Desires are a subset of our emotions. The desires include all those feelings we think of as motivating, including whims, impulses, wants, cravings, and passions.
The Distinction of Man's Nature
Desires in human beings are motivators of behavior. If other animals experience desire, which is something we cannot know, they would not be motivators, because animal behavior is directly determined by their instinct. In animals, if there are desires, they would simply accompany the appropriate behavior to fulfill those desires provided by instinct.
Human desires are motivators, but they do not motivate any particular action. For human beings, there is no predetermined appropriate response to any desire, there is only the desire. Before an individual can respond to desire, it must be discovered what the nature of the desire is: what it is a desire for, what is required to fulfill it, and what are the consequences of fulfilling it? When all these things are known, there is still no action.
There is no direct connection between desires and actions. Human beings are volitional creatures, which means, to act at all, even to do what one's desires prompt, a human being must consciously choose to do it.
Human Desires and Feelings
To choose one must have a reason to choose. I do not mean a reason to make a particular choice, but a reason to choose at all. It is unlikely we would be moved to do anything if we felt nothing. Intellectual desire might be a reason for choosing and doing things, but if we never felt anything, if we were never conscious of our desires and passions and of the pleasure living provides there would be no reason to do anything.
Desires, as we experience them, like all feelings, are involuntary. We are not responsible for what is involuntary. Neither desires or feelings exist in a vacuum, however, there is always a context and a reason for them, and almost all human desires are developed, not provided as part of our natures at birth.
Except for those very basic "desires," more appropriately called biological drives or urges, all other human desires are developed through learning and experience. There is almost nothing one can name that humans desire that anyone is born with a desire for.
[NOTE: Desires are feelings. See the chapter "Feelings," for a detailed description of the difference between biological and psychological feelings, such as the "biological drives or urges" and emotional feelings. All important human desires are emotional, not biological.]
No one is born with a desire for a burger with fries. No one is born with a desire to watch a certain television program or to watch television at all. No one is born with a desire to play any sport, do any job, buy any product, or listen to any music, or to marry.
Before we can desire anything, we must learn that it exists, what its nature is, what there is about it to be desired. From the very beginning this is so. For example, except for the fact we desire food, which in its undeveloped state is little more than a sense of discomfort we come to associate with our stomach, everything we desire to eat we had to learn about, and probably actually taste, before we could desire it.
Two Kinds of Desire
We use the word desire for two different kinds of things. There is an inextricable relationship between them, but to prevent the kind of confusion that attends most discussions of desire, this difference must be made explicit.
One kind of desire only means something someone has chosen. When we talk about a, "desire for an education," or the "desire for a career," we mean something quite different than we do by a, "desire for a big juicy steak," or a, "desire for a hot shower." The apparent difference sometimes noted between these two kinds of desire, that the first kind is not for something that is an end in itself as is the second kind, is not exactly correct. Both an education and a career can be very satisfying and pleasure producing ends in themselves as well as the means to other ends, and, as satisfying as a juicy steak or hot shower are in themselves, nourishment and being clean are desirable remote ends also achieved by the immediate satisfaction of those desires.
The important difference in these desires is the "feeling" of desire, or "passion," we associate with them. While there are feelings associated with all our thoughts, in general the kind of desire we have for proximate ends, like an education, jobs, or flu shots, are not accompanied by the kind of "felt" desire we have for food, or comfort, or sex.
When someone says, "I want an ice cream cone," it is the feeling, that urge to taste something cold, sweet, and crunchy, one means, but when someone says, "I want to get the car washed," there is probably not much "feeling" of desire in that.
While we usually associate desire with a feeling, a passion or an urge, it is really the other way around. The feeling is the result of the desire, (the thing we consciously want), and different desires produce different kinds of feelings. The "feeling" aspect of desire is emotional, our consciousness of the physiological reaction to our conscious or intellectual desire as described in the chapter "Feelings."
The fact that the real desire is intellectual, rather than emotional, is evident form the fact we still have desires for things we know are "good," even when we do not feel those desires. When sick, for example, the very idea of food may produce a feeling of revulsion, even if it is food we are especially fond of. We know we still like (desire) that food, even when our feeling does not agree with the desire. Every normal parent feels love for their children, because they do love them, even when their children are particularly exasperating and the feeling they have is not anything like love.
