Matt Perryman

Can anyone be desireless?

Wanting to eliminate all wanting seems incoherent if you take it at face value. But there's more going on.

By Matt Perryman

There’s a movie called The Tao of Steve that dates all the way back to the mythical Year 2000 AD, which now makes it an “old movie”.

I haven’t seen the film myself, but the good word has it the star is an unlikely Casanova figure, an early prototype of “The Game” pickup artist types that Neil Strauss would popularize a few years later in his book of that title.

This hero is not “Steve”. The Steve is a type and an homage to Steve McQueen and cool, suave, and effortless success with the ladies. In The Current Year, Steve has become Chad, but the principle is the same.

The actual protagonist of the film is a frumpy, dumpy man who always has the unlikely, yet rapt attention of desirable women. He credits his success to the three principles of the titular “Tao” (which means “way” or “path” ).

The first of these commandments is “Be desireless”. That’s what I want to talk about here today.

First, something about the “why” behind this rule. Why should one be desireless in the context of flirting, dating, and romantic relationships?

To an outside observer, the social behavior of human courtship looks a lot like a game played between forces of attraction and repulsion. The traditional pattern is male pursuit, female withdrawal.

A man authentically and sincerely acting free of his greedy, lusty appetites short-circuits that expectation. He is no longer in pursuit, which makes him into a mystery. Now he becomes the object of desire, withdrawing and provoking his dance-partner into action.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Authenticity and sincerity are essential to the exercise. It isn’t enough to merely conceal one’s true intentions behind a friendly social mask. That’s called manipulation, and for many people it’s transparent. Humans pick up cues that aren’t always verbal or intended.

A truth that few even realize, much less appreciate, is that the conscious, thinking, reasoning, word-using ego-based personality is little more than a Bic lighter flame flickering in a raging midnight storm. The conscious self is ruled by the vast expanses of the unconscious, built up from layers of biological drives, learned habits, and the sediments of acquired beliefs, rules, norms, values, words, and, yes, desires.

A clever conscious ego may convince itself that it can conceal its true intentions. But to succeed in the deception it must triumph against the greater parts of itself which it cannot, by definition, perceive or understand.

“Be desireless” is first of all a command to genuinely transform one’s intentions, conscious and non-conscious, accepting all the obstacles and possibilities this change carries with it.

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

The question that prompted this article is, can a person be desireless?

How is it possible to want to cease all wanting? That sounds like a question belonging in the category with married bachelors and four-sized triangles.

Notice that the target is not all desire whatever, but one particular desire (or type of desire) whose object is “having” the attention and affections—or the body—of another person. This desire originates in biological drives for sex and the human need for love, belonging, and recognition. These instincts and inclinations are further mediated through culture, giving them direction and expression.

Beyond that, this (type of) desire is grounded in a need to acquire and possess, what Erich Fromm called the “having” mode. Greed, in other words, plays as much a part as lust. One wants to possess the other.

When you put it like that, it’s no wonder this kind of wanting is repellent in social situations. Neediness gives off a stink of desperation because it is desperate. The needy person perceives scarcity and lives a fear of loss. That attitude can’t help but radiate out into the world.

“Be desireless” isn’t a command to stop all goal-directed activity, or to squash any intentions or motivations whatever. It simply means that you do not allow low-level, animal-based, fear-driven appetites to rule you.

In practice this means that you treat your potential partner as a human being with his or her own inner life, needs, wants, desires, beliefs, feelings, and perspective. Approach with genuine interest in them as an individual, real curiosity about them, instead of crudely using them as a tool for your own egoistic and sensuous satisfaction.

There’s another way to put this point that might help.

“Be desireless” draws attention to a difference in the quality of our motivations.

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt once wrote a paper in which he pointed out a difference between a first-order desire and a second-order desire. An appetite for food, water, sex, or angry violence is a first-order desire. A second-order desire has a first-order desire as its object. I want to eat chocolate cake, but I’m committed to my diet, so I don’t want to want the cake.

