Posts filed under ‘Ethics’
I have an acquaintance who is currently doing his PhD in bioethics and who recently published a paper on bioconservatives vs. bioliberals. That is, he is concerned with the ethical questions in enhancing or even perfecting humans through science and technology.
As a layman, I definitely learned something from the paper about the current debate within this particular field of ethics and, as my acquaintance put it, about “the crucial question of the ultimate goals of biotechnological interventions.”
As he explained to me, the main criticism of the paper is directed against people who “refuse to speak of an ideal at all,” although they “cannot avoid having an ideal influencing the way they wish to enhance.”
I think I agree. But in the paper, he charges bioconservatives with an “untenable ambiguity between criticizing and endorsing ideas of human perfection,” meaning that by not wanting to use (or restricting the use of) science and technology to enhance human perfection, they, themselves, have a certain idea of the perfect human being in mind, namely one that is not enhanced.
In the paper, there are also charges made against bioliberals, but I’d like to restrict my comments to the charge against bioconservatives for now.
Of course, it is true that anyone who makes any kind of proposition in regard to human behavior has some kind of ideal in mind. Otherwise the person would not make a proposition at all. People who say that everyone should do as they please have the ideal of individual autonomy in mind. People who say that human perfectibility is not desirable thereby say that another human state is more desirable and hence, in a certain sense, more perfect.
But this observation, as true as it is, seems to me little more than a tautology. It says little more than, “People who make a normative statement, no matter of what kind, have a certain norm in mind.” Naturally. But does that merit the charge that bioconservatives have an “untenable ambiguity” in regard to human perfectibility? I doubt it.
To make clearer why I doubt the merit of this charge, let me use a few (rather old) examples from other fields. Take political philosophy, for instance. According to the thinking of the paper, one may charge Machiavelli’s realpolitik with the same kind of “untenable ambiguity” as the paper charges bioconservatives, because Machiavelli makes the prescriptive (=idealistic) statement that a ruler should not be too idealistic but rather use whatever methods work to maintain order and protect the city state against enemies. One could then take the criticism of Machiavelli’s ambiguity further and claim that his Prince is really just as idealistic as Plato’s Philosopher-King, because he makes just as many normative statements about him as Plato does about his explicitly ideal ruler. Therefore, one might say, Machiavelli should bring his implicit idealism into the light of explicit discussion instead of pretending that he is abandoning the political idealism of the likes of Plato.
However, to my mind, such a charge is more sophistic than helpful and blurs the very important distinction between the idealism of Plato’s Philosopher-King and the realpolitik of Machiavelli’s Prince. Plato is clearly an idealist (at least if we take the text of his Republic at face value) and Machiavelli is clearly a realist (at least in the Prince), and making normative statements about being flexibly realistic does not make him an idealist.
To give another example, this time from the earliest literature we possess, which already deals with the big themes of the human condition and the ideal human life: In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of Uruk (modern-day Iraq) called Gilgamesh loses his best friend and realizes that he, too, shall one day die. Hence, he goes on a quest to find immortality, but in vain. Not only does he learn that immortality is reserved for the one couple that survived the Great Flood in a boat, because it was a unique situation that led the gods to bestow immortality on them, but the rejuvenating Plant of Life is also stolen from Gilgamesh by a serpent. Gilgamesh therefore has to accept his mortality, and he proceeds to engage in great building projects in order to make a lasting name for himself in that way.
The Epic of Gilgamesh seems to make the point that, in order for a human to flourish, he or she needs to accept their mortality. In other words, the story can be said to set up a kind of ideal of what the good life is, but at the same time the story conveys the strong message that the good human life is far from perfect. “Ideal under the very imperfect circumstances” is not the same as perfection.
Or take that famous inscription at the temple of Delphi. There, the Greeks were instructed to “know thyself,” that is, to know the limits of the human condition, and this self-knowledge can be said to have been an ideal. But the ideal consisted precisely in the acknowledgment that, under the circumstances, humans are not and can never be perfect.
