Let the Strongest Desire Win

Some philosophies claim that knowing their tenets is enough to reap their rewards.  Let’s call such a philosophy P.  Now, this claim may seem odd to some.  After all, some people will study P, agree that it’s true, yet find they haven’t reaped P’s rewards. Does this mean knowledge of P is not enough?

I think knowledge of P is enough, but this knowledge is a special kind.  To see this, let’s start with a brief detour through a common conception of how we decide.

A common view of our decisions is they are the result of a struggle between reason and desire.  Reason rules over desire… or would if our will was strong enough.  But is this true?

Assume I’m on a diet and am debating whether I should eat a brownie. Not eating the brownie seems reasonable, and eating it seems unreasonable — it would be succumbing to desire. However, not eating the brownie is also succumbing to desire — the desire to stay on the diet.  Additionally, my reasons for dieting are a chain of desires: the desire to be slimmer to be more attractive to get more dates…

So in all cases, desire is running the show and reason — at best — serves it.  So how are desires mediated? They’re not.  The strongest desire wins. If I eat the brownie, then the brownie-eating desire is strongest.  If I don’t eat the brownie, then the dieting desire is strongest.  Days where I seem to resist the urge are simply days when the desires change in strength; maybe I’m not as hungry, or am in love (and hence really want to look good) or I’ve eaten so many brownies, I’m tired of the regret and a third desire — avoiding mental recriminations has entered the mix and trumped all other desires.

So if my decision making process is a case of bowing to the strongest desire, then how do I adhere to P, especially since P is likely to run counter to the traditional pursuits I normally value?

This is where knowledge comes in.  P’s conception of knowledge is not intellectual assent, but rather that which strengthens the desire for P above other desires.  If this is accomplished, then adherence to P takes care of itself since desire-for-P is the strongest desire and hence wins.

So what kind of knowledge builds this desire? It depends on the person, but very often it’s experiential knowledge. For example, take fire.  I can read about fire and agree that being burned is bad. Alternatively, I can burn my hand.  What is more likely to build a stronger desire to avoid fire?

Many of the practices of P can be seen as ways of bringing P’s knowledge to experience and hence building a strong desire for P. Additionally, P may include tenets and practices to disparage the traditional life, thus increasing the relative desire for P by decreasing the desire for its biggest competitor.

This knowledge is sometimes called realization, and its opposite is ignorance.  In this context, ignorance is not a pejorative or a lack of intellectual knowledge.  Rather it’s simply not experiencing P’s tenets.  Therefore, it’s possible for one to intellectually understand P, yet still be in ignorance regarding P because one has not experienced P’s tenets and hence not built the magnified desire for P.

Thoughts?

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15 thoughts on “Let the Strongest Desire Win

  1. It’s a good idea. I actually would like to see it developed with some examples: for example, how do you apply this to Kantian morality? What desires come into play there? If I decide to behave according to Kantian morality, what has been my mental process? I am not questioning your line of thought, it’s just that I find examples greatly enhance my understanding of an idea.

    1. Your mental process with Kantian morality is greater desire to do your duty. This desire could be decomposed in a few ways. For instance, a desire to do the duty itself, a desire to maintain a self-image (to be) of an ethical agent, etc…

      In any case, this desire would be stronger than the competing desires, such as the desire to get ahead which may necessitate lying, etc…

      Does tht clarify things?

      1. Yes but not entirely. What I wish to know is the process that leads me to choose Kantian morality over some other morality (Nietzschean, for example). In this case, “wanting to do my duty” is ill-defined, since there are many possible duties. What makes me choose one kind of duty over another?

      2. Well that would also be desire. If you choose one moral system over another, you either prefer it, or it is instrumental to some preference down the line. For instance, I prefer utilitarian style ethics because it is instrumental to what I want, which is the happiness of others.

        A similar argument goes for duties.

        Of course your desires are shaped by your experience and understanding, and your duty at any point would depend on your situation.

        Did that answer it?

      3. Yes it did. However, there’s one point I’d like to make: in the trolley problem, I would have huge issues throwing the man off the bridge, because something would be pulling me from doing it. You may call this a desire, but for me a desire is something I want: in this case, I’d call it an instinctive reaction, similar to when your leg moves after being hit in the knee. That is, even though I may want to save the children, something that feels alien to me doesn’t let me. As if some part of the brain I have no control over (and which I can’t even consciously perceive) took control of my actions. I guess you could call this “desire” but I think “instinct” would be better suited. Of course, it’s possible that all desires are deep down based on instincts: that is, desires could be the conscious (or refined) expression of an instinct.

      4. Well I would not consider reflex to be a reasoned process, so it really wouldn’t factor into this. I should have specified that this was more an explanation for conscious or intentional processes. Habits and reflexes would be something else. Now a case where one has an instinct is interesting. I would consider it a desire, provided it had a conscious component of “intentionality”.

        I understand the trolley problem (which is why I would be careful with utilitarianism), but for me there would still be the desire.

        In fact, maybe the desire would be modeled on degrees as intentionality? Reflex would be the ultimate desire so to speak, as it always wins, followed by weaker desires — ones that allow a measure of introspection or even “lag” before a “decision” is made…

      5. One more thing: in the case of desires, I seem to have some leeway to try to modify them. I don’t think we can do the same with instincts.

  2. Hi BR!
    “Desire runs the show and the strongest desire wins.” And we generally come up with rationalisations afterward. That makes sense to me. I think the rationalisations often don’t describe reality because we’re not conscious of all our desires. Big parts of the decision making process seem to go in the brain without our knowing it. We draw conclusions based on what little we know.

  3. First off, the tone of your blog cracks me up. Great writing, very entertaining.
    I think it’s clever to break down decisions into a conflict of desires. It may not be a perfect metaphor (reference the back and forth when you start dissecting morality problems this way), but as a tool of reflection to assess your own actions, either in hindsight or during the decision process, it makes sense because it feels like you’re now comparing apples to apples instead of something that seems entirely different, like starfruit. My thought after reading this (for what it’s worth) was that the “desires” that play into most decisions are often informed by thoughts and experiences beyond more primal drives normally associated with desire (hunger, sex drive, etc.). So when we say “reason”, are we not using this word to describe “desires” which have been formulated in this way? The desire to diet, which is often described as being reasonable or exercising willpower, results out of rationalization of some form of desire chain like you described. A conclusion based on “reason” is an aggregate desire arrived at through evaluation of a more complicated hierarchy of desires. Which is what makes application of this to a classic morality problem difficult, since the “desires” which play into either decision are much more nuanced and complex than a basic physical desire or low-stakes preference. I think this is more or less what you were describing in relation to adhering to philosophy P– that the reason or rationalization for adhering to P must necessarily arise out of a collation of desires that make P more attractive than its alternative(s). Cool concept.

    1. Thank you.

      I never thought about it that way, but yes, any reduction of phenomena into other terms puts everything on the same footing and thus facilitates comparisons. Very good point!

      The line between primal and higher order desires is an interesting one, and something I would like to explore further, but yes, that may be a good definition of reason.

      Thanks for commenting. You have given me some food for thought.

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