Toward an Ethic of Desires

Leonard O’Brian
Mesa Community College
Community College Humanities Association
Southwestern Division Regional Conference
October 6, 7, 8, 1994
Antlers Doubletree Hotel
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Desires may be represented as a relation between the subject of desire and the object of desire. Suppose Charlotte desires to eat chocolate, first one bar, then another, then another. If she begins, she won't stop until the cows come home. Two questions arise concerning this relation: First, does Charlotte project her desire upon the chocolate, thereby making it desirable, or is chocolate in some way desirable objectively? Second, can Charlotte's desire constitute a vice? Three possible analyses of the nature of desire1 result:

  1. She projects desirability, therefore desire cannot be vicious.
  2. Desirability is objective, therefore desire can be vicious.
  3. She projects desirability, and desire can be vicious.

The first answer relativizes the object of desire to the mind of the subject. Optimistically, it presumes that a subject directly apprehends her own desires so that no essential conflict occurs between a subject's mind and the object of the desire. Of course, conflict could occur between the object of the desire and the subject's body—too much chocolate could harm Charlotte's health. But on this view, desire for X is sufficient and necessary to make X desirable, and the desirability of X is sufficient—though not necessary—to make X non-vicious. Even if an object might harm the subject physically, desirability precludes—or, in a more moderate version, mitigates—vice. This view constitutes one answer to the Euthyphro problem: X is loveable because we love it; we do not love it because it is loveable. Call this the subjectivist thesis.

Ronald de Sousa believes this view to be wrong. He adopts the second position, arguing that certain kinds of objects, such as the experiencing of chocolate, are intrinsically inappropriate for certain kinds of desirings. These desirings fail to correspond to their objects. Much as incorrespondent propositions constitute falsehood, incorrespondent desirings constitute vice, in a sense of 'vice' to be specified presently. By analogy, they may be called "false desires." De Sousa thus proposes, he believes, a better answer to the Euthyphro problem: X is not loveable because we love it; we love it—or at least should—because it is loveable. Call this the objectivist thesis.

De Sousa rightly believes, against the first view, that there are incorrect or "false" desires. He errs, however, in supposing that the impropriety derives from an intrinsic incommensurability between some kinds of desiring and some kinds of objects, construing the objects as a yardstick against which the desires may be evaluated. Rather, X is loveable because we love it; X is vicious if we treat it as loveable but do not love it.2 This view, then, constitutes, on the one hand, a subjectivism in that value derives from the nature of the subject, but, on the other, objectivism in that desires can be "false," therefore vicious. Call this the supervenience thesis.

The cogency of the supervenience thesis may be seen by, first, explaining the essential dimensions of de Sousa's objectivism; second, showing that the specific kinds of desirability of the objects of desire supervene upon the mental (and physical) states of the subjects of desire. The analysis thus begins by explaining alternative #2, and concludes by arguing for alternative #3. Alternative #1, subjectivism, seems sufficiently implausible to not merit treatment, since it supposes that we directly apprehend our own desires and, thus, cannot be wrong about them.

Kinds of Desires and Objects

De Sousa's analysis focuses on some temporal dimensions of desiring. He proposes that there are three kinds of objects and two kinds of desires.3 Following Aristotle, objects are either states, achievements, or activities. Being composed, excited, and tall exemplify states. States are passive and endure indefinitely. Achievements and activities figure more prominently in de Sousa's discussion than do states. Whereas states are passive, achievements and activities are active. Temporal characteristics distinguish the latter two. Walking about illustrates the concept of activity because one is walking about by virtue of having begun to do so. Winning a race illustrates the concept of an achievement because one wins only by virtue of having done so. In common parlance, 'achievement' connotes noteworthiness ("One of President Carter's achievements was the Camp David accords."), and de Sousa's use of the example of winning would suggest that his usage does as well. In fact, he applies the term more broadly: An achievement consists of any event the success of which—however modest—cannot antecede the termination of the event, whereas an activity endures indefinitely and can confer value throughout the endurance.

De Sousa classifies desires as either consummatory or ludic. A consummatory desire construes the object as terminating with the accomplishment of the purpose. The teleological end of the object is deemed to coincide with the temporal end.

Obvious paradigms of consummatory desires include hunger and a certain sort of sexual desire—specifically, the desire for male orgasm, which typically represents the cessation of desire (leading for that very reason, perhaps, to the proverbial postcoital tristitia).4

By contrast, ludic desires include a desire for indefinite continuation.