In my view, it would be confusing to say that recognizing the existence of imperfection as a precondition for many good things is to erect another standard of perfection, as the paper seems to charge certain bioconservatives with doing. It is not another standard of perfection but simply the recognition that certain good things hinge on the existence of imperfection.
That’s the two cents from a layman for now, written with much ignorance about the details of today’s bioethical debate.
I think enough time has now passed since my last Aristotle post to dare bothering my readers with another one. One of the most famous and central concepts of Aristotle’s ethics is the idea of the golden mean – the notion that the good usually resides between two extremes. Here is the most relevant passage from Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics:
There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving
excess and deficiency and one an excellence, viz. the mean, and all are in a sense
opposed to all; for the extreme states are contrary both to the intermediate state
and to each other, and the intermediate to the extremes; as the equal is greater
relatively to the less, less relatively to the greater, so the middle states are excessive relatively to the deficiencies, deficient relatively to the excesses, both in
passions and in actions. For the brave man appears rash relatively to the coward,
and cowardly relatively to the rash man; and similarly the temperate man
appears self-indulgent relatively to the insensible man, insensible relatively to the
self-indulgent, and the liberal man prodigal relatively to the mean man, mean
relatively to the prodigal. Hence also the people at the extremes push the intermediate man each over to the other, and the brave man is called rash by the coward, cowardly by the rash man, and correspondingly in the other cases.
These states being thus opposed to one another, the greatest contrariety is
that of the extremes to each other, rather than to the intermediate; for these are
further from each other than from the intermediate, as the great is further from
the small and the small from the great than both are from the equal. Again, to the
intermediate some extremes show a certain likeness, as that of rashness to courage and that of prodigality to liberality; but the extremes show the greatest unlikeness to each other; now contraries are defined as the things that are furthest from each other, so that things that are further apart are more contrary.
To the mean in some cases the deficiency, in some the excess is more opposed;
e.g. it is not rashness, which is an excess, but cowardice, which is a deficiency,
that is more opposed to courage, and not insensibility, which is a deficiency, but
self-indulgence, which is an excess, that is more opposed to temperance. This
happens from two reasons, one being drawn from the thing itself; for because one
extreme is nearer and liker to the intermediate, we oppose not this but rather its
contrary to the intermediate. E.g., since rashness is thought liker and nearer to
courage, and cowardice more unlike, we oppose rather the latter to courage; for
things that are further from the intermediate are thought more contrary to it. This,
then, is one cause, drawn from the thing itself; another is drawn from ourselves;
for the things to which we ourselves more naturally tend seem more contrary to
the intermediate. For instance, we ourselves tend more naturally to pleasures, and
hence are more easily carried away towards self-indulgence than towards propriety.
We describe as contrary to the mean, then, the states into which we are more
inclined to lapse; and therefore self-indulgence, which is an excess, is the more
contrary to temperance.
That moral excellence is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that
it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and
that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good.
For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle
of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get
angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person,
to the right extent, at the right time, with the right aim, and in the right way, that
is not for every one, nor is it easy; that is why goodness is both rare and laudable
My recent musings on selfishness (here and here) have reminded me of Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his economic theory. Although I don’t think that he, himself, characterized his theory like that, his thought has sometimes been summarized by saying that “private vice is public virtue,” meaning that the selfish motivation of individuals actually benefits society at large because it creates competition and therefore better services.
But like in my previous posts, here, too, I would argue that the word “selfishness” is inappropriate. Legitimate self-interest can be a public virtue, yes, but not selfishness. It is not selfish of the baker to want to make a living by selling his baked goods. Sure, he probably does not sell it out of altruistic motives; he sells his because he wants to survive and to take care of his family or other dependants, if he has any. He acts out of a legitimate self-interest, and as a by-product he also happens to feed other people.
My inclination is to distinguish this kind of self-interest, which is indeed the driving force of the economy, from selfishness, which is ultimately destructive for society. For instance, if a CEO makes several hundred times what his average employee makes, well, I think that would qualify as selfishness. Even an economic libertarian like Friedrich von Hayek, whose Road to Serfdom I read the other day, would probably get a heart attack if he heard some of the current ratios between the incomes of CEOs and normal workers.
