The Perfection of Desire
Updated: Oct 30
It might be fair, although somewhat simplistic, to divide philosophy’s different approaches to values in human life into two broad camps. The first says that values are inborn, basically instincts. According to this view they are unquestionable and reason has nothing to say about them, playing only an instrumental role helping us figure out how best to get what we want. Hedonism and perhaps pragmatism seem to state this, and so does evolutionary psychology. Its literary champion would be D.H. Lawrence.
The second approach puts all its emphasis on abstraction, in the sense of an idea or entity removed from the normal world. A thing is good to do only if it meets certain intellectual criteria or at least criteria distinct from the needs of the organism. Examples include most of religion, in which value lies in pleasing God and surrendering one’s desires; the philosophy of Immanuel Kant; and duty-based ethics in general. (Note that I take atheism for granted in this essay. It has been ably addressed by others elsewhere.) Ayn Rand would call these the subjectivist and intrinsicist approaches to values.
These two approaches have been at war with each other for centuries. The inborn-values camp claims that the theoretical approach is sterile and anti-life, while the more "abstract" thinkers find the other camp to be brutish and selfish. This conflict detracts from human flourishing.
I propose a third approach that integrates the best features of the other two approaches while discarding their contradictions. It goes like this: we are born with certain values, which are experienced as felt needs (desires for food, love, stimulation, mastery of skills etc.). These unchosen needs are the foundation of any healthy value system. To this extent the first approach is valid.
Such needs or innate values are first experienced from infancy as hungers. But these values do not remain in the form they take in early childhood. They develop as reason, nuanced judgment, and knowledge about the world increase. We know that despite a craving for sweets, too much candy will make us sick while healthy foods, although they take some getting used to, make us feel strong and satisfied. We know (hopefully) that despite our desire for sex, the culmination of sexual attraction is romantic love, and we must fall in love with our eyes open.
Furthermore, as we develop, usually into adolescence, we crave something like a comprehensive worldview (assuming one has not settled for what one had already been taught as is the case with much religious training). As our desires and our will to act independently become stronger, we usually sense that we need something to bring order and purpose into our lives.
This craving comes from reason. As reason matures, we are able to ask questions, in particular questions about the meaning of life. We ask questions because we can ask questions. We become able to consider alternatives in the abstract, and we seek truth at a conceptual level. A desire to make sense of the world becomes an emergent felt need.
At this point it would be helpful to turn to philosophy. Most people don’t, however, at least not very much, because philosophy is to them both too abstruse and basically useless. What most people seem to do is to naively live by what I call a “proto-philosophy," which is a mixture of partially developed natural values; bits of one’s “official” philosophy; some intuition, commonsense and proverbs: and cultural narratives and role models, all wrapped up in is one’s sense of life, which is an affective gestalt that can be adventurous, tragic, flamboyant, etc. (More about the proto-philosophy and the means of knowing that accompanies it in another essay.) You can almost define a human being by his proto-philosophy.
Let me make this clear: very few people live according to formal philosophical systems, and that is perhaps as it should be, given how awful most philosophical systems are. The most consistently “philosophical” people are probably religious fanatics, revolutionaries, and crazed artists, and such people are problematic to say the least. However, I do think it’s possible for a philosophy to be useful (as well as true, of course). But it has to be the right philosophy for human life and must be something that can be integrated into human life. We'll get to the details of such a philosophy later.
My thesis is that a good philosophy helps us to do what we were trying to do all along: to satisfy our natural values, which tend to be life-promoting, though imperfectly so, in a coherent way that makes sense to us. To put it another way, a good philosophy perfects the proto-philosophy by correcting it, mostly by “growing from where one is now” rather than making a quantum leap from one way of living to another. We might have to trace our way back to the felt needs that empowered the proto-philosophy and re-structure it but not ex nihilo because we were already in the process of living; philosophy just helps us do so on a more conceptual and thoughtful way.
In this process, the “official philosophy” part of the proto-philosophy is often partly or wholly discarded in favor of a more valid system of ideas that speaks to real life and which does not derail one’s natural values, while other elements of the proto-philosophy, such as commonsense, are maintained to the extent possible, engaging the world in a cognitively accessible way.