… The paradigm of nonconsummatory pleasure and desire is play and especially the undirected and nonteleological play of a child. It is that "pottering about" the intellectual form of which Aristotle dignified with the title of contemplation.5

These two sets of distinctions enable de Sousa to address a problem that he calls "the contingency of desire," and thereby to argue that there is an objective basis for matching at least some acts of desiring with their appropriate objects. He formulates the problem of the contingency of desire by distinguishing between "technical satisfaction" and "phenomenological satisfaction." Disappointing orgasm epitomizes the distinction. As G. B. Shaw said, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it."6

The contingency, de Sousa believes, can now be explained. Technical and phenomenological satisfaction fail to coincide if a person entertains a ludic desire for an object consisting of an achievement, or a consummatory desire for an object consisting of an activity. Eating chocolate is an achievement, not an activity, so to desire it as a continuous pleasure will inevitably disappoint. Charlotte's desire is vicious as judged by the nature of its object. Conversely, tourism is an activity. "Doing Paris," construing the object as achievement, explains the dissatisfaction of the harried tourist. If sex is essentially an activity, de Sousa proposes, taking it as an achievement, to be completed as the harried tourist completes Paris, will fail to gratify.

Such a mistake is likely to prove disappointing unless one overtly views sexual activity as a task engaged in for the sake of something else—money, glory, or self-esteem. For otherwise it construes play, which is valuable activity (that is, done for its own sake), as work, which is useful (that is, done for the sake of some end outside itself). Some things can be both valuable and useful, but only what is useless can be purely valuable.7

In a footnote to the last sentence, de Sousa advises, "This, rather than the usual disingenuous mumblings about careers in law, is the proper retort to students who question the usefulness of philosophy."8

Desirability as Supervenient on Subjects

Thus, through the presumably intrinsic characteristics of certain objects of desire, de Sousa hopes to argue for the existence of incorrect or "false" desires. The proposal, as it stands, surely has therapeutic value for type A travelers, incorrigibly rapid readers, chocolate compulsives, and those who forsake pleasures by counting and timing them. Nevertheless, the proposal fails to capture the complexity of human desiring, and thus erroneously explains the contingency of desire as insufficient attention to the temporal structure of the object, rather than as insufficient attention to the mental state of the subject.

Consider sex. De Sousa's disclaimer, in a passage quoted earlier, virtually acknowledges the problem. One errs, he says, if one construes sex as achievement rather than activity.

Such a mistake is likely to prove disappointing unless one overtly views sexual activity as a task engaged in for the sake of something else—money, glory, or self-esteem.9

As the passage nearly allows, sex often is pursued for just such purposes as de Sousa's account would construe as ulterior: money, glory, self-esteem, self-discovery, recreation, distraction from problems, physical health, emotional health, orgasm, procreation, love, spiritual experience. People use sex variously. The subject determines the nature of sex and the kind of satisfaction to be derived therefrom; the nature of sex does not determine the kind of satisfaction of the subject.10 Or in the Platonic idiom, sex, figuratively speaking, is loveable because we love it; we do not love it because it is loveable. It bends to our purposes, exhibiting sometimes value, other times any of numerous uses. Dissatisfaction in sex derives not, for example, in treating it as an achievement even though it is an activity, but, rather, from treating it as either achievement or activity when one or more of the participants, either consciously or unconsciously, desires it in another way. Veridically desired, appropriately considered, consensually implemented quickies do not make bad sex. Bad sex usually results from lack either of self-awareness, judgment in the situation, or mutual consent.

One might defend de Sousa's suggestion that sex, being intrinsically activity rather than achievement, is valuable rather than useful, in either of several ways. First, she might propose that de Sousa characterizes sex normatively, not descriptively. De Sousa, so the reasoning goes, purports to specify the real or essential nature of the phenomenon, not actual, often distorted, permutations. Thus, any survey of putative uses, as that above (recreation, self discovery, etc.), misses the evaluative point by adducing mere description. Overcoming fatigue is not one of the "uses" of opera simply because people have been known to fall asleep during Wagner.

