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What do our desires say about us? I Oriana Ng

As we enter December, we are all busy shopping for gifts or creating wish lists. Whether we want a toy, a vacation, or just to spend time with family, to some extent, what we want is always indicative of who we are. What do our desires say about us?

In Economics, the “utility function” correlates an individual’s desire with the satisfaction or “utility” they derive from a particular object. The more something makes us happy, the more we want it, the more it has value in our eyes. This association between desire and value can have moral implications: if I derive a higher utility from buying a designer handbag than from donating money to charity, does this make me a shallow person?

The nature of our desires are often perceived as a testament of our strength of character. Being a good person means overcoming baser instincts to pursue higher aspirations. However, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs observes that a person’s desires are motivated by five levels of needs: physiological, safety, belongingness/love, esteem, and self-actualization. You can only move onto the next need once you have secured the needs beneath. In sociology, this theory is used to explain different social class behaviors. For instance, wealthy people could afford to care more about environmental activism, veganism, etc. This would tend to show that our desires are a testament of our privilege more than our character.

In addition, who can help wanting what they want? American philosopher Harry Frankfurt made an important distinction between a desire for anything else than a desire (first order desire) and a desire for a desire (second order desire). These can be conflicting: I desire to smoke, but I also want to quit smoking. As we only control second order desires, they are a better testament of our strength of character: if my desire to quit is stronger than my desire to smoke, I’ll quit.

However, all our desires, including second order ones, are subject to cultural and society pressures: having children, being straight, choosing a certain career. Many of our desires aren’t our own. French philosopher René Girard coined the term “mimetic desire” to communicate how we borrow desires from others. An example is herd behavior consumers who follow trends and buy the same products. In this case, status and sense of community procured by owning the product supersedes its actual use.

So, what do we really want? Do we have any authentic desires at all? If we examine language, “desire” means to wish for the stars. It’s connected to “destiny”. Desire is a driving force that keeps us active and alive. More than anything, we desire to desire. Perhaps this is why many of us want a surprise for Christmas – we are willing to trade being stuck with a gift we don’t like for the short-lived fantasy of speculating about everything that object could be. It doesn’t matter what the object of our desire is – the object is desire.

What do you want for Christmas?

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