I would argue that a decent proto-philosophy can be enough to get one through a successful life. If one has sufficient commonsense and was raised with (or figured out) something like Enlightenment values, one might flourish. But maybe not. It would depend largely on how rational one chooses to be, but there are plenty of generally rational people who are blinded by falsehoods such as religion or tribalism or a belief in a zeitgeist, etc.
So we see the integration of the two approaches: our basic values are inborn, but they develop along with reason, and we need reason, in the form of philosophy, to help them realize and perfect themselves.
The way I like to think of it is that a good philosophy tutors our felt needs, helps them find their proper ends, untangles their contradictions, and raises life to a conceptual level. A good philosophy, however, does not need to help us derive values from facts because we are born valuing beings, in medias res. To demand a derivation is pure rationalism, unrelated to human nature.
However, if we do not derive values from philosophy and abstractions, then how is it possible to ground them? My view would seem to be sliding down the slippery slope to Epicureanism or even hedonism. Those systems amount to “do what you like” and thus seem arbitrary and subjective.
I don’t believe this is where my view is heading. I would say that our felt needs are self-justifying. During infancy and perhaps into late toddlerhood, our felt needs are our whole universe. There is no issue of questioning them. They form our horizon, unless we are burdened with illusions and/or traumas. Demanding a derivation at a fundamental level means bringing in philosophy too soon. But philosophy is indispensable later.
If one is worried that my approach keeps people in an infantilized condition, keep in mind that in human beings, felt needs grow and change as reason grows. For example, marriage as an institution is obviously based on felt needs, but those needs are incorporated into a socially constructed arrangement that goes beyond those basic needs in their "raw" form.
As we grow from toddlerhood (approximately) to adolescence (approximately), we get a sense that our felt needs, at least for the most part, have to do with "objective" life and not just "subjective" feelings. I know I have to eat to stay alive as well as to stave off feelings of hunger. I know I have to avoid bears because they might kill me. And so forth. Felt needs naturally evolve into conceptual knowledge of for-me and against-me. “Life” becomes a value implicit in our operations.
Even activities that do not involve life or death per se often involve experiences of vitality, as in the joy of exploration and playing. At some level these are self-evident goods because they make us feel alive, and they make us feel alive because they tend, if pursued, to promote life. No doubt there is some evolutionary causation going on here, but building philosophy on science should, in my opinion, generally be avoided.
But as I was saying before, a proto-philosophy and inchoate felt needs are not enough. We need to develop our reason. Reason is our primary means of survival. Our character is organized around us being rational animals. Since we can make mistakes and get sidetracked, we need a sound philosophy to finish ourselves, to complete ourselves by integrating innate desire and explicit reason.
So, what philosophy would be helpful here? I would argue that we need a system that is life-centered, reason-centered, and earth-centered—one that takes into account our own mortality.
Probably, we could identify a family of such philosophies, all vaguely Aristotelian/Enlightenment in their orientation. America's Founding Fathers accepted a philosophy somewhat like what I describe, but the best and truest such philosophy that I know of is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.
I don’t believe that Rand’s system is perfect, but many of my differences with it have to do with how Rand spun things, how she could have made something elements of her ideas more explicit, and how she might have better connected the dots between her fiction and her non-fiction These aspects of her views can be addressed without tearing down the central structure.
I am aware that many people do not share my esteem for Objectivism. Some deride if for personal reason, such as that Rand was an adulterer. This is pure ad hominem. Some claim that it isn’t even a philosophy. This claim neglects Rand’s extensive and well-thought-out writing in all the major areas of philosophy. Others simply disagree with some of the tenets of her system, such as egoism and laissez-faire capitalism, but it is anti-intellectual to dismiss these tenets without some consideration, based purely on one's prejudices on the subject. In the context of this essay, I have come to use Rand, not to defend her. Others have done that far better than I could.
