Approach and Aversion: How to Handle Desire
Only indulge in moderation, align your desires with your values, and approach what you identify as inherently good.
Garrett Kincaid — June 13, 2021
One of life’s biggest questions is: What is worth pursuing? The answer to that question will be different for everyone. And, often, we pursue something and only later decide that it was worth it. So, that’s not a question that can be answered in a blog post. But, it is one that can be explored.
We’ll do that by looking at moment-to-moment decisions of what to approach and what to avoid because any pursuit can be broken down into a series of choices between approach and aversion.
These decisions will differ from person to person. For that reason, this discussion will be in terms that are relative to the beliefs, priorities, and values of the individual.
I’ll give you the three-part punchline right away, and then we’ll break it down into its parts.
Only indulge in moderation, align your desires with your values, and approach what you identify as inherently good.
A Philosophical Framework
How should pleasure influence our decision of what to pursue in life? There's a variety of answers to this question in philosophy.
In general terms, these philosophies fall on a spectrum between avoiding every pleasure — asceticism — and approaching every pleasure — hedonism. Between those two extremes is temperance or moderation, where one can pursue pleasure within limits and consider some desires as natural and good.
Hedonism can have serious, long-term consequences because it ascribes equal worth to all pleasures and doesn’t call for one to select certain pleasures. It could easily lead someone to constantly pursue immediate pleasure without concern for future pains. Alternatively, asceticism often denies natural, healthy, and even necessary desires. Many ascetics, for example, are celibate for life. But why should the desire to procreate be denied? If everyone were celibate, there would soon be no one at all, which suggests that procreation is a natural and healthy desire.
Hedonism and asceticism are both useful. One places value on pleasure and on the satisfaction of one’s desires, while the other encourages one to deny bodily pleasures for the sake of a higher spiritual existence. But, like most dichotomies, neither side alone is the answer.
Since hedonism is not the way, one should not avoid all pains. And since asceticism is not the way, one should not avoid all pleasures. The question, then, is not whether to approach pleasure and avoid pain but when and to what extent one should endure pain and pass on pleasure.
Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, highlights this idea in his “Letter to Menoeceus:”
Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided.
Desire, Pleasure and Pain
As we all know, some pains are beneficial and some pleasures detrimental. That makes for a complicated landscape to traverse.
To simplify it, we can look at pleasure and pain through the single lens of desire. Pleasure arises from satisfying desire and pain from denying it.
With that definition, we can assess the quality of desires instead of looking at individual pleasures and pains and judging whether they should be approached or avoided. Desires are fewer and more permanent than pleasures and pains, which are innumerable, circumstantial, and fleeting.
To have a desire is to also be drawn to satisfy it. Attempting to satisfy desires is the same as pursuing pleasure. Our desires dictate our behavior, so it’s important to curate a set of desires that directs you toward what you believes to be the “capital-G” Good in the world.
Desires come in three types:
- Independently good desires
- Dependently good desires
- Bad desires.
Many desires, upon satisfying them, always bring net pain instead of net pleasure — maybe a brief, immediate pleasure that is soon dwarfed by future pains. Those are bad desires.
A dependent desire is one that is good only as a function of its portion, meaning that to indulge in it beyond moderation is bad and would bring pain, not pleasure.
Finally, an independently good desire is one where, no matter how often and to what degree one satisfies it, satisfying it always has the potential to be pleasurable.
To clarify, independently good desires can also bring net pain upon their satisfaction. As an example, let’s say that the desire to obtain knowledge independently good. That is not to say that learning something new is never painful. It is to say that no amount of learning guarantees that obtaining more knowledge would be painful. In other words, you can’t have an excess of knowledge, but you can have an excess of marshmallows. Learning always has the potential to be pleasurable, and that is one indication that the pains associated with learning are worth enduring.
There’s no ceiling on the pleasure that independently good desires can bring, yet they may still cause pain.
The goal is to have no bad desires, to indulge in dependent desires only within moderation, and to identify the few desires that you consider to be independently good.
Should I stay or should I go?
(“This indecision’s buggin’ me.”)
As the curators of a precious collections of desires, we must establish criteria by which to judge desires and determine whether it is right to try to satisfy it. The main criteria I propose are portion and consequence.