The distinction and relationship between desires in these two senses, the intellectually chosen objectives and the feelings that do or do not accompany them, is very important. We can change, simply by choosing to, what our intellectual objectives are, but the feelings are involuntary. If we have a chosen desire for something, and discover it is not good for us, or that some other objective would be better, we can, and usually do, change that objective. If we have a felt passion or desire, we cannot just decide not to have the feeling and have a different one. We can only control the feelings of desire in the same way we control any emotions, as described in the, "Feelings," chapter.
[NOTE: In a very important sense, all desires are accompanied by feeling. It is the short term desires that usually produce the most intense feelings of desire. Long term desires and objectives, those reflecting our deepest values and purposes in life actually produce the most profound desires and feelings—they are not as immediately intense but underly our entire sense of life and meaning. They are the desires that reflect what we live for, what we love and cherish—those things which we love and desire so deeply that we would not be willing to live without them.]
Where Do Desires Come From?
While I am particularly interested in those feelings we call desires or passions in this chapter, all feelings are derived and behave in essentially the same way. I said earlier, "almost all human desires are developed, not provided as part of our natures at birth."
Like all other feelings and emotions, our desires are developed by our experiences, but mostly by what we think and believe. We are born with the psycho-physiological means of experiencing feelings and desires just as we are born with the ability (intellect) to gain knowledge but both must be developed—we are not born with any particular emotions and we are not born with any knowledge.
The remainder of this chapter deals with all the ways we develop and deal with our desires and passions.
Desire, the Source of Wrong Behavior
If acting contrary to one's nature is harmful, why would anyone do it? I noted earlier that desires are the motivators of behavior. In every case where someone intentionally practices self-harmful behavior, by their own testimony, it will be because of desire, a desire they feel so overwhelmingly they either justify the action based on the desire, "it must be normal, good, appropriate, if I desire it so strongly," or act in defiance of their own best rational judgment, because, "they just cannot help it."
This leads to two very important questions:
1. If desires can prompt us to act contrary to the requirements of our nature, they must be in conflict with our natures. How can this be? What is wrong with us? Why would we have desires that cause us to be our own destroyers?
2. If human desires and feelings are involuntary, how can one be responsible for them?
It is a fact that many people have desires that are not consistent with the requirements of their nature and do desire to do things which are harmful to themselves, both short term and long term. Since all our emotional feeling, including our desires, are in response to our thoughts and consciousness, to understand why both wrong and contradictory desires are developed, I will examine some aspects of just how we develop our desires. Since this is not a course in psychology, I will only briefly describe the following principles: association, reinforcement, excitement, habituation, and patterns of thinking.
In general, the desires we have as adults are the result of what we learn and experience growing up. Our experiences introduce us to almost all of the things like food, activities, and sensations (like hearing music) for which we develop desires or aversions. But while we are experiencing we are also learning. We learn what things are actually good for us (however good or bad, pleasurable or painful, they seem by experience alone), and what our natures are that make some things good and others bad for us.
All human desires are developed, even the so-called "physical" desires (biological drives or urges) and all have an element called "association." For example, the smell of coffee and bacon frying, for those who have come to associate those aromas with pleasant breakfasts, find that their desire for food is greatly stimulated by those aromas.
Sexual desires are almost entirely associative. While we are born with the physiological capacity for sexual desire and pleasure, it is entirely undifferentiated and non-specific, just as is our desire for food. One must learn what is sexually stimulating and pleasurable, and what is not. For every individual, those things associated with one's earliest sexual experiences, if pleasurable become associated with sex itself. This is one reason fetishes are so common. In a sense, all sex is "fetish," and the only difference between what we call a fetish and what is considered perfectly natural sexual stimulation is, in fact, normality itself. Within the scope of what is physiologically and psychologically normal, it is anything goes.
This is the reason a clear understanding of what normal means is required, especially during those years of sexual development. A clear sense of normality and how it is determined by human nature itself, (not the dictates of anyone's ideology, or custom, or what is socially acceptable), is necessary for healthy sexual development.