Rand’s ethics are clearly life-centered. They turn on her analysis of the concept of value. Values for Rand are things or conditions that an entity might gain and/or keep by its own action in the face of an alternative. A value is not meaningful if it does not affect the valuer. Only living organisms face the fundamental alternative that they can affect by their own actions, and that is existence or non-existence, i.e. life or death. There can be no value that is more ultimate than life according to this argument.
Rand would claim that while life is the fundamental value for plants and the other animals, they do not meaningfully choose life, because they have no reason. Only human beings have to choose, and life (as the kind of being we are) is the only rational choice. Everything we do should have as its final goal to live. All of our choose-x-to-get-y hypothetical imperatives must lead to one overriding end in itself and life is the only consistent and rational candidate.
This all sounds pretty good. Perhaps I have found a philosophy that is both accessible and life-promoting, and would allow us to perfect our felt needs and proto-philosophy. For example, Rand identifies having a productive purpose as one of the cardinal values in life. For Rand that means work and career. I would expand on that and say the value has the aspects of trying to do something with one's life, regardless of whether it is centered on work in the typical sense, doing work that one can take pride in, and trying to be creative in one's activities, no matter what the level of one's abilities. And it can involve childrearing, about which Rand said almost nothing.
All of these aspects can be grounded in one's felt needs. For instance, toddlers at a young age hunger for a mastery of skills: "Mommy, let me do it myself!" The desire for effectiveness appears to be inborn and appears to be present in the higher animals too. You can readily see how the felt need for mastery develops along with reason. It is present in a general form in all healthy adults, but it typically becomes instantiated as a specialty, since no one can do everything and since we live in a division of labor society. Objectivism would say that any specialty is good as long as it promotes life and realizes the potential of the valuer.
But there is a major difficulty. Nobody (well, almost nobody) pursues an overall life plan because of an abstract analysis of a concept. The question arises: Why should I choose to live, especially in all the details that Rand recommends? By itself, Rand’s analysis has no force. To “activate” Rand’s system of values, one has to go beyond an intellectual acceptance of her analysis: one must in one's particular case choose to live.
The structure of this choice, however, can be problematic. Rand, at least if you read her a certain way, makes it sounds as if there is an existential choice between life and death, like something out of Sartre. You choose to live or you choose suicide. The matter is more subtle than this in reality and I think for Rand, if you scrutinize her thinking.
First of all, the problem isn’t so much why anyone should not choose death per se, but why should anyone not choose a “lesser life," such as being a heavy drinker, an outlaw biker, or a courtesan. I think Rand might say that such a choice amounts to slow-motion suicide. But that claim is complicated by what seems to be the rationality or at least acceptability of choosing risky occupations such as lumberjacking or dangerous pursuits such as mountain climbing. If you want to simply maximize your time on earth, become a mortician. An outlaw biker could say that he is realizing his identity as much as a lumberjack is his. Ultimately, what could an advocate of a rational philosophy say back to such people who would simply say "It's my life"?
I think something can be said. We can solve the lesser-life conundrum in two ways, based on two aspects of the third approach. First, we can “get in touch” with my felt needs and ask ourselves whether our lifestyle allows us to satisfy them. Perhaps we have been diverted and the wrong things have been "imprinted" on us. In drastic cases, perhaps our developmental steps can be retraced, and we can start over from a healthier point. Of course, if such a person is not willing to invest time and energy in introspection, then we have to leave him to his fate.
If one is willing to do some introspection, this strategy might also involve asking oneself the right questions. Often when people debate values, they say something like “Why shouldn’t I just play golf all day if I enjoy it?” That’s the wrong question. The right question is “Why do you want to play golf all day?” There are some values which are given, like food, and these cannot be ignored or even questioned in normal circumstances. But playing golf is not such a value. It is not "natural." It develops out of one’s biography and one’s ideas. I would argue that pursuits such as all-day golf cannot be grounded in our nature and our knowledge and that if that is what one really wants, something else is going on that needs to be investigated.
