Friday, September 30, 2016

Self Help Philosophy: Desirism

Can Desirism help a person to live a better life?

In my last post I looked at some self-help philosophies and tried to express them in more modern terms. This raised the question of whether desirism itself has any recommendations for living a better life.

One of the recommendations that it comes with is a way to improve the community in which one lives. This is to determine what desires and aversions people generally have reason to promote and ally with other members of the community to promote those desires and aversions. One can create a community in which people are more honest, kind, and helpful, less eager to see harm come to others, who repay their debts, keep promises, and try not to be an undue burden on others.

In other words, it helps to identify where to put the moral fence so as to improve the quality of life for those living within the bounds of that fence.

But that's moral-ought. Does desirism provide any advice on how one ought to practical-ought live their lives.

To start with, desirism can endorse the advice offered by the Buddhists, stoics, and Adam Smith in the previous post. Our desires give things value. However, it is possible to become so attached to a state of affairs that one simply cannot bear a world in which that state of affairs does not obtain. Yet, the universe promises us nothing. To avoid extreme disappointment, we have reason to temper our desires - to enjoy the time that we have to do what we want and with whom we want, but to brace oneself for the fact that things will change and what we have today may not be here tomorrow.

If your attitude towards another person is, "I couldn't live without you," then you have a problem. It is not only a problem for you in that the fates might not give you the company of the person you could not live without. You are also creating a problem for that person. If you find yourself in this type of situation, you should admit to the fact that it is not a good situation to be in and to take steps to temper those sentiments.

Another important piece of advice - and one that I gratefully followed even before I knew anything about desirism - is to avoid acquiring those desires that tend to thwart future desires. Smoking, drug addiction, and the like are desires best avoided. The best way to avoid acquiring these desires is to refuse to take up the activity that causes one to have them. Scientists know how these activities work on the brain to alter desires - and, science can tell you, with an increasing measure of accuracy, what you should avoid.

I did end up with an over-fondness for chocolate and computer games, but I have avoided acquiring some of the worst future-thwarting desires simply by avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs.

This leads to a third important piece of advice - to know and understand the world as it is.

A major cause of human misery has and continues to be "false belief". False beliefs cause people to devote time and resources to plans that do not produce expected results, and to fail to devote time and resources to plans that would produce exceptional payoffs. The range of activities that are adversely impacted by false belief range from investment and career options to health matters. False beliefs on climate change threatens countless lives and promises untold amounts of human suffering. Mistaken beliefs about vaccines, genetically modified foods, nuclear power, and alternative medicine cause significant harm.

However, understanding the world as it is involves more than acquiring correct beliefs, it requires an honest appraisal of how one acquires beliefs. Confirmation biases, cherry-picking, and tribal prejudices combine to motivate people to make judgments that are often far from the truth, and hijack an interest in doing good to produce behavior that does harm.

The value of true beliefs provides a substantial reason to come down particularly hard on those who lie - where a "lie" is understood as any communicative act that seeks to cause in others a belief that the communicator believes to be false. It also provides reason for the harsh condemnation of those who are intellectually reckless, because they do not exercise sufficient caution or concern over whether their claims are true or false.

It is also important to be modest in one's beliefs. All it takes is a casual look around at the numbers of people who have been absolutely confident that they were right who have, in fact, been dead wrong to draw the conclusion that one should be a bit anxious about one's own beliefs. The idea that one is to grab a belief, as a matter of faith, and hang onto it beyond all reason and allow no questioning has been a barrier to progress, good judgment, and respect for others throughout human history. Try to understand the world as it is. However, if your neighbor also tries to understand the world as it is and comes up with some different answers, certainly one of you must be wrong, but an impartial judge may not find it particularly easy to determine who it is.

Another piece of advice that I have illustrated in a recent post on weight loss comes from the fact that the way that a desire presents itself depends on its environment. In the case that I described earlier, desires that have motivated me to waste time playing computer games also motivated me to lose weight when I put them in a context where I could "keep score" regarding the number of calories I burned and consumed in a day. Along that same line of reasoning, one can take their desires as they are and try to change the environment so that the desires express themselves in useful and productive ways. This is a great deal easier than altering one's desires.

These are a few pieces of practical advice that come from desirism.

  1. Promote a community in which others keep promises, repay debts, and the like by praising/rewarding those who do and condemning/punishing those who do not.
  2. Avoid overly strong attachments to that which is temporary or that can be lost.
  3. Avoid desires that thwart future desires.
  4. Seek true beliefs; educate yourself about the real world and avoid the epistemic traps that lure people into false beliefs.
  5. Promote a community in which people generally respect the value of true beliefs (condemn lying and intellectual recklessness).
  6. Avoid arrogance in one's beliefs. In every dispute, somebody has to be wrong and it is not always "the other guy".
  7. Try to create a context in which your desires (interests) can express themselves in ways that are useful to yourself and others.
  8. Promote a community within which people generally are kind and helpful.

Well, that's a start.

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