So called, "sexual orientation," is one of the aspects of sex that are learned and developed. That, "orientation," like all other developed desires and feelings, will be determined by one's earliest pleasurable experiences and one's mental evaluation of those experiences. Like all other aspects of human nature, everyone's experiences are different, and the specific things which individuals find pleasurable will be different for each individual. For some, no experience is likely to cause confusion about what normal sex is. For others, experiences can be confusing, and unless their experiences are carefully controlled by their best possible reason and a ruthless intention to be normal (that is, consistent with their nature as a human being), they are easily persuaded to act contrary to the requirements of their own nature.
We know that those things which are always pleasurable when experienced usually become more desirable the more often we experience them, and those which are not pleasurable, or even painful, become less desirable with experience. This phenomenon is called reinforcement.
Reinforcement "works" for both "good" desires (for that which is benevolent) and "bad" desires (for that which is self-harmful). Parents often use reinforcement, in the form of rewards, to help children develop desires for developing skills, which become self-rewarding once developed, like learning to play a musical instrument, or learning the times tables. Bad desires are very frequently reinforced simply by the pleasure derived from self-destructive practices from the use of drugs to bullying. There are obviously other problems for those who can derive pleasure from bullying, of course.
Sexual pleasure is one of the most intense forms of pleasure, in some cases so potent, it can mask or even subsume some kinds of pain. It is no surprise that sexual pleasure is self-reinforcing and that pleasurable sexual experiences produce some of the most intense desires. Sexual "reinforcement" is not restricted to the actual sex act, but includes everything that is associated with it, without regard to the actual nature of those things. Some very unnatural and dangerous practices, called paraphilias become associated with sex in this way See the next section, "Excitement."
Many kinds of pleasure are heightened by excitement. The relationship of excitement to reinforcement and association is obvious and the fact that without careful rational evaluation of what excitement is appropriate and normal, distortions can easily be developed which are overwhelming.
Some sexual desires are developed through the influence of excitement. It is not necessary for that excitement to be specifically "sexual" in nature, so long as it is, in the mind of the individual, "associated," with sex. One common distortion of this aspect of sex are frequently sex-linked disorders like pyromania, kleptomania and other paraphilias (pedophilia, exhibitionism, sadism, and masochism, for example).
It is not only the pleasure of sex that is heightened by excitement. The word excitement itself, for some limited vocabularies is a substitute for pleasurable and almost everything that is supposed to be desirable is described as "so exciting!" covering everything from a party to one's new underwear.
Human beings, being volitional creatures, do not have an automatic pattern of behavior like animal instinct; instead, human beings are able to develop their own automated patterns of behavior. This ability, called habituation, is one of the most important aspects of human nature. Without it, almost nothing of any level of complexity would be possible from eating a meal to using language or working out complex mathematical problems.
Habituation enables human beings to develop both simple and complex patterns of overt physical behavior as well as patterns of thought. We develop habituated patterns of behavior, especially for all those aspects of life that are routine and repetitious, to leave our attention and minds free to concentrate on more interesting and important matters.
Habituated routines are a requirement of human nature. They provide the same kind of efficiency and effectiveness that instinct provides the animals, except that they are, "programmable," and, within limits, "alterable." The essential methods of forming and strengthening habits involves deliberate intention, (leaning to touch-type, for example) repetition, (learning the times tables, for example), and pleasure reinforcement (sexual practices and food preferences, for example).
Before habits are well formed, they are quite flexible and can be altered with little effort. The longer habits are reinforced and the stronger the emotional and physiological associations, the more difficult it is to alter or eliminate habitual practices and behaviors.
Because habituated behavior is, "automated," it is often the most difficult to notice in ourselves, which is one reason why habituated behavior is not often changed. The rational person will make a point of observing their own behavior, of attempting to discover habits which might be wasting their time, or energy, or other resources, or preventing them from being fully in control of themselves. When habitual ways of acting, thinking, and feeling have become so automated the means for judging them is completely eliminated, there may be no hope of changing them.
