Should we do what we want?

Consider the following argument.

If you don’t have what you want, you either will continue to want it forever, will stop wanting it, or will get it.

The first possibility is bothersome. You would be committing yourself to a life full of false dreams and hopes. Your life would be full of suffering.

The second possibility may not even happen. You have no way of knowing the future, and so you don’t know if you will ever stop wanting what you desire. Simply waiting until you stop wanting it therefore is pointless because we don’t know if you ever will stop wanting it.

Therefore by process of elimination, the best course of action seems to be to go get what you want.

You should therefore do what you want, all the time.

What do you think of this argument? Is this right? If not, what is wrong with the above reasoning?

Buddhism deals with the first possibility by disengaging consciousness from desires, or disidentifying with them. (I’m not advocating, just mentioning.) IOW they tend to agree that life will be filled with suffering and this is how they deal with it rather than encouraging people to get what they want.

One problem with the above is it conflates trying to get what you want with getting what you want. Since it seems implicit that getting what you want avoids the problems - the Buddhists say it does not, that desire arises anyway ((for more, for something else)) and there is always suffering). But generally we cannot simply get what we want. And the actions involved may or may not lead to other problems and suffering.

another issue: I am not sure we know what we want in all or even most instances.

One way to highlight this is to point out that there are a good number of people I am glad do not actively go after what they want. On the other hand, I like it as a rule of thumb for me.

Yes. Desire/suffering are part and parcel of life - embrace them.

So what is embracing like? Does one go for what one wants in all cases?

Well…I’d say the Buddhist practice is the opposite of embracing, so not that. And yes, one should go for what one wants the most in all cases.

The OP makes it sound like we don’t have conflicting wants. I think we should always do what we really want. I want to be healthy; therefore, I don’t eat junk food (which I also kind of want).

I want all beings to be free from suffering. I want all beings to be happy. I think this is what we all want, deep down.

Anon, you’re a saint.
Usually these ‘do what I want’ threads are asking for a rationalization for less noble behaviors - should I cheat on my girlfriend/wife, should I betray my friends and family to get ahead, should I deal drugs to make money, etc.

“Noble” :laughing: a pre-emptive strike, no?

But those examples you gave are what this thread is about, alongside worldpeace and happiness yah-di-dah, they’re the juicy parts where the real conflict is.

Simple counter - “You have no way of knowing the future” as you say, so you have no way of knowing if going to get what you want will be successful. You have much more control over what you want than what you have.

Only three scenarios are possible. You can suffer, act ignorant, or get what you want. At least trying to shoot for the third scenario is definitely the best choice here.

Only three scenarios are possible. You can suffer, act ignorant, or get what you want. At least trying to shoot for the third scenario is definitely the best choice here.
You don’t know that you can get what you want. Trying condemns you to suffering if you don’t succeed; choosing not to want relieves you of the suffering.

You don’t know that you can get what you want. Trying condemns you to suffering if you don’t succeed; choosing not to want relieves you of the suffering.
True. You don’t know that you can get what you want. But that doesn’t affect our analysis of the three cases here. They still apply.

If you will continue to want something forever, you will be suffering.

If you will stop wanting what you want, then between now and the time you stop wanting it, you will suffer. This is true regardless of whether or not you try to get it; we don’t even need to know this. Since you don’t end up getting what it was you wanted though, you are never rewarded for your suffering.

If you will get what you want, you may suffer until you get what you want, but in the end your happy and satisfied. It is guaranteed that you have what you want, and you even have been rewarded, in a sense, for your initial suffering.

Obviously the third option is best here. It doesn’t matter whether or not you try to get what you want. That doesn’t come into play. But it does seem to suggest that attempting to get what you want is helpful, since the likelihood of you receiving the desired object (the third scenario occurring) is much, much higher.

Hence, we should try our best to promote Possibility #3 - getting what you want.

You’re shifting the goalposts. Your argument against stopping wanting in the OP was “the second possibility may not even happen. You have no way of knowing the future” - it also applies just as much to the third point.

The thread title is “should we do what we want”, not “should we get what we want”. You approach the question morally - what should we do? So then it clearly very much does matter that you don’t know whether or not you’ll get it, as you have to make decisions based on imperfect information. If you want to change the argument mid-thread, at least make it clear.

Practically, the likelihood of getting what you want makes all the difference. If what you want is a ham sandwich, go for it, man. Live the dream. Eat that sandwich. If what you want is to raise Marilyn Monroe from the dead for use as your love-slave and be proclaimed king of the world, you’re better off adjusting your expectations and taking path two.