A thorny issue related to selfishness versus legitimate self-interest is when you make a product that is actually harmful for the consumer. Many products in modern society entail risks or have certain harmful effects, such as cars, which carry a pretty high risk of leading to injury or even death and are rather harmful for the environment. And yet, would we call a car manufacturer selfish for creating a partially harmful product?
Still, there are cases in which the case is pretty clear-cut: aggressively marketing junk food to young children, forcing China into accepting your opium (or, nowadays, taking advantage of the legal situation in China to try hard to get Chinese people addicted to tobacco, even after everything we know about the effects of smoking by now), or using cheap labor from countries with insufficient labor-protection laws—those are the kinds of selfish behaviors that go beyond legitimate self-interest and are ultimately destructive for society.
So, I would not say that “private vice is a public virtue,” but “private self-interest can be a public virtue.” Even in terms of economics, selfishness remains a vice that can be a very destructive force.
P.S.: I chose the example of tobacco marketing in China carefully; I do not mean that states should outlaw smoking completely. Even when it comes to producing cigarettes, the issue of selfishness versus legitimate self-interest is not an easy one; see the movie Thank You for Smoking to illustrate the point.
Last week, I briefly talked about the concept of selfishness and maintained that calling it a virtue, like Ayn Rand did, was not helpful. However, I’m painfully aware of how inadequate my post was to fully address the intelligent apologias for selfishness that are out there, and, to be honest, I doubt that this post will be much more adequate than the last one.
Human selfishness and self-interest really is a complicated subject matter, isn’t it? There are so many levels on which you could address human motivation. Plato, Epicurus, and Hobbes all wrote about human self-interest, but in quite different ways. One may easily add Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche to the mix. That is, we could talk about human self-interest on the level of evolutionary biology, or on the level of psychology, or on the level of cultural influences.
Rather than writing a careful analysis of all these, let me just throw out three random points:
(1) I recognize that there are many people who struggle with undue guilt and have a hard time enjoying legitimate pleasures. But, because human motivation is such a complex affair, I think the solutions to these people need to be addressed on an individual basis.
One woman might struggle with undue guilt because her father was always very critical of her. One man might struggle with undue guilt because he grew up in a culture dominated by a Protestant work ethic. Another one might struggle with guilt because one has so many responsibilities and feels that one is falling behind if one allows oneself to take time off. Or because one has received lots of privilege and favors from others, and now feels that one needs to work off the debt. Or because of one’s boss, or one’s school, or one’s spouse.
The possible reasons for undue guilt are endless and can be very different from person to person. Therefore, I doubt that a cookie-cutter answer of saying, "Learn to embrace selfishness!" will do justice to the various root problems of undue guilt. More likely than not, saying that selfishness is actually a good thing will not bring the desired cure to people’s psychological problems.
(2) At what point would the term "selfishness," used in a positive way, become an appropriate term to describe my activities? Would I say that my breathing is selfish? Um, no, that strikes me as rather silly, though breathing is of course an entirely self-interested activity. Would I say that nourishing my body with the right nutrients is selfish? Again, I find the use of the word "selfish" in this respect silly. Would I say that giving my body the exercise it needs is selfish?
All activities that seem entirely legitimate ways of taking care of myself and enjoying myself, though clearly motivated by self-interest, do not merit the badge of "selfishness." The dividing line between taking care of yourself in a healthy way and being selfish seems to me the question of whether the enjoyment is legitimate. Admittedly, the question of legitimacy is also a highly complex question, and there are many different angles from which you can answer it, but it seems to me a good starting point for distinguishing healthy self-interest from unhealthy selfishness.
(3) Almost anything we do and say can be motivated by selfishness in the traditional bad sense of the word. For example, though reading a book to one’s children is generally seen as a positive, loving act, I can also read to, say, my oldest daughter for entirely selfish reasons: I can read to her because she is MY daughter, and I want MY daughter to be well-educated and respected in society, because what MY daughter does reflects on ME. I have heard people constantly speak of their family members in this way: MY wife, MY son, MY daughter. Even MY God.