Habituated behavior frequently becomes so completely automatic and familiar the it is mistaken for one's "nature." Often, how the habits are formed, or even when, are forgotten, and one cannot imagine that they were not always part of their behavior.
Thinking as Content of Consciousness
Association, reinforcement, excitement, habituation all play a role in the development of our passions and desires, but the most important part of that development is our thinking, which ultimately determines the specific character of that development, becomes part of it, and determines how it is expressed behaviorally.
We do nothing we do not first think of or about. Since everything we do we must be consciously chosen, before we can do anything, we must choose it, and to choose it, we must be conscious of it, that is, we must think it.
The development of our values and our thinking processes are subject to the same influences of association, reinforcement, excitement, and habituation as all other behavior. We develop habitual thought patterns, which are reinforced when pleasurable and exciting. The content of those thoughts, the associations, will come to dominate our interests, desires, and usual ways of thinking.
It is also our thoughts that are the major contributors to the development of or desires. While what we experience is not always voluntary, and whether those experiences are pleasurable or painful, exciting or boring, may not be within our field of choice; what we think about them always is. It is ultimately what we think about our experiences that determines how we evaluate them, which in turn determines how we feel about them and whether we desire them or not.
The answer to the question, where do wrong desires come from is simple. They come from wrong thinking.
No Conflict Between Desire and Reason
There is a popular view unfortunately propagated by psychology as well as popular literature that implies a kind of essential conflict between reason and the desires or "passions."
It is certainly true that individuals, perhaps most individuals, have desires that conflict with their reason, but such conflicts are not the result of conflicts in human nature, but conflicts in one's own thinking, beliefs, and self-development. Wherever such conflicts exist it is an indication there is something wrong with one's thinking, not their emotions.
All our feelings, especially our desires, are automatic responses to the content of our consciousness and determined by the values by which we evaluate that content. There can be no conflict between one's reason and one's desires if one understands the relationship between them, if one knows what the source of one's desires are, what values one holds and what thinking one does that give rise to them.
If a rational individual discovers conflicts between reason and desires he will seek to discover what wrong values or beliefs he holds which are their source, and correct them. One must know what the source of one's feelings and desires are because the opposite course, allowing one's feelings and desires to determine what one thinks and chooses can only lead to one's own destruction.
All our emotional reactions are the result of what we are conscious of, what we know, understand, and value. It is reversing this process and attempting to make our knowledge, our understanding, and our values conform to our feelings that is the cause of all emotional instability and irrational behavior and all supposed conflicts between reason and desire.
[NOTE: There is a popular view being promoted in some philosophical circles that simply denies there is any dichotomy between reason and passion. It is very dangerous. To simply reject any dichotomy between reason and passion is like denying any dichotomy between hands and eyes. The hands and eyes are different things but we can learn to coordinate their behavior. Reason and passion are different things, but we can learn to integrate their function. The proper relationship between reason and passion cannot be achieved simply by denying there is any difference or "dichotomy" between them; it can only be achieved by identifying the differences and integrating their function objectively.]
The Virtue of Repression
One of the most damaging of false concepts perpetrated on the world by the Freuds is the concept of repression. How such a concept could possibly be smuggled into the body of ideas that are supposed to be rational is difficult to even imagine.
The word "repression" found its way into the corpus of psychology in the 1930s. It was actually Sigmund's daughter, Anna Freud, who introduced the word together with "denial," as part of the Freudian theory of psychological defense mechanisms, supposed to prevent unacceptable ideas or impulses from entering the consciousness.
There is terrible confusion about this idea of repression, and it is used, almost always, as a means of justifying choices, that on any other grounds, would be unacceptable. Repression is nothing more than self-imposed limits. It is not oppression, not self-abnegation, not self-sacrifice, it is self-control.
Repression means choosing not to do something one has a desire to do. It is impossible to live as a human being without repressing desires.
In the first place it is not possible to fulfill and satisfy all our desires. We just desire too much (and only stop desiring more than we can have when we are dead). Life is like a menu, we may desire most or even all of the items on the menu, but neither time nor our appetites allow us to eat everything on it. We must choose something, and whatever we choose, it means we have to "repress" our desires for everything else.
