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 an odd thing for Mill to say. Mill was perhaps the most influential 19th century philosophy. His two 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 about being free to satisfy our desires? His quote suggests the opposite. Why is that? Desires are not all the same. There are higher and lower order desires and they have different effects on happiness. There is the distinction between self imposed constraints and prohibitions imposed by the state. 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 as I read more about his life and philosophy. Mill did did not treat pleasures equally. He argues that some pleasures are better than others and more worthy of pursuing. He distinguished between quality and quantity. We should seek not more pleasure but better pleasure.

The following quote says 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 is saying that it is better to have unsatisfied higher desires that to have fully satisfied lower desires.  Perhaps by limiting pursuit of lower pleasures helps us pursue higher pleasures which leads to greater happiness.

The Stoic virtue of moderation

Some 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 be reflecting Stoic views. As we gain freedom from passions and 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 also to understand where many basic desires come from. Desires are natural as is the pleasure of fulfilling them. Desires for food, sex, recognition, status, etc. are all part of our hard wiring. We don't have to think to have desires. We don't need to learn to enjoy eating or sex. We are born with an innate need or desire to eat, procreate, and survive in a social environment. These desires have been good for our success 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 a desire and the means to fulfill it creates problems.  We feel hunger and we eat. 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. Unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure can destroy relationships, lead to addiction, and divert attention more important pursuits. Desire for status and recognition can motivate us to work hard and be constructive. Unbridled desire for status can be destructive. We see this often in political leaders. Mill is saying not saying we should eliminate desire altogether. He is saying probably saying we should limit desires to what is necessary and healthy.


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