The idea that all desires are good might at first sight seem preposterous. Is the desire of a mass murderer to kill people good? But even in such an extreme case, we can separate the energies of the mass murderer from the beliefs that form the context in which he acts. The same energies that are used in one framework of belief to commit mass murder, might in another be used to save lives or give generously to others.
By ‘desires’ here, then, is meant energy that motivates us to act in pursuit of goals. One basic principle of Middle Way Philosophy is that energy is the basis of value. That energy will always be used in a way that, according to the beliefs of the organism, is basically good. ‘Good’, if we are to understand it within experience rather than metaphysically, does not mean anything more mysterious than fulfilling the desires of an organism according to its beliefs. But it is our beliefs, when they are metaphysical, that prevent energy from being integrated, and thus limit that value. The model according to which desires are ‘good’, then, must be incremental. Unintegrated desires are good, but they become better to the extent that they are integrated.
The idea that desires are good is traditionally associated with hedonism (the belief that pleasure is good) and relativism (the belief that no belief is better than any other). However, Middle Way Philosophy avoids both of these metaphysical traps by using incrementality and the integration model. Good as a matter of experience must be incremental – that is the only way we can navigate between the metaphysical extremes of absolute good and absolute evil. It would be more accurate to say ‘better’ rather than good, because goodness in experience is always comparative. Of course, that also means that desires could be described as ‘worse’ or incrementally bad. Generally speaking, though, the basic animal optimism of our left hemispheres can be relied upon to give a positive interpretation to the fulfilment of our desires, and depression is often a function of conflict. The more our desires are integrated, the more likely we are to interpret their fulfilment as a glass that is half full rather than half empty. But it is only our experience of optimism that makes us optimistic – there can be no heavenly guarantees that make optimism ultimately right.
The incremental development of value, then, depends on incremental integration of desire. Let’s take the example of a desire to eat a biscuit (=cookie for Americans). If I have conflicting beliefs about whether I should eat it, then there will be energy going into maintaining those beliefs as well as the energy of desiring the biscuit, so to eat it I will have to repress my sense of guilt, linked to a metaphysical belief that to do so is absolutely bad. All the energy going into that will not be available to me to experience the pleasure of eating the biscuit, so I will enjoy it less. the value of the experience will thus be less for me than if I had been able to eat it in a more integrated state. What’s more, the pattern of repression I have set up there will make it more likely that I will act in a similar way in the future. The pleasure of eating a biscuit is good – who can deny that on the basis of experience rather than dogma? – but to eat a biscuit in a more integrated state is still better.
This pattern of repression lessening incremental value also applies at a social level. For example, if exploited low-paid workers go on strike to demand higher wages, then the strike is ruthlessly broken up by armed police with strikebreakers, the overall result of this conflict is probably less value for everyone than if the owners had negotiated with the workers and agreed an economically manageable pay rise. The desires of different groups will be integrated better by adopting a set of beliefs that fulfils more of them without conflict, and the outcome is thus better.
This way of understanding the value of desire seems to be the only way to avoid metaphysical beliefs about value that pretend to import it from somewhere beyond experience, such as God’s command or an ultimately rational position. If you take this traditional way of thinking, you then have to see desire as either all bad or as separated into good and bad types. If all desire is bad, we are left with a dogmatically negative account of human existence which only has the effect of alienating us from the desires we actually feel. This leads to the entrenched conflicts of puritanism, for example. If only some desires are bad and others good, we are left with the problem of deciding which ones are which. Given that desires as energies can easily be switched and rechanneled, though, you can only do that by judging according to beliefs, not desires themselves. You end up believing that desires are fixed in a way that they are not, and that underestimates the way in which our desires are constantly changing from moment to moment to address one situation or another that we encounter. You end up forgetting that we are changing, embodied organisms.
To think of all desires as incrementally good thus has huge practical value. It means that we can make sense of the idea of moral value within our own experience. It means we can follow the Middle Way by avoiding metaphysical assumptions about good and evil. It means that we can make full sense of the integration model, and learn a great deal of moral relevance from psycho-analytic work on ego defences: for example, that of George Vaillant. Such psychoanalysts often implicitly assume that psychic integration is good, but dare not say so too explicitly for fear of tarnishing their scientific credentials. Middle Way Philosophy in this sense just makes moral use of some models that have been around for a long time in psycho-analysis.
Picture: Raja Ravi Varma, The Suckling Child (public domain)