There are always conflicts in desires. There are only so many hours in a day, we only have so many resources, and every day there are more things we desire to do and desire to have than it is physically possible for us to do and have. We cannot fulfill our desires for two or more things that all require the same hours of our time. We cannot read the book, watch the television program, play the game of cards, and wash the car simultaneously. We have to make a choice and that means "repressing" one (or more) of our desires.
We do not usually think of such choices as repression because the choices usually involve picking from all the desirable things, the one we desire the most. (Washing the car is probably out.)
Sometimes we desire what we ourselves know is wrong. If those desires are not strong, we have no problem, "repressing," them, because it is our own values that prompt us to avoid what is wrong. It is our values that enable us to determine a thing is wrong, even when desired, because it conflicts with all that we know is right and best for us.
It is only when a desire for something we know is wrong is also very strong that the question of, "repression," as the psychologists misuse the term, comes up. Some of us have learned the, "hard way," just how bad the consequences of yielding to some desires are, and would never consider doing those things again, no matter how strong or, "overwhelming," or, "persistent," the desire is. Having learned the consequences of yielding to irrational desires usually leads to the loss of that desire.
Anyone who has ever broken a bad habit or overcome a behavior that was harmful to themselves (like eating too much) has done so by "repressing" desires. Everyone who was ever tempted to do something they knew was wrong and chose not to do it, "repressed" a desire.
There is another word for repression. It is self-discipline. Self-discipline is being in rational control of ones desires and passions for one's own benefit. One or the other must be in control of one's life and behavior, the rational self or the irrational passions. Repression only means self-control, those free of repression are out-of-control.
Better Than Repression
Desires which are in conflict with reason, such as desires to have or do what our own values and reason tell us are self destructive or self-limiting, ought to be repressed by choosing what we know is best for us, whatever feelings and desires we have. When such desires are trivial and can be easily dismissed for the sake of more rational desires, simply denying them is sufficient. When such desires are very strong, though it is best to deny them for our own good, they will be troublesome, and their source needs to be sought out and eliminated for the sake of our own mental comfort and happiness.
Since we understand what the source of our desires are and how we develop them, we can usually discover what thinking or values we have that prompt them, what associations we made in the past that stimulates them, what we do (such as thinking about what we know is wrong while entertaining the false belief it does not matter what is in our consciousness), what we do that encourages excitement about desires we would rather not have, and how we can break the habit of thinking and believing by which we are deluding ourselves.
Freedom is Self-discipline
Freedom means freedom to choose and determine for one's self, how to live and what to do.
Discipline means control. One is "disciplined," by whatever determines or is in control of an individual's behavior. If one is under another's discipline, a slave-owner or an oppressive government, for example, they are not free. Freedom is being under one's own discipline and one's own control.
Human beings have only one faculty for making choices, their rational consciousness. Self-discipline means rational self-control, it means, making one's choices by means of one's best possible reason.
Surrendering ones choice to whim, or passion, or desire is surrendering reason to the control of the irrational. One must choose to act; desire is the motive, but which desires one chooses to pursue and how one chooses to pursue them must be chosen rationally and objectively.
Freedom is self-discipline, it is the opposite of being disciplined by something else, one's desire, one's feeling, one's circumstances, or other individuals. It's one or the other; one either takes the authority for their lives and makes the choices of how they will live, or they surrender that authority to something or someone else. Almost always, the act of surrendering to a desire or a passion makes one subject to someone else's authority, the authority of whoever it is that supplies the object of the desire or passion.
Surrendering to the desire for security makes one the subject of the government that "guarantees" it; surrendering to the desire for a free lunch makes one the lackey of the politician that promises it; surrendering to a desire for approval, makes one the lap dog of whoever provides it. All these same desires, under our control, their object earned by our own effort and enjoyed in the knowledge we are worthy of their fulfillment are our servants providing joy and happiness; but if we serve them and our behavior is determined by them, we are the slaves of our desires. Those who make their desires serve them are free and know all they do is because they chose to do it. Those who serve their desire are slaves who have no idea why they do what they do, they only know, "they cannot help it."