Judgments of what we want to want used to be known as willing before that word fell on hard times. Now, in the mouths of self-help gurus and psychologists, we speak of “willpower” as a vague ability to resist temptation. Willpower makes no reference to the quality of desire, nor could it. Willpower is sheer strength and endurance, the psychological equivalent of an animal straining its muscles against resistance.

The will is much more than a struggle against temptation, not least of which because it indicates a positive direction of attention as well as effort towards that objective.

In his paper “What is human agency?”, Charles Taylor divided second-order desires into weak evaluations and strong evaluations. Both weak and strong evaluations involve appraisal our first-order desires according to their desirability.

We are always reflecting on our desires and what is worthwhile in them, which makes the second-order desire more than a simple appetite or impulsive drive. A weak evaluation is only concerned with the outcome, whether the goal is more convenient, or maximizes satisfaction, or is to my benefit. I might decide that my appetite for chocolate cake won’t satisfy me as well as strawberry ice cream. A weakly-valued goal is desirable when I desire it.

Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t so something you could have easily done, say, theft, or violence, or hurting someone’s feelings, when it would have been the easiest or most beneficial choice? If so, you likely judged that your motivation was unworthy of your conduct. Maybe you were motivated by anger, or greed, or fear, or peer pressure, and decided that this wasn’t good enough for you to act on. That kind of motivation isn’t “who you are”.

A strong evaluation takes a step beyond the question of what benefits me and what I actually desire, and asks the question of what is worthy in our motivations. We judge our motivations according to the type of life to which they belong. If the life of the coward isn’t my life, I will refuse to act out of fear or shame. Strong evaluation involves in an unavoidable moral and ethical dimension to our desires. What is worthy can’t be measured or stated in one-dimensional value-neutral terms. The bare fact that I desire it is not enough. The desire is judged as worthy or trivial, noble or base.

Weak evaluations are the basis of much that passes as “moral philosophy” today, which are little more than scientific management and therapy passed off as ideal standards of behavior. These methods cannot even raise the question of what is worthy, which is why all “scientific” moral theories will fail. To understand human behavior requires understanding the strong evaluations that motivate some of our most important responses.

Strongly-valued goods cannot be explained by numbers and quantitative methods because they involve us in standards of worth, and for those we require the language of evaluative distinctions. A coward is contrasted with the courageous man. The just is opposed to the unjust, the kind to the wicked, the wise to the foolish. We can’t avoid using moral words and concepts.

Many analytic and schizoid minds, who think more like machines than human persons, are unwilling to even consider that our decisions aren’t always made by calculation and quantification—nor ought they be. Many choices we make do not work by calculation of narrow self-interest. The dogma of neoclassical economics, which treats us as isolated and rational decision-makers aimed at a single type of goal, completely fails to describe human behavior.

One reason for that total failure lies in the attempt to do away with strong evaluations in order to transform all practical thinking into spreadsheet calculations.

We’ve discussed two important facts about human beings. First, much of our feeling, thinking, and acting isn’t determined within the boundaries of conscious thought. Second, we evaluate our desires according to qualitative standards of worth that cannot be translated into measurable quantities.

Any accounting of human desire and motivation that leaves out the dimension of strong evaluation is going to misunderstand what people do and why.

The simple habits, dispositions, and appetites that move many of us, encouraged and reinforced by pop culture and mass media, aim to eliminate any talk about strongly valued desires and goods. This is the same generic project of eliminating the will, and ultimately, any concept of a human person.

But the will is more than a power to resist temptation. It is more, even, than a vision of a desirable goal. The will responds to standards of what is worthy, conceived as independent from your own personal desires. A coward can respect courage and understand his cowardice as the less worthy choice, and yet feel no desire to be courageous.

“Be desireless” does not mean to be without any desire whatever. It means to live and act beyond the unconscious animal appetites and self-interested goals that rule the lives of the unthinking. It means to be your own person, without unthinking lust for the object, without allowing that kind of desire to rule your thoughts and actions.

Being desireless means to act with the intention of higher goals, from an understanding of what is worthy and desirable according to standards beyond your own self-interested ego.

Not easy or trivial, but necessary to be a fully-formed person.

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