Are There Things You Should Want? Part I
While teaching Ethics this year, I have been especially struck by the relevance of a phrase I heard in high school: Ordered Desires.
It seems as though you can only praise or blame someone for how they act. What they want and how they feel is their business. Perhaps a soldier is very afraid, but as long as he does his duty, he is to be praised - and perhaps all the more because of how afraid he was. Perhaps someone is very angry, but he cannot help it, and he manages to avoid hurting his neighbor. We do not chastise people for how they want to act, but how they choose to act, as is implied by many a parental lecture. And anyone so rebuked can rightly say, “I cannot choose how I feel!”
Similarly, in the worlds of art or food, we do not punish those who enjoy one thing rather than another. If preference is sincere, it seems that we should sympathize with the one who has to put up with what is not to his taste.
But this is the very point Aristotle and Aquinas seem to want to overturn. Yes, in a moment, one cannot choose what he likes, what he wants, and how he feels. Nevertheless, the entire phenomenon of virtue consists in the truth that, over time and by repeated action, one can change what he desires. By repeatedly doing courageous things, a man finds that he does not fear what he once excessively did. His desire to flee is “eager” to obey reason, to use Aristotle’s word. By repeatedly being generous, a man whittles away his desire to hoard.
If this is so, we are certainly not wrong to call a desire to do what is wrong not simply unlucky, but incorrect.
In fact, if we think about it further, the protestations of one with desires for what should not be chosen are mirrored by those convinced of error. One cannot control how he feels, but neither can he control what he believes. If he finds arguments compelling, he can only push himself to a different position by dishonesty. If someone is unknowingly shown an illusion by a trickster, and believes that someone has sawn his cat in half, no one should blame him if he flies into a rage. If someone is told a lie by otherwise truthful parents, though he may externally deny it, there is nothing he can do about what his most sincere and interior judgment is. Nevertheless, when someone is sincerely deceived, we should not be afraid to say that he is wrong.
Someone in error has a certain way of remedying his involuntary confusion: he can listen to more arguments or explore or be shown more. Though he cannot directly counteract his sincere opinion no matter how much he might want to, he can take these indirect steps.
While all this is true, and, though it might be involuntary, there is such a thing as a bad desire or a bad opinion, we shy away from affirming that there are bad desires and wrong delights in art and food. Perhaps if we see this truth of the moral life more clearly, we will be right in wondering if Beauty really does mean something, and if good taste is not fundamentally a status symbol, but a deep human perfection. Aquinas seems to suggest as much. At the end of his article answering “whether all men have the same last end,” Aquinas makes this surprising comparison:
Similarly, to every sort of taste, sweetness is pleasant, but to some, the sweetness of wine is most pleasant, to others, the sweetness of honey, or of something similar. Yet the sweetness that is absolutely the best of all pleasant things is the one the person with the best taste takes most pleasure in. In like manner, the most complete good is the one which the man with well tuned affections desires for his last end. (Summa Theologiae I-IIae I. 7 c.)
Taste in food, drink, and art bear an interesting relationship to both moral rightness and intellectual: one comes to love the lovable not simply by repetition - though that often helps and is probably why we make kids learn good music on an instrument - and not simply through an argument. We come to love good food and good music by seeing them for what they are, and by beginning to be attracted to them, and by repetition and exploration. An interesting mix of seeing rightly and doing rightly!
Why am I so excited about this? There are some very important consequences:
Our beautiful building at JPII was not a waste of effort.
We ought to get to work developing good taste. Can we find the things that are beautiful, but accessible to us, to be a sort of doorway?
You may have thought morality was just about knowing what is right and wrong, and then committing to choose these things in the future. It may take a lot of self-control, but all you have to do is choose. But that is false! There is so much more work to do now. There are hosts of desires to get in order.
The righteous life may have seemed a slog, but there is good news! Wildly good news! Imagine how good life could be if you desired to do what is right. To choose what is right would be a delight. That prospect filled me with hope and excitement in high school. And its possibility is the premise of all the ethics of Aquinas and Aristotle.
We should pray for the right desires. What surer means is there, and who is more interested in giving this to us, than God?