A Question of... Desire

In the first part of a new series for young people, Steven Campbell-Harris takes a look at the character of desire.

Why are you here?

Forgive me, I don’t mean the question in any profound sense. I only ask, why are you reading this article?

It’s certainly not the only thing you could be doing. You could be watching the latest Netflix series or playing a game with friends. In choosing to read this article you decided, at least for now, to do this instead. Why?

Why do we do what we do?

By now you might have landed on some reason why you are doing what you are doing. However, this is not the end of the story of your decision-making. Most reasons we give for doing something are incomplete; we also have reasons for our reasons. For example, if you answered that you are reading the article to learn more about philosophy you presumably have reasons why you value learning philosophy (e. g. To feel more intelligent? To get a good grade? To confuse your friends and family?). Even apparently insignificant daily tasks can be linked to larger projects in our lives.

Take a moment to think of something small and trivial that you did today. For example, tying your shoelaces or brushing your teeth. Think of the reason why you did this. Then, think of the reason for the reason, and the reason for that reason, and so on (e. g. we put on our shoes to get to school to learn something to get good grades etc). How long can you make this sequence go on for, finding the reasons for the reasons why you did something? Does it ever end?

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle pondered this puzzle millennia ago. He believed there must be at least one reason that would effectively end our questioning when we begin to ask “why?” or else the motivation for our actions would be groundless. Imagine that you could carry on asking “why does that matter?” for every reason you gave for doing something. If this process never ended, you would not reach a final answer for why you did what you did. Your decisions would not stand on stable ground, instead they’d hang indefinitely and apparently meaninglessly.

Aristotle thought that we could avoid this. He made a distinction between things that are desirable because they get us something else that we want (e. g. I value my washing machine because it can deliver me clean clothes) and things that are desirable for their own sake. Eventually we must get to something that is desirable for its own sake, or else the sequence carries on forever.

What is desirable for its own sake?

“Why do you want to get an A in that exam?” seems a reasonable question. We can respond to it in various ways (e. g. to make my parents proud/to get into a particular course of study). “Why do you want to be happy?”, on the other hand, is a bewildering question. We don’t typically give reasons why we want happiness. Instead, it seems to be desirable for its own sake, independent of anything else it might bring us. It would be rather strange if someone said, “I want to be happy so I can sleep better at night”. Even if happiness leads to better sleep (and research suggests it does), it is a fortunate side effect of being happy, not the reason why we want to be happy.

Some thinkers go further. Paul Dolan, LSE professor and author of Happiness by Design, argues that happiness is the only thing that is desirable for its own sake. He writes:

Everything except happiness requires some justification or other: it is just obvious that happiness matters. Now, other considerations, such as achievement or authenticity, are clearly important. But they are only important because of their instrumental value; that is, they matter only insofar as they produce more happiness.

Is this right? Is happiness the only thing that we really want from life? When we ask people, they don’t always identify happiness as their end goal. Here are some others:

Becoming successful

Being a good person

Being rich

Being well-educated

Being popular/ famous

Knowing the truth

Being free

Being authentic

Are any of these good in themselves, or are they only good if they produce happiness? Let’s consider a few.

Being rich

Almost everyone would like to be rich if given the chance. Yet what kind of value does money possess? A £10 note certainly delivers value in exchange: I get something valuable in return for handing over my cash. However, the value of money extends beyond its ability to provide us with goods and services. Money also promises us psychological benefits: pleasure, independence, high status, and security. We think that money will make us happy because we think these goods will make us happy.


Would you still want to be rich if you didn’t get these psychological goods (e. g. pleasure, independence etc), or if getting them didn’t make you happy?

Being authentic

The American philosopher Robert Nozick once posed the following thought experiment:

Imagine that one day you were given the opportunity to enter an “experience machine.” It would simulate your life perfectly, so you would feel when you were in it that it was completely real (much like the simulation in the film The Matrix). Before entering the machine, you could program every aspect of your life. If you wanted to achieve something impressive, to fall in love with the person of your dreams, or become very famous, you could make your wishes come true. Once you entered the experience machine you would lose your memories, forgetting that you had programmed your life. You would feel just as you feel right now but with the dream life you had programmed. Would you enter the machine?

If you answered no, Nozick suggested that you value something greater than your own personal happiness. There is something about the fact that it wouldn’t really be happening, and your life would be mapped out rather than actively created, which makes it appear inauthentic. If you answered yes, you might say that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. The experience machine grants you the opportunity to live a life filled with joyful experiences in blissful ignorance, what is the harm in that?


If you had to choose, would you rather an authentic unhappy life or a happy inauthentic one?

Knowing the truth

Suppose that in the final week of your life you are given access to a mysterious recording. On it, you discover, are conversations containing every negative word anyone has ever said about you behind your back. You have a choice; throw it away, destroy it, or listen?

If you would want to listen, you might be what philosopher Daniel Callcut calls a “truth masochist”. Given a choice between comfortable ignorance and painful truth, you opt for the latter. Of course, there are instances where knowing the truth gives you short term pain, and long-term gain, including when you receive difficult feedback about your shortcomings. However, here there would be no time to benefit from the truth. It would be like finding out that an asteroid will strike the Earth tomorrow and wipe out human civilisation. There’s no time to change the situation, so finding out seems pointless and unnecessarily painful.


If you can’t do anything useful with some truth, and it won’t make you happier in the long term, would you still want to know it?

Why this matters?

Whether you think of money, truth, and authenticity only as means to greater happiness or as desirable in themselves matters a great deal to how you ought to live your life.

If you think of happiness as the ultimate motivation for everything you do, then you might find that pursuing other goods becomes counterproductive. For example, you might find that focusing too much on acquiring money might lead to negative comparisons with others who are richer, impacting your self-esteem and making you less happy. Similarly, you might find that learning the truth doesn’t always set you free but often just makes you miserable.

Perhaps instead you think that some goals like truth and authenticity are valuable even if achieving them doesn’t make you happy. Many thinkers - Dolan and Aristotle included - argue that there must be a single core reason for why we do what we do, be that recognition, reproduction, power, happiness, or self-actualisation. If it looks like there is more than one, they say, it is just because we haven’t identified that one of them is only valuable if it can get us what we ultimately want (e.g. truth is only valuable for getting happiness). Is this right? Can we have two equally compelling ultimate reasons for what we do, or is this simply not possible?

If you want to explore these ideas further, check out these books:

Happiness By Design, by Paul Dolan

On Desire, by William B Irvine

The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle

Making it personal

What are the main desires that drive your life?
What do you want which is “desirable for its own sake?”

Share your thoughts with friends and family and join them in the discussion.

"A Question of…” is a new series for young adult readers brought to you by The Philosophy Foundation. Commissioning editors for the series are Emma Worley MBE and Peter Worley.

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Steven Campbell-Harris is a Senior Specialist and Trainer with The Philosophy Foundation. In these roles he facilitates philosophical conversations with children of all ages, gives talks on philosophy in schools, and trains philosophy graduates in philosophical enquiry. He has published articles on philosophy and education in Philosophy Now, Teaching Times, and Innovate My School.