What do you want to want? A short primer on the power of philosophical self-development.

In ethical philosophy, the study of what people should do, there’s this notion of first- and second-order desires.

A first-order desire happens when a person wants something, whether explicitly (out loud) or implicitly (by their action): a person wants the pleasure and nutrition from eating a blueberry muffin.

A person wants a paycheck. Needs that new first person shooter. Would steal that woman’s blouse. Seriously wants to avoid temptation, or risk, or adventure, or the scent of mothballs, or clowns.

Needs that coffee right now, often in service to a second-order desire for effectiveness.

Sometimes first-order desires can be something we know is bad for us, or a behavior that’s unsustainable:

For instance, crack. The time people spend on crack has to take the place of some other activity. It takes a lot of activity to keep a human being healthy and fulfilled. A lot of focus on balance. The nature of crack is that people on it, do not focus on much, aside from searching for more crack. Cocaine, even more so. Sometimes this gets (questionably) channelled into the second-order desire for money, and voila, finance sectors, stock markets, banks, Hollywood, and the music industry.

In this way, the desire for crack is in the same category as the desire for food, shelter, anything you need to spend time to harvest; often, people who want  crack, well they search for it instead of eating, resulting in obviously horrible health effects.

It’s unsustainable because crack is expensive, and acquiring more crack tends to occupy most of the time of the person who likes crack. There may be people out there with healthy, once-every-six-months crack habits, but they are likely rare. (Full disclosure: I have never done crack. I have known some folks who regularly binged on high doses of amphetamines, however.)

Because of this replacement effect, some first-order desires can crowd out the basic first-order desires required for a happy life.

Other unsustainable first-order desires:

The desire or compulsive need to neurotically blame oneself or repeatedly feel bad over and over for one’s innate preferences, desires, or actions (not for acting on hurtful preferences and desires – we should all feel bad about hurting other people – but feeling bad for the mere possession of these preferences and desires).

The unsustainable first-order desire that states confidently that candy is a meal. Repeatedly judging oneself or feeling shame about a particular response to a situation in the past, where it’s possible that no one noticed your error, like using the wrong word in a sentence at a presentation.

Wanting to pet growling dogs.

Wanting to avoid adorable, friendly dogs when not allergic to them. Hey, this is a dog blog.

Unfortunately, having your first-order desires shaped doesn’t really feel like anything. That’s a problem, because that means any old person that comes along and shapes those suckers has a bit of a hold on you. On the plus side, that makes human beings easily programmable by their parents and other authority figures. On the minus side for some of us, that makes human beings easily programmable by their parents and other authority figures, who give us stupid or hurtful programs as our default sets.

Aristotle thought excellence was a habit; a set of habits, really, that reinforced being excellent – he thought something like: if you make excellent choices, you will be more likely to make further excellent choices in the future, and eventually you will sort of internally know what considering the excellent action feels like, so choosing the excellent action will be second nature.

The Stoics thought that how you feel about a decision is totally irrelevant to how you should make it. They attempted to exist entirely on second-order desires, which involved denying one’s own feelings about a decision, and doing the well-considered thing instead, plotting out pluses and minuses, refusing to come to quick or gut judgments.

If you care about what I think, here are some things I want to want:

I want to want to be rational and well-considered in each of my decisions to the greatest extent possible, which is something that, since I learned about it, has quickly become a first-order want, as my well-considered decisions pay off, and the quick, irrational, emotional decisions become instantly exposed for the fraudulent reasoning they are.

As a thinker and writer, I want to want to write every single day, all day, because I first-order want dollars and second-order want validation from other folks who kind of get where I’m coming from, and who appreciate other perspectives on a path we’ve shared.

Healthy or fit people often want to want a vegetable salad. Naturally healthy or fit people often just plain want a vegetable salad.

Depressed people seeking help might want to want to pull the trigger, but also want to want to seek help. (sorry, dark.)



One way to organize second-order desires such that the first-order desires add up to a natural inclination is by building personal flowcharts of planned responses. It saves time and makes dieting easier.

heres my personal diet flowchart:

if no, fix that issue before moving on.

Fix issues by replacing the non-useful habit with the useful one.

Above fatty tissue I want on my body? Yes (I realize this one is kind of encouraging an eating disorder when I write it out like this.)

Eating 3 meals a day, with 2-4 snacks a day depending on activity level? Yes

Drinking 8 glasses of water a day, one before each meal? Yes

eating close to zero refined carbohydrates/white carbs? Yes

eating close to zero processed food, period? Yes

Protein intake sufficient to reduce cravings at end of night? Yes

getting daily vegetables? Yes

Getting diverse sources of nutrients? Yes

walking at least 20 minutes per day? Yes

sweating three times a week? Yes

sweating every day? Yes

in pain every day? Yes

Fitness link: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2016-08-22/5-non-physical-qualities-youll-gain-when-you-start-exercising-every-day?src=usn_fb

I know if I follow these habits, I absolutely will lose weight. I want to want each decision on this flowchart. I still mess up! My first-order desires do and have thwarted me at every step.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say about this. I hope you can come away with a slightly better understanding of ways in which to organize wants. I’d love to hear other strategies.



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