I would suggest, and this is an "empirical" claim, that if one does choose a "lesser life," one will eventually feel unsatisfied and perhaps become depressed or anxious about how one goes about living. That could stimulate some introspection, perhaps with the help of a therapist who will help us reconnect with our diverted felt needs.
The second solution to our conundrum is to use philosophy defensively. Philosophy can not only lead us to truth, it can also expose falsehood, thereby removing temptation from our sight. The obvious example for me is religion. Philosophy helps us see that there is no good reason to believe in God, so one should not base one’s life on such a belief.
The same pattern applies in the case of lifestyles based on false assumptions about human nature. You’re probably not going to become an outlaw biker unless you have a distorted idea of masculinity. Philosophy (with its adjunct fields in the social sciences) can help one see through such distortions. A rational philosophy like Objectivism can help us see what is and what is not a distortion, by holding it up the standard of that which promotes life. From there felt needs provide the energy and passion to keep the project going.
Here’s where the two approaches to values merge: I am born with felt needs that are essentially self-justifying within their scope, and then I adopt a philosophy that broadens that scope and untangles those felt needs. We need to ground our values in our felt needs and commonsense, essentially the perceptual-affective level of functioning, but because we are rational animals who are fallible and who need meaning, we have to function on a conceptual level as well.
The integration of the two approaches allows us to satisfy our needs on both levels so they can effectively function as one, with a perfected proto-philosophy with a real and systematic philosophy at its center. This is of course an ideal case, and most people will only get part way there, but if a good philosophy is in the cultural air, that might be enough for most people to achieve the good life.
If I can make my point with a homey example: Sometimes it is said that one should not live to eat but eat to live. I would say that we should do both; they are inseparable aspects of one's life as a rational animal. That is what "thriving" and "flourishing" mean. This is what I call "personal holism," a doctrine that transcends the mind-body dichotomy.
And this is what I mean when I say that the choice to live is not a stark one: when we choose to live we are thereby choosing all the constituent activities of life (at least the ones we are in a position to engage in). I am choosing to eat, sleep, solve problems, love and be loved, bask in nature, consume art, have sex, and so forth--because all those activities are what life is. You could say that it's not that I choose to live life in the abstract. it's that I choose to participate in all of life. I am affirming my identity as a natural and rational valuer.
At the danger of becoming too metaphysical, I will offer the following for consideration. Two of Rand's "axiomatic concepts," which lie at the foundation of reality and cognition, are "existence" and "identity." To be (existence) is to be something (identity). Rand usually put the choice to live in terms of existence--to be or not to be. I am suggesting that since existence and identity are corollary concepts, to choose one is to choose the other. And the constituent activities of living form the identity of our being. To choose to live = choosing the constituent activities of living. This analysis seems to me to dissolve the dichotomy of survival versus flourishing that has bedeviled discussion of the Objectivist ethics for decades.
An epistemological point accompanies the metaphysical one. It is crucial to understand that abstractions do not exist in a vacuum: they are ways of grouping and manipulating concretes, while concretes like percepts and feelings cannot be understood without abstractions, not at the human level where they are necessary for survival. We are not functional or meaning-full without them. The problem is that abstractions and percepts/feelings can try to “go into business for themselves.” They can detach from the integral mass, in which case we get the two invalid approaches to values I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. We need to fight for ethical integration by fighting for epistemological integration too. A good formula might be that we don't subordinate life to concepts that are on another level; rather we conceptualize life by organizing our felt needs and helping them realize in conceptual form their life-promoting tendencies.
As I see it, the choice to live consists of things such as getting out of bed in the morning and deciding to do something special with one's life. It's not "Shall I keep breathing today or maybe commit suicide?" The existential choice to live is not the fundamental choice that human beings face. Our fundamental choice is an ongoing journey to lift up our life as felt valuers and incorporate it into a conceptual level of functioning without doing violence to either. Philosophy does not create the good life as it conceptualizes it, i.e. systematizes the pre-existing elements of human nature. We do not jump from one level to another. We do not “choose life” in the stark sense. Rather we continuously affirm the project of life in the pursuit of wholeness and harmony, realizing and perfecting what was there all the while. This is how you become who you are.