Ethics,  Evil,  Politics,  Religion

On Desire

Dissatisfaction is a mental state induced by not getting what one wants. Desire is also a root of evil. As James puts it, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).

There are at least two proposals on the cultural table for dealing with desires. Neither way works.

The first way is to attempt to remove desires from the inside. This is the way of ‘enlightenment’ – coming to believe a new truth – there are no such things as desires. They appear real, but they are not.

Desires are native to persons. We have them and there’s no way to rid ourselves of them. Thus, some teach that there are really no persons. If there are no persons, then there is nothing to have a desire. To realize such a truth is to be enlightened.

According to the second way, though we cannot remove desire from the inside, we can severely limit them from the outside. The simplest solution to the problem is the removal of objects of desire. Everyone gets what they need and no one gets more of it that anyone else. Everyone gets the same and no one steps out of line. Achieving such an aim liberates us from the prison of desire.

The first way is irrational. To remove desires by treating them as non-real implies that there are no persons, no substantial selves that can have desires. But if there are no persons, no selves, then what exactly is supposed to be enlightened? If nothing, then nothing is enlightened. If something, then enlightenment comes down to believing something false. Thus, either nothing ever gets enlightened or enlightenment means believing something false. Thus, it is not rational to think that desires are not real if only we’d just believe it.

Furthermore, if I wanted to cure suffering by believing that desires (and my self) are not real, I would require a desire to cure suffering. Since that itself is a desire and desires are not supposed to be real, there is no rational reason to want to cure suffering. If so, then there is no reason to awaken. But this contradicts the whole point.

There are at least two proposals on the cultural table for dealing with desires. Neither way works.

The second way requires a hefty management operation whereby a small group of people take it upon themselves to determine who gets what and to regulate the habits of citizens. However, to remove objects of desires in this way leads only to greater evil. Desires are more complex than we first realize. This is because we all have the same kinds of desires (to eat, love, be loved, sleep etc) but none of us has identical desires to one another. We have desires to different degrees and we desire different kinds of things. Given the vast population of the planet, the variety of desires, and the wealth of objects in the world, it is simply impossible to keep track of the variety.

No manager of power can achieve this feat. The only way to do it is to cull vast quantities of the population who act in more individualistic ways and encourage great fear in the rest of the population. The central problem with this move is that it makes a more evil society than the one we had before. This is the lesson of communism and other heavy handed political movements seeking to create utopian societies.

Consequently, though evil springs from desires, eradicating evil by either pretending that desires don’t exist or by removing the objects of desires is either irrational or leads to greater evil.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.