What it means to Want

Have you ever wondered what you truly want? In the context of the demands, distractions, and routines of daily life, it is rarely clear. One thing we are all familiar with is desire. Many times each day, we are confronted with physiological urges and cravings for emotional treats: food, sex, the latest viral article, our friends’ pictures on Facebook. And yet, when you ask people what they value, these things are rarely mentioned.

What gives? Often, people conflate their actions with their wants. We feel like we have free will, and hope that we can actually do what is best for us. However, reality is messier. We are far from the prototypical rational actor of economic models: “If you didn’t want this, why did you do that?”

On this topic, my friend recommended this interesting paper. To summarize, Watson suggests that one can draw a useful distinction between the possession of values and desires. Our values can be said to come from our valuation system, in which we think rationally about how we want the world to look. In contrast, our desires reside in our motivational system, which drives what actions we actually take. In this model, we can want to lose weight more than we want that piece of cake, even though we may act in favor of the cake. To the extent that our motivational system fails to carry out the aspirations of the valuation system, we are failing to act upon our wants.

Desires are often driven by physiological mechanisms, addictions, and neuroses. Some are less avoidable than others. Consider the need to consume food as opposed to the need to check Facebook. However, noting the superfluousness of a desire is not necessarily a negative judgement. Even the most stigmatized of addictions, such as heroin use, possesses some who truly enjoy and value the experience. Alternatively, we have the scenario in which we tell ourselves one thing, but fail to act in accordance with that thought. For example, at the moment I want to finish this blog post, but I keep getting up to make more cups of tea.

Traditions and cultural norms make things even trickier. They blur the line between what we care about and what society wants us to care about. Consider the relatively sacred institution of marriage. It may be difficult to identify to what extent people remain in unhappy marriages as a consequence of a sense of duty, often to the idea of marriage, rather than because they want the marriage itself. Similarly, some values may be morally difficult to acknowledge. For instance, I aspire to value all human life equally, and yet would almost certainly feel a greater sense of urgency to protect those who are closer to me.

We may communicate a value, but intrinsically believe something else. The possession of a value is not necessarily discredited by our failure to act upon it. Alternatively, being ignorant of what outcomes we are acting towards might lead to future disappointment. It is better to be aware of what you actually care about and work to achieve that, rather than living in a dissonance of desire.

So that leaves the million-dollar question, how do I identify my values? How do we know what we really want?


Originally published at Gary Basin Blog.

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