This is no book review. I haven’t read William B. Irvine’s book, On Desire, but I’ve read some reviews of it that set off the following train of thought.
According to one Amazon review, Irvine asks why we want what we want and finally gives some advice: “Examining teachings of Zen Buddhists, the Amish, the Hutterites, Hellenistic philosophers (the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics) and others, he concludes, ‘the best way to gain... lasting satisfaction... is to change not the world and our position in it but ourselves... We should work at wanting what we already have.’"
Nuts to that. The real point is precisely to change the world. And that may require us to want what we have, as we curtail consumerism. Or it may require us to want something different, which may be either more or less than we have now. Irvine’s simple slogan is useless.
We’ll do better by paying attention to our contemporary Jeremiah, Professor Jared Diamond, who says we must undergo vast changes within two decades or it’s game over. He’s not sanguine that we’ll make it, for other societies have stumbled ahead into oblivion rather than learning to want the right things. Easter Island is the most conspicuous example. What they evidently wanted most was big stone heads. Lots of them — at whatever cost. Surely they knew that by cutting down their trees, they would destroy their civilization, but they refused to change their wants. Instead, they kept pursuing what they didn’t have — yet another and another stone head. They died out. We’ll come to the same downfall unless we make some drastic changes in what we want. Call it “political will.” We have to get everybody to agree to change what we collectively want. Fat chance.
To do so, we begin by figuring out what it is we want – which is hard. I’ll report on three conversations. They occurred this morning, this afternoon, and this evening. In all of them, the crucial question was: Why do people want what they want, and what should they want instead?
First, the morning conversation was about guns. The morning paper reminded me that Toronto is in crisis because angry young immigrant men are frequently shooting each other. Last week the police offered amnesty to everyone who turns in a gun, whether or not it is legally owned. Now some civic organization is offering to buy up the remaining weapons. Will this scheme work? That depends on how much the young men want their guns, as compared to other things that money can buy.
But why did they want guns in the first place? A few of them may have practical purposes: a robbery or to intimidate their enemies or deter their enemies’ intimidation of themselves. Usually, however, guns are desired as symbols. They bolster one’s wobbly self-esteem, not one’s economic sufficiency. To talk a gun owner into relinquishing this symbol, one must appeal to alternative interests and desires — but he may have no idea what else he does desire. Knowledge of one’s own true purposes is often obscure – not just to young thugs but to you and me as well.
Second, my afternoon conversation was with a British visitor who described her travels in the United States. She asked why Americans depend on cars instead of trains and buses. My answer was almost embarrassingly simple: they just like cars. To give a better answer, I’d have to explain the desire for cars, and I can’t even account for that in myself. Despite writing blogs about how we’re going the way of Easter Island, I still drive my big car. Yet my desire is not symbolic but instrumental, in some half-rational sense. I am frankly scared of these light-weight “Smart Cars,” so I’m continuing to pursue my short-sighted desires instead of my own (and the world’s) best material interests. We won’t save the planet from people such as me unless we can revise our motivations. Yet I want what I want and that’s not changing.
Third, I did, however, change something tonight: my travel plans. I won a prize recently — a free week in Florida — and I was about to make the reservations when I realized that I don’t want to go. My instrumental reasons for going (notably a social science convention in the sunshine) failed in the end to overcome my reluctance. For a month I kept telling everyone that I was going because I did not recognize my own desires. Now I’ll forgo the free trip and go to California instead, where life is more stimulating. I know this much: I do desire stimulation instead of boredom. Professor Irvine would frown and advise me to want what I have, not what I don’t have.
But boredom is precisely irritation with what one has and a desire for arousal by the unexpected. By discerning, at last, my desire for stimulation, I‘ll spare myself a week of boredom in Florida. I’ve also discovered this about myself: I am unqualified to become a Zen Buddhist, a Hutterite, or a Hellenistic philosopher. That’s okay. I don’t think I desire that anyhow.