The persuasiveness of this defense will vary with one's moral predilections. If one believes prostitution to be immoral, the defense may persuade, since one will be inclined to think that sexual behavior accompanied by pursuit of financial desire does, indeed, distort the nature of sex. On the other hand, if one believes that conceiving and bearing children incurs some moral credit, the defense may flag, since one will be disinclined to think that sexual behavior accompanied by pursuit of children constitutes any such distortion—indeed, some believe that procreation fulfills the essence of sex.

But the defense fails in any case because de Sousa's account, while normative, is not normative in the relevant sense. Granted, he formulates the discrepancy between technical and phenomenological satisfaction as constituting vice, and that is a normative concept if there ever were one. But he reads vice as psychological, hence empirical.

The nature of vice is frequently misunderstood, because (like weakness of the will) it is assumed to be a moral concept, whereas in fact it is primarily a psychological one. The proper psychological definition of a vice is something that one craves to do even though it brings no pleasure.11

Why de Sousa says that vice is primarily psychological, and what he envisions as comprising the remainder of the concept, remain unclear. It is clear, however that, on his account, vice coincides with the absence of satisfaction. So if one wanted to argue that uses of sex—for money, children, spiritual release, or whatever—ipso facto distorted sex, one would need to find parents, prostitutes, and gurus (indeed, sufficient numbers of these, whatever that would mean) who reported dissatisfaction (again, in sufficient degree) with their sexual experiences when these experiences were associated with their various defining activities and achievements as parents, prostitutes, and gurus. In other words, one would need some sort of survey.

Thus, the defense of de Sousa's account would necessarily be empirical, because the concept to be defended is itself empirical, specifically, phenomenological. Therefore, the descriptive criticism of his account, based on the observed uses to which sex is put, does not miss the point, contrary to the defense from normativeness.

A defender might take a second tack, allowing that an empirical criticism could apply in principle, but that the present criticism fails in fact. It fails because the standard for vice is empirical and phenomenological, whereas the criticism is empirical without being phenomenological: The criticism consists of armchair psychology and sociology, rather than the more rigorous surveys and interviews. But the approach seems philosophically justified on the presumption that if multitudes of people persist in using sex there must be sufficient reward in the behavior to reinforce it. The intuitive and anecdotal data thus adduced seem to suffice to remove the burden of proof to the camp of the defense: How much dissatisfaction is reported by those who acknowledge that they use sex?

A third defense would respond to this claim that if multitudes use sex, they must receive from it some significant reward. What kind of reward, the defender might ask? Exactly what is being rewarded? The sexual experience? Not necessarily, according to this line of thinking. The reward might derive from the external end, producing an overall balance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction. But the sex itself could be ruined by being used. De Sousa's normative account of sex survives: All the multifarious uses in the world do not tell against his objectivist view that sex is an activity, not an achievement; and approaching it as if it were an achievement, whatever external benefits may be gained, will inevitably disappoint.

This defense displays an insufficiently robust conception of disappointment. De Sousa, after all, seeks a concept of incorrect or "false" desires. To merely say that a kind of behavior satisfies less when construed one way (A) than it does when construed another (B), hardly suffices to justify ascriptions of incorrectness of "falsehood" in the case of (A). People whose gainful employment concerns the materials of their personal interest, e. g., educators, often say that they enjoy their work on balance, even though the institutional context imposes some (acceptable) unpleasantries and annoyances that are worlds removed from the youthful paradise when they first learned the joys, say, of reading Aristotle by the fire. Yet most of us who teach would not suggest that the institutional context ruins philosophy, or in any way so damages it as to make pursuing it through teaching somehow "false" or incorrect. Do prostitutes complain of bad sex? Do gurus?

Thus, the method of enumerating actual uses of putative activities appears tenable. Once this tenability is established, the method accepted and applied, the discrepancy can only increase between the relative simplicity of the two categories, achievement and activity, and the actual complexity of our desiderative experience—at least in certain cases. Consider the case of philosophy. De Sousa associates philosophy with play rather than work, noting that only that which is useless can be purely valuable, counseling reticence—a bit petulantly—about the academic applications of training in this discipline. Surely de Sousa intends to be understood hyperbolically. He knows philosophy is useful; otherwise he would not advise silence regarding its uses.

