jokes aren’t very funny if you know the punch line in advance.

I can see how that might relate to having children. They are very expensive, stressful and an emotional drain. But in the end many people feel that children are worth it. If one analyzed the prospect of having kids rationally I suppose no one would have any. The payoff is further down the line and not immediately apparent. It isn’t so much a surprise as a deeper satisfaction. Our internal reward system has differing weights. Your child saying “I love you” seems to cancel out a lot of sleepless nights.

RB – I should have made it clear that I was thinking of the extreme, sorry.


Nick Valvo 08.11.08 at 12:09 am

(I didn’t read quite all of the comments, so sorry if somebody has already raised this.)

Jacques Lacan has a word for what you’re talking about; it’s called ‘jouissance,’ by which he means a special kind of self-impeding enjoyment. It’s supposed to sound a bit raunchy in French, as ‘jouir’ would be a slangy way to speak of having an orgasm. The term names an excessive enjoyment ‘beyond’ what Freud called the pleasure principle, that quasi-utilitarian logic according to which people economize and maximize pleasure. Lacan would say that the pleasure principle is operated by the law (and is therefore an Oedipalized enjoyment), which enjoins the subject to “enjoy, but only as little as possible.” He’s interested in the (radical?) possibilities of more extreme kinds of pleasure, unregulated by this kind of economizing tendency.

It’s a nice way to think about obsessive behavior or the enjoyment of “unpleasant” activities or cultural forms like tragic drama or sado-masochism or Igor Stravinsky, etc.

A famous anecdote which I tell my students when I teach this stuff: Lacan is in Baltimore in 1966 to attend the famous structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins. An American academic has picked him up at the airport, as one does, and as they are driving into the city, Lacan asks him about a Coca-Cola billboard. What does that mean, ‘Enjoy Coke?’ The American explains, briefly, in French. Lacan is quiet for a moment and then says: “this ‘enjoy’ is not my ‘jouir’.”


engels 08.11.08 at 5:42 pm

Just to be clear, I was responding to the original post and not any of the comments. I wasn’t advancing the view that people are ‘linear, like a computer program’. I just thought it was interesting that a set of assumptions which seem very close to those advanced in this post leads directly to a paradox.


engels 08.11.08 at 6:50 pm

More seriously, I’d be interested to know, Chris, what it is about not getting everything you want in a given aspect of your life-plan that you judge to be valuable. Is it just, as Hurka is suggesting iirc, that you believe you get more pleasure this way? Or do you think there is something inherently valuable about not getting everything you want in any given domain? If it is the latter, then I can’t see why you wouldn’t think it was true of absolutely all aspects of your life-plan, including this second-order aspect, and I do think this leads to a paradox…


engels 08.12.08 at 10:09 pm

Clarification: The question I have is whether the value of not getting everything you want in a given aspect of your life plan is intrinsic or instrumental (in terms of pleasure, or by providing an opportunity for exercising certain capacities, or for other reasons). If it is the second, then it seems to me that your second-order desire is not for the frustration of your desires as such but for these ends. If it is the first, and you desire limited desire frustration in each aspect of your life plan for its own sake, then that seems to lead towards the paradox above.

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