Portion is the extent to which one satisfies or indulges in a desire. For dependent desires, it’s important to indulge only in moderation, as those desires are only good if their portion is not excessive. Consequence, on the other hand, represents the total impact of satisfying or denying a desire, beyond immediate pleasure or pain. What is the consequence of a painful workout? Is it just the immediate pain, or is it also the pleasure of increased health, strength, mobility, and longevity? Similarly, is the consequence of cussing out the barista ahead of your dreadful morning commute only a pleasurable cathartic release? Or, is the consequence dominated by the pain of regretting that outburst in the near future?
To determine whether a desire is good, one must evaluate 1) the consequence of satisfying it and 2) the greatest portion that falls within its margin of moderation.
At any decision point between approach and aversion, always try to consider net pleasure, not just immediate pleasure. Ask, “Will satisfying this desire bring more pleasure or more pain in the long term?”
Regardless of the intensity of the immediate pleasure, the sum of all future pains could still be greater. If it is the case that, in the long-run, pain would outweigh pleasure, then avoid satisfying that desire for its negative consequences. There are also, of course, immediate pains that one can choose to endure in the interest of experiencing net pleasure in the long term.
So, one metric for evaluating the quality of a desire is to question whether satisfying it would bring net pleasure or net pain.
Most desires are only good as a function of their portion (dependently good desires) and can only remain pleasurable if one indulges in moderation. Moderation, for any desire, lies between abstinence and excess, where excess is the point at which any further indulgence would cause net pain instead of net pleasure.
Well, how much is too much? It’s hard to identify the point of excess, and it’s hard to always avoid it. Desires vary in how wide the margin of moderation is — how much space there is between abstinence and excess. For instance, it is possible to drink too much water, but its margin of moderation is much wider than that of alcohol.
As you try to monitor portions and work within the margin of moderation, remember to account for human error. Even if you intend to, how often do you only have one Oreo? The larger the margin of moderation is for a desire, the less human error matters. Your portion could be greater than intended and still not exceed the margin of moderation. But for desires with a narrow margin, human error can cause you to slip into excess and cause pain.
(Again, think of the margin for water vs. that for alcohol. How much pain can one more glass of water cause, compared to one more drink?)
The margin of moderation is another important indicator of the quality of a desire. In general terms, it’s good to pursue desires with a higher margin of moderation — at least one that exceeds the margin of human error — rather than those where moderation is too close (or indistinguishable from) excess.
To remain within the margin of moderation:
- Limit human error by developing control over your portions.
- Select desires with large margins.
The main way to know what to approach and what to avoid is to evaluate the quality of each desire.
All of what we’ve talked about so far — pleasure and pain, the margin of moderation, net pleasure and the consequence of desire — are useful indicators for determining bad desires and the points of excess. But the most essential criterion for evaluating desires is congruence — whether a desire is in accordance with your values.
That’s why it’s important to identify independently good desires — cumulative pleasures for which there is no such thing as excess. Each independently good desire should correspond to one or more of your values. And dependently good desires will fall under or relate in some way to your independently good desires.
Each person has different values and, therefore, will identify different independently good desires. So, I’m only offering the one’s below for your consideration (which aren’t in any oder of importance) and explaining their connection to my values.
My independently good desires:
- The first, which I have already mentioned, is the desire for knowledge and the associated pleasure of learning. That desire corresponds to the value I place on truth.
- Second, is the desire for new experiences, which serves my value of open-mindedness.
- Next is the desire for conversation and intimate connection, which serves my value of oneness/unity.
- The final independently good desires I have identified are the desire for clarity of thought and a positive self-image. (There is no such thing as a too-positive self image, for that is not the same as hubris or arrogance. Instead, it is more like a self-comfort, and that is something that is independently good.) These desires serve my value of autonomy.
An independently good desire points to something that is inherently good. The desire itself is not inherently good because one could still pursue that desire poorly or unethically. One’s independently good desires represent part of one’s hypothesis for what is capital-G Good in the world and for what is worth pursuing in life. They are those things for which one is willing to endure pain and delay pleasure.
Remember that desires are not good because they bring pleasure. A desire is only good if it animates the soul toward something that is inherently good (or toward one’s best guess for what that Good is). So, when selecting and managing desires, the goal is not to maximize pleasure but to find pleasure only in satisfying desires that align with your values , and to find it painful to transgress against those values.
Identify independently good desires, and know why each is important to you and with which value(s) of yours they align. That foundation will help you eliminate bad desires and only indulge in dependent desires within the margin of moderation. Finally, pursue your curated set of desires ethically.
- “Hedonism” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- “Letter to Menoeceus” – Epicurus