Is controlling our desires a key to happiness?

John Stuart Mill and desire

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John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill said “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than seeking to satisfy them.”

This seemed odd for Mill to say this. Mill was perhaps the most influential 19th century philosopher. His best known works are “On Liberty” and “Utilitarianism.” He was a strong proponent of individual liberty. Individual speech and actions should be constrained only when necessary to protect others. Happiness and pleasure is life's purpose. Moral actions are those producing the greatest happiness.

I expected Mill to favor satisfying desires. Doesn't satisfying desire cause pleasure and make us happy? Isn't liberty freedom to satisfy our desires? His quote suggests the opposite. Why? All desires are not the same. There are higher and lower order desires and they have different effects on happiness. There is the distinction between self imposed and state imposed constraints. You can advocate freedom realizing some will use that freedom to destroy their lives. Finally, there is the distinction between limiting and eliminating desire. You might partially satisfy a desire rather than avoid it altogether.

Pleasures are not equal

I found clues to Mill's views on desire by reading more about his life and philosophy. Mill does not treat pleasures equally. He argues that some pleasures are better than others and more worthy of pursuing. He distinguishes between quality and quantity. We should seek better pleasure, not more pleasure.

This quote explains his view:

“It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”

Mill argues it is better to have unsatisfied higher desires that fulfilled lower desires.  Limiting pursuit of lower pleasures helps us pursue higher pleasures which leads to greater happiness.

The Stoic virtue of moderation

Further insight comes from the Stoics. Mill knew Stoic philosophy well. Mill thought the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and well known Stoic, were “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.” The Stoics taught freedom from passion by following reason. Virtues are essential to Stoic philosophy and their prescription for a happy life. Moderation (discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control) is one of four basic Stoic virtues. Mill's comments about limiting our desires may reflect his Stoic views. We can gain freedom from passions as we can let reason guide our life. By practicing the virtues of moderation and discipline we can avoid wasting time with base pleasures and focus instead on being virtuous.

Why we have desires

It helps to understand where many basic desires come from. Desires are natural as is the pleasure of fulfilling them. The drive for food, sex, recognition, status, etc. are all part of our hard wiring. We don't have to think to have desires. People don't need to be taught to like eating or to want sex. We are born with an innate need or desire to eat, procreate, and survive in a social environment. These desires have helped us succeed as a species. The behaviors motivated by these desires are evolutionary adaptions. For most of human existence they have worked and our species has flourished. Yet in modern society, these human tendencies have some clear downsides.

Why limiting desires is a good thing

Having the means to fulfill desires creates problems.  We feel hunger and we eat. Through much of human history starvation was a frequent threat. Now most people can fully satisfy their hunger anytime. Consequently, we eat too much for own good. The same logic applies to other desires. Sex in moderation is healthy and leads to happiness and a fulfilled life. But unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure can destroy relationships, lead to addiction, and divert attention more important pursuits. Desire for status and recognition motivates us to work hard and be constructive. But unbridled desire for status causes harm as see too often in political leaders. Mill is not saying we should eliminate desire altogether. He is likely saying we should limit desires to what is necessary and healthy.

2 thoughts on “Is controlling desire a key to happiness?

  • November 9, 2018 at 11:02 am

    As you note in the introduction to philosophy on the blog, philosophy is very important to all humans. Most seem to be very limited in thinking things through and seeking truth no matter where it is to be found.

    The opening quote from Mills made me think that what Mills might have been thinking is close to the Buddhist principle of extinguishing ALL desires. Nirvana, the ideal state, is a complete absence of all desire. Christian spirituality has always emphasized the importance of limiting or suppressing “carnal” desires in favor of pursuing a closer relationship with God. Some saints have lived lives of extreme asceticism yet remained quite happy.

    The essential problem I see with Mills is how to distinguish between higher and lower desires. Many desires are hard to categorize, especially in all contexts. For example, learning calculus or how to speak French might be considered higher intellectual pursuits but if they are pursued solely as instruments to achieve base goals like getting a job that requires these skills then are they really higher desires? Suppose you desire to be regarded as an honest man. Would any degree effort to create this regard by your relevant community be justified? Would it be advancing a higher desire if you promoted the image of your honesty with insincere or false facades?

    Another potential weakness to Mills thinking is that it fails to recognize the bedrock economic principle of “diminishing marginal utility.” This is the hypothesis that any good will have less and less utility (pleasure or happiness?) the more that good is consumed/experienced. For example, opera or some other high artistic good might offer X units of utility after the first performance in a day/week/year but would eventually offer diminishing rates of utility the next performances you saw. So when do limit your consumption of opera? In economic terms it is when the marginal utility of the next opera performance is less than the opportunity cost of doing something else in the 2 or so hours the opera is experienced. For example, going to three operas a weekend would cut heavily into your options for doing anything else that weekend.

    Thanks for posting this. I had fun thinking about it.

    • November 10, 2018 at 9:36 am

      Good point Greg on the problem of distinguishing higher and lower desires. It can be difficult to make those judgments. I have found for moral/how to live issues there are rarely simple answers. There are always grey areas, context, and nuance. There is no substitute for wisdom in sorting it all out. Most of us, at least me anyway, still have work to do limiting the desires that most agree ought to be limited: sex, food, luxury, status, power, etc.


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