Always, the emphasis lies on "my," as if the man owned his wife, his children, and even his God. Accordingly, he expects a certain behavior from his family members and a certain way others are supposed to treat his religion, because he – unconscious as it might be – considers himself the owner of his family and his religion. He does not expect his children to behave in a certain way primarily so that they might have a good life but because they are HIS children, and HIS children behave in a certain way.
This does not just go for fathers. How many mothers have suffocated their children out of supposed "love"? Selfishness comes in all forms of guises. Blowing one’s altruistic trumpet can be the epitome of selfishness.
Long before Bilbo found a ring that made him invisible, a shepherd in ancient Lydia did the same. That’s at least what the character Glaucon, Plato’s brother, tells us in Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC. The point of the story is to show that, as Glaucon thinks, people are not inherently upright and just, but only act uprightly and justly because they are constrained to do so. If they had the power, he says, everyone would abuse it.
As with the invisibility of the ring, this theme, too, is picked up in The Lord of the Rings. The One Ring has to be destroyed, because it would corrupt anyone who would use it, even if one initially set out to use it for the good. This, one might argue, shows that Tolkien had a similarly pessimistic view of human nature as Plato’s Glaucon, though somewhat lessened by the fact that the Ring makes Tolkien’s characters come under the evil influence of Sauron rather than simply bringing out their own evil.
But read this famous passage for yourself. It’s not very long. This is Glaucon speaking:
“Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.
“Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result — when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
“Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; whereas soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.
“Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.
“And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”
In one of my recent posts, I mentioned Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness as a virtue. While I recognize that using the word “selfishness” in a positive way can have a kind of provocative value in order to make a certain point, I am still greatly in doubt that making the word “selfishness” denote a virtue is very helpful overall. I don’t see that we gain much by giving the word a positive connotation, but I do think that we lose something.
For instance, I would not say that writing this post is a “selfish” activity. It is simply an activity in which I am being human: in which I exercise my rational faculties and put something (I hope) meaningful on the internet. Now if my wife came to me now and, after a long day of taking care of the children, asked me to hold the baby for a few minutes because she needed to do something where she had to use two hands, and if I refused because I was so engrossed in writing this post and felt irritated to be interrupted in an enjoyable activity, that would be selfish.
If we use the word “selfish” in a positive way, what then do we call my behavior when I am unreasonably putting my own felt needs over the real needs of others? Wouldn’t it be better to let “selfishness” remain a negative term? There are lots of other ways in which I can describe what a positive use of selfishness is meant to convey: striving for excellence, using my gifts, enjoying life, rejuvenating, having time off, appreciating beauty, liking to create, having goals, etc. Using the word “selfishness” to describe these activities only has the effect of having no word left when someone acts selfishly in the traditional sense of the word.
Now I do admit that it is a somewhat open question what counts as selfishness. Am I being selfish because I am not currently in Syria helping people who are affected by the war? Am I not allowed to enjoy a glass of wine until the last person on earth no longer has to go hungry? No, I don’t think so. My own rule of thumb is to say that within my domain, within my area of responsibility, within my means, I try to be considerate of other people’s needs and not act like a selfish prig. But I cannot save the whole world.
Neither, however, do I say, like Thoreau, that altruism is simply not my gifting. Even though I am by nature probably not the most altruistic person on the planet, I try to recognize some of my real selfishness as a defect rather than defend it as a virtue or excuse it as simply a lack of gifting.
But the issue is a complex one. A few more thoughts on that next week.
In my current series of blog posts on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I left off last time talking about the rational aspect of true love.
Now, of course very few men and women would be satisfied with their partner loving them for purely rational reasons. Let us suppose that for some reason Ferdinand has to choose between his marriage with Miranda and his rich kingship of Naples. He chooses Miranda and poverty, and quite literally has to be a “patient log-man” for the rest of his life. As the initial amour wanes, he also finds his patience waning, and regret over the fulfilling life he has given up comes knocking at his mental door.
Say this feeling of regret grows increasingly stronger, and his feeling of love diminishes into nothingness. He still carries those logs for Miranda and their mutual children. Steered by Reason, he still does his best to serve and help them. But all his service his tainted by regret. If such a state lasts for years, and his negative feelings are consistently much stronger than any feelings of love, he probably should have a talk with Miranda whether there might not be other alternatives for them and their children’s futures.
