“I want you to want to clean the dishes.” Brooke Myers to Gary Grobowski in the 2006 movie The Breakup.
Today in a philosophy course on free will and morality, we discussed the distinction between first-order and second-order desires. In the above mentioned scene, Jennifer Aniston’s second-order want was frustrated by Vince Vaughn’s lack of first-order volition to clean up around the house. The author contended that it is our ability to have so called second-order volitions that makes us ‘persons’ as opposed to mere biological creatures. It is our mastery of these second-order wants, which is supposed to be central to any concept of free will.
However, in an era when we are bombarded with messages, influences and guidebooks on what we “should” be doing with our time, I wonder: how much does this distinction stands up to our everyday experiences?
I know that there certainly are times where I consciously aim to cultivate my first-order desires (e.g. I am currently working my way through a book, Getting Things Done, which is supposed to help me to corral the various different low-level wants and priorities I have on my plate). However, there are many times where I don’t “try” to want anything at all. I just *do*.
Especially in the areas of romance and interpersonal relations, I think an overly-controlled set of lower desires can create bad outcomes and confusion. I can know that I *do* love someone, but do I want to feel that way? Should I want to want her? What about wanting to want to want her?
The problem with self-reflection and self-analysis in the area of desires is that there really is no basis for the analysis. Who decides what is right and wrong?
Should I want to be his friend? Should I enjoy our conversations? Should I want more of her company?
Given the massive amount of information we have at our fingertips when making everyday decisions about our ordinary wants and desires, to place an undue burden on higher-order analytical processes creates the potential for paralysis. Have you ever heard or experienced “analysis paralysis”? I know I have, and often it is at this higher order of abstraction, where “what if” scenarios lose their grounding.
I think listening to your conscience is sometimes helpful, and sometimes you should go with your gut. Sometimes your instincts know best, and sometimes the help of a friend can make a situation easier to handle.
Perhaps biggest challenge in life is that there is no handbook, and it is in wrestling with these kinds of questions that philosophers and joe the plumbers have been perplexed for eras. This uncertainty is also perhaps life’s greatest gift as it creates the possibility for true freedom – the ability to define our own rules and our own futures.
Maybe men should want to want to do the things that women want them to want to do. Or maybe women shouldn’t want to want the men to want to want the things they can’t help wanting them to do.
To be honest, I think the inner workings of such relations will remain a mystery far longer than anything in the realm of physics or the “hard scientists”.
For any of you science-worshipers who point to chemistry as your end-all-be-all here, I point to the current state of the financial markets to show the status of the mathematics underlying the research in your beloved “neuropsychiatry.” If the most well compensated people on earth can’t model something as simple as housing prices do you really think some scientist working in a lab is going to statistically “prove” that our emotions can be predicted by a certain combination of neurochemicals and brain matter?
We are decades away from anything close. And unfortunately likely centuries away from finally recognizing the futility of our current conceptions and theories about consciousness.
I don’t think that means we should give up trying. I don’t think we could if we tried. But maybe a little less analysis would help with the indecision…and our relationships.