Philosophy constitutes an activity and a range of achievements, many of which may be simultaneously arranged into a complex mutually supporting architecture—perhaps organism is a better metaphor. Let us suppose that, say, writing a philosophical essay is an activity, as de Sousa believes. Yet writing each sentence is an achievement, because (often) the process endures only definitely, and it is useful to the entire essay. The essay itself has uses as well as value. It may contribute to a larger volume of essays, or to professional advancement that may, itself, be both valuable and in various ways useful. The inquiry pursued in the essay may be personally useful, illuminating other questions that hold professional interest for the philosopher—or that hold personal, applied, interest. Does not de Sousa, when he advises us on responding to students who question the merit of philosophy, himself apply his philosophy (of value)? The essay, the book of essays, one's life of reading, writing, and teaching subserve the ecology of the philosopher's entire, developing, personality—Freudian sublimation merely illustrates the distinction and relation, which might be otherwise formulated, between the philosopher's work, much of it publicly observable, and the less observable passions and instincts that are thereby expressed and consoled. Philosophy is neither an activity nor an achievement, but a complex economy of activity and multiple achievements.

Return now to Charlotte and her chocolate. Is eating chocolate only an achievement, or, like philosophy, variously valuable and useful? Might Charlotte be engaged in an activity if she unwraps a bar, nibbling occasionally, leaving it on her desk, throughout the day, much as a cigar smoker might who returns over the hours to savor the same cigar?12 Might Charlotte be engaged in an activity if she holds a chocolate tasting party, along the lines of a wine tasting party in which inebriation and sensory satiation are assiduously avoided, so that the duration of the process is indefinite? Or do we soon exhaust a repertoire of such questions that might call into doubt the view that eating chocolate is only an achievement?

Possibly we do. But such relatively quick termination hardly mitigates the complexity of our desiderative experience. If anything, the complexity is thereby ramified. Chocolate, philosophy, and sex can be compared—and contrasted—only so far, therefore distinctions such as that between activity and achievement constitute heuristic devices at best, therapeutically useful, metaphysically dubious. This complexity supports the third alternative cited at the outset regarding the relation between subject and object: We project desirability, and desires can be vicious. The value, and uses, of chocolate, sex, and philosophy, supervene on the desires of human beings; they do not inhere in the objects of the desires. X is loveable because we love it. Desires are vicious when we approach X as desirable in a way in which we do not desire it.

The point may be formulated either less precisely or more precisely. Less precisely, desires determine desirability. More precisely, deep desires determine desirability, when 'deep' alludes to the principle of depth psychology that our minds, including our desires, resist their own self-apprehension. A psychology of vice presupposes not, essentially, that we do not know our world, but that we do not know ourselves.


  1. (Back to text)A thorough analysis of desire would include a definition of 'desire' and probably of 'emotion'. The argument of this paper can proceed based on intuitive understandings of these terms. A more careful understanding of their meanings might begin with an examination of What is an Emotion? Classical Readings in Philosophical Psychology, edited by Chesire Calhoun and Robert Solomon (Oxford, 1984).
  2. (Back to text)X is also vicious when, even though we love it, possessing it conflicts with the nature of our bodies. Clearly, we often do not know our own bodies; even when we do, it seems that we may knowingly harm them. The partial opacity of body to mind appears at least as considerable as the partial opacity of mind to mind, including desire to mind. This paper is more concerned with the discrepancy between our desires and our minds than between our bodies and our minds, though both discrepancies are important.
  3. (Back to text)Actually, his analysis is more complicated than the distinctions within objects and desires would suggest, but in reading him, I do not yet see that the complications either further his analysis or imply anything for mine.
  4. (Back to text)Ronald de Sousa, The Rationality of Emotion, (MIT Press, 1991), p. 216.
  5. (Back to text)Ibid.
  6. (Back to text)Ibid., p 205.
  7. (Back to text)Ibid., p. 219.
  8. (Back to text)Ibid.
  9. (Back to text)Ibid.
  10. (Back to text)This is not to say that the nature of the body does not determine, or at least help to determine, the extent and kind of satisfaction to be derived therefrom. Hormonal levels, for example, may affect both the extent of desire and the extent of satisfaction, though the relation is complex. Men and women may be capable of different kinds of satisfaction, given the coincidence in men between orgasm and ejaculation. Advocates of tantric sex claim that this connection is merely contingent, so that men are capable of prototypically female multiple orgasms.
  11. (Back to text)Ibid., p. 218. De Sousa's italics.
  12. (Back to text)I thank Sandra Desjardins, who neither eats chocolate nor smokes cigars, for this example concerning an acquaintance of hers.