Yes, not only do our wants conflict and compete, we don’t always know our wants. Plus, “want” is not the only motivation we have. This is an extremely limiting and one dimensional view of adult humans, but may work as a model for children.

Besides the puerile aspect of this, it is self-refuting on many examples:

I want to smoke, but I have a second order desire not to smoke for social and health considerations. Set aside the second order desire for now, because my first order desire to smoke works opposite your three options. In fact, the fulfillment of smoking is insurance that I will want to smoke forever, whereas not smoking is insurance that I will not want to smoke a year from now.

This is a cop-out, and has been used, quite abusively, to justify everything from solipcism to god to doing what one wants to doing what one doesn’t want. It can literally justify just about anything, which means a theory that employs it has no force. For your consideration, the reason why a hypothetical limit to human epistemology ought never be included an any practical consideration:

I should not do what I want just as much I should do what I want:

  1. Since I cannot know what I will want in the future, I have no reason to act in accordance with what I want now. Whereas the process of want to act-on-want includes some passage of time, and as per the epistemic restriction that I cannot know the future, at the time of deciding to act on a want all I can know for certain is that I may or may not still want the want I am acting on when I get around to actually acting. As such, I am equally as likely to fulfill a want when I act according to my wants, as when I act opposite my wants.

Really, to convincingly argue this sort of argument you need to introduce some sort of authenticity. It is a noble and correct intuition that we should probably just do what we want, but when reasoning about it comes out convoluted or meaningless.

We ought to do what we want.

Such a statement is meaningless for various reasons. The most damaging reason is that we do “do what we want” and can do nothing else. The definition of “want” being used in such a statement is so broad and ill-defined that it is easy to just say “if you did it, then you wanted it”. It basically means “motivated”. However, if we refine the language we are using just a bit, we can parse out meaningful distinctions within the catch-all “motivation(want)”.

We can talk about competing wants, desires, emotions, and values. Further, we can introduce competition between time-frames and social v. internal versions of all these motivators. Of course, to rationalize which want or desire or value actually motivates us we have to introduce even more language. Then, we can end up saying something that more accurately describes our original intuition. An individual ought to be motivated by desires/wants/emotions/values which would motivate them had some external force, moral or physical, not influenced them to act otherwise. Meaning, try to act in accordance with motivators that are authentic to your biological processes prior to others fucking up your ability to discern your authentic motivations.

Do you want everyone to do what they want?

I was being a bit sly. I was trying, anyway.

Ah, I should have caught the slyness. I felt like there was an assertion that got forgotten later in your post, but I catch what you might be after. Still, my question stands.

We can wonder if the would be sociopath across the street ‘really’ wants to be nice to people, but I am pretty clear that I do not what him to do what he wants. And if he asked me, I would try to (very carefully) steer him away from this heuristic device, despite the philosophical issue you are raising.

I might also raise the issue you are raising if that seemed like it might contain him.

To be clear, I really do think that some kind of supreme happiness for all is what everyone really wants, deep down. I don’t see how it could be otherwise, other than to question what “really” want means, or “deep down”. But if a person wants to be healthy, while at the same time wanting junk food, what does that mean? Are both health and sensual delights means to an end? Isn’t that end simply happiness? And if others suffer doesn’t that bother us on some level?

The attempt at slyness was merely not mentioning that doing what we don’t want can be in service of getting what we really want. I was just leaving out any negativity and emphasizing the positive. Mature adults do things they don’t want and don’t do what they want all the time. But if we remind ourselves of the positive aspect of that, we might enjoy life more, while not becoming immature or childish in the process.

I am not sure we are all ‘really’ the same. I have to black box that. So from my limited perspective I would like a lot of people to restrain their desires, including say, guilt ridden pedophiles. I think if you tell them to do what they want, they will identify, as I do, with my desires more than the guilt. Note compassion might be another root desire and one could hope they have that, but I suspect that guilt, which I think is more of an intrusion than a desire or feeling, is best kept in place in SOME people.

The tricky philosophical issue is precisely there. How do we decide what is really us? I go on intuition here. Guilt feels not me in a way even deep dark repressed feelings never do. It splits me against myself, which even very intense, seemingly irrational anger, does not.

I think that what you say here is precisely what most ‘good’ people decide to do and how they view it. For me having the unresolved splits is something I want to end.