Reason is vital for love; otherwise it would have hardly made sense for the author of John’s Gospel to tell us that Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another. Clearly, then, love has to be more than just a feeling, and sometimes it has to act against one’s feelings.
But it is equally clear that one cannot erase feelings from love on a permanent basis. Reason might be the helm of love, but feelings are the wind in the sail. Taken together, they are what we call “character.” The more developed someone’s character, the less schizophrenia there will between his Reason and his feelings.
Last time I said that the real “me” isn’t so much defined by my desires as by my decisions.
Obviously, one can take this too far. It would be self-destructive of me to completely deny my inclinations. I need food and water and sleep; I am a sexual being. And I like Shakespeare. No use denying that. But freedom does not just consist in being free to follow these inclinations; it also means being free to decide against them when they clash with what I perceive to be good or useful.
In an ideal world, my natural inclinations would always coincide with the good and useful. There would be no dichotomy between Aristotle’s three categories of joy, moral duty, and utility. They would be one and the same thing. And it is certainly a worthy goal to learn to “love my fate,” that is, to enjoy doing my duty and being useful.
To achieve this, I might tell myself that I really do not have to do anything. I do not have to spend time with my family, for instance. In fact, I could ditch them right now. But do I really want to? No, because I want them to have a good life. Hence I need to decide that I want to spend time with them, not merely give in because I feel that I have to spend time with them.
On that view, nothing in this life is a compulsion, because I always have the option not to do it. There is always another option, and, last of all, the option of opting out of life completely. If all else fails, I can commit suicide. But if I want to live, then I also want to do certain things that affirm life. I do not have to live. Therefore, I do not have to do anything. I want to live, and therefore I want my particular life. I love my fate.
Like the Romantic ideal of self-realization, I find the ideal of loving your fate appealing. However, it ignores the fact that I am a complex psychological being who will always have a certain ambivalence to it. That is to say, until I have reached perfect moral character (probably not in this life!), I will always have conflicting desires and will never achieve being this single-minded entity that completely loves its fate because it manages to embrace necessity and blocks out all contrary desires.
I ended my last post by saying that the desire for novelty and unfulfilled dreams can rob us of the joy of what we actually have and experience. Our desires can lead us to forsake our duties and throw usefulness to the wind.
Of course, some Romantics would say that it is better to live that way. By all means, they assert, throw your life to the wind. As long as your heart is in, it does not matter how enjoyable or morally praiseworthy or useful your life is. What counts is that you feel your life is truly yours; that you are being true to yourself. Authentic.
I must confess, I find this Romantic notion highly appealing. In the past, one feeling I’ve repeatedly had when spending time with my family was that the family man was not the real “me.” The real me, I sometimes told myself, was the artist, the intellectual, the traveller, the explorer. I tended to feel more at home sitting in an airplane 30,000 feet over the ocean than at the kitchen table with my family.
Why do I have a tendency to feel this way? Why did I sometimes feel that I left the real me at the airport when I walked through the door to my home? It certainly was not because my family was horrible. Quite the contrary, my wife and children were and still are wonderful human beings, more than worthy of my love. But I think I sometimes felt that the real me sat in an airplane rather than at the kitchen table because the one came naturally to me and the other did not.
I did not have to work at wanting to see new places. I did not have to work at being interested in literature, philosophy, history, science, art, and religion. I did not have to work at getting new ideas of what I could write, paint, or sing. Granted, not everything I wrote (and still write) was worthwhile reading, and my singing voice was (and is) definitely not worthwhile listening to, but still, my inclination toward creativity felt natural to me, no matter what the quality of the outcome might have been. And because it felt natural, it felt like it was the real me.
In contrast, sitting down to eat dinner with my family or going camping with them required a conscious effort to put the books or the crayons or the guitar aside and pay attention to those human beings who were closest to me. It was this conscious effort, this decision to say no to my natural inclinations and yes to my family, that produced the feeling of the family man not being the real me.
One could say, however, that it is precisely in those cases of a conscious decision that the real me comes forth. Sure, like any other animal, I have certain drives and dispositions. On the most basic level, I have the desire to eat and sleep and copulate, and on a more refined level, I might have the desire to read Shakespeare. But it is not my desires that make up my sense of having a self; it is my decisions that do so. Through them, I have the feeling of being a person that can act into the world. My “I,” my ego, is that part of me that decides between different options and says, “I will go this way, not that way; I will do this, not that.” If I always went with my natural inclinations, no decision would be needed. I would not need an “I,” a self, to steer my life; my life would be steered for me by my natural inclinations. I would be driven; I would not drive myself.
If I always went with my inclination to do something else rather than spend time with my family, no self would be needed to make this decision. If, in contrast, I decide against my natural inclination that it is a good thing to spend time with my family, a conscious self is needed to make this decision. In that sense, I am being more “myself” when I do something against my natural inclinations than when I simply follow them.
In my series of posts on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I remarked last time how love willingly gives up certain freedoms, and I ended by saying that focusing too much on the freedom I have to give up for my family diminishes my love for them.
Let me make this more concrete. I have an intense drive to create things, whether books or pictures or music. Additionally, I am an avid learner who loves to soak in information, grapple with concepts, and philosophize. If only I had time, I would read all the books in the world, see half the artwork in the world, and watch every good movie in the world. Not to mention stage productions. I love culture. Much, much more than small talk. I am an introvert who would choose solitude over company most of the time. But not solitude in a single place for a prolonged period of time. Traveling and exploring new places are some of my favorite activities, as long as I can do them alone (usually at least). I am hungry for experiences. I get a thrill out of physical activities. That moment when the sweat starts pouring fills me with energy. I embrace my physical reality as much as my inner reality. I want to taste and see this world as much as I would love to taste and see a world yonder.
Now, all of these activities and dispositions have two things in common: (1) They either generate no money worth speaking of or even cost money. (2) They take a lot of time and do not involve my family.
As a husband of a stay-at-home mom and father of homeschooled children, however, I mostly need to do two things: (1) Make money to provide for them. (2) Spend time with them.
It is not surprising, then, that I sometimes feel a conflict between the freedom I desire in following my natural drive and the desire to make sure that my wife and children have a good life. What do you do about two such conflicting desires?
Some people say that you ought to arrange your life in such a way that as few conflicting desires as possible arise, meaning that someone like me, who enjoys having a large portion of solitude and a life of contemplation, maybe should not get married or have children in the first place. But while there is undoubtedly wisdom in thinking ahead and avoiding unnecessary inner conflicts, we all—for whatever reason—get into situations where we notice conflicting desires without being able to easily change the situation. In that case, it does not help to say, “You should have thought of that earlier.”
Besides, only focusing on how one may avoid conflicting desires ignores the ethical dimension of the problem. Not all my desires are good desires, and even those that are not bad in themselves (a number of thinkers have considered the love of solitude a virtue) may turn bad if taken to an extreme. Even though I may not always like getting my solitude disturbed by the presence of others, it might actually do me good. Unless, of course, I am a hedonist and do not care about moral goodness or developing my character. But as long as I affirm that there is such a thing as moral goodness and positive or negative character development, I need to be willing to hedge in some of my desires.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) said that everything I do should be either (1) something I enjoy, (2) something that is morally good or (3) something that is useful. In three words, I should construct my life around fun, duty, and practicality. If something is neither of these three, why do it? Why should I do something simply because it is in fashion, or is generally expected in my culture, or to impress others—or, for that matter, because it is some random goal I have set myself and feel compelled to fulfill, even though it is neither good nor useful nor enjoyable?
Hence, my drive toward experience and knowledge can actually be an enemy of Aristotle’s wisdom. Do I really have to read every book that pricks my curiosity? Do I really have to travel to every place that strikes my interest? No. The desire for novelty can be the undoing of joy, goodness, and usefulness. I had better accept that I cannot know everything I want, see everything I want, experience everything I want. Otherwise my desires will rob me of the joy of what I do know and see and experience. They will lead me to forsake my duties and throw usefulness to the wind.