Desire and the Good

Match-Ice-Cream-Advertisement-Its-Year-PublicationOver at The Josias I have put up thirty-seven theses on the good. Since the good is the cause of causes, errors about it are in a way the most fundamental errors. There are three main errors about the good that I try to correct in my post. The first one has to do with the relation of goodness and desire: the error is to think that desire is not caused by the intrinsic goodness of things, but that rather things are only considered good because people happen to desire them. This seems like a small error, but has terrible consequences, it undergirds the typically modern view of the world as inert facticity upon which human desire projects ‘value,’ which therefore really refers to something in human desire and not something in the objects themselves. Marcus Berquist writes in a paper on the common good (p. 4) that one might see in this error the fundamental difference between modern philosophy and the tradition of Aristotle and Plato (and of Catholic moral theology). And this fits with his argument in another paper that the most fundamental disagreements among philosophers, the sources of all their other disagreements, are not about what is true and what is false, nor about what is most certain or most obvious, but about what comes first. In this case the question is: What comes first, the good or desire for the good? I think it is true to say that the typical modern view answers this question wrong— it sees desire as a kind of primary fact of human life, not as following on the genuine goodness of things. Aristotle and St Thomas of course give the opposite answer, but strangely enough they are often subjected to a strange mis-interpretation according to which they give basically the same answer as the moderns. Both certain would-be supporters of Aristotelian and Thomist eudemonism (such as Ayn Rand), and as well as certain thinkers who protest against it (such as Dietrich von Hildebrand) adopt this misunderstanding.

The second error that I try to attack is closely related to the first: the error of thinking that all desire for the good is essentially selfish. Von Hildebrand (and before him Luther), accuse a eudemonistic account making the love of God mercenary, as though on the classical account one loves God only as a means to one’s own satisfaction. I try to show that this is the complete opposite of what St Thomas actually teaches. god is to be loved with a love of benevolence not of concupiscence.

The third error is again closely related to the first. It is the view that the common good is merely an useful good for allowing people to get the private goods that they desire. I try to so that since the good is really in things, there can be a common good that is more desirable for me than any private good.

One thought on “Desire and the Good

  1. Thank you for this!

    Have you come across Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘strong evaluation’, which he defines in Human Agency and Language and uses in Sources of the Self? From the latter:

    … ‘strong evaluation’, that is … discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards by which they can be judged. (4)

    Multiple people have run with this idea, and Taylor founds a good chunk of his anti-naturalism in Sources of the Self on this idea. Indeed, he argues that a person’s identity is, most fundamentally, his/her orientation towards the good. A possible weakness of his ‘strong evaluation’, which likely does not exist in his thought as a whole, comes from you:

    21. The greatest created good is the order of the whole of creation.

    Each creature reflects a different aspect of the Divine goodness as no one creature can represent the Divine goodness as a whole.

    Perhaps one could say that this lets us be co-definers of ‘the good’, as each of us has a telos, or perhaps a poiēma, to weave into the whole. In The Malaise of Modernity, Taylor explores the dual errors of thinking that a given individual completely defines ‘the good’ (Incurvatus in se?) or does not define any aspect of ‘the good’. Alistair McFadyen connects the fall to this issue in The Call to Personhood:

        The doctrine of the fall means that the question of the right practice of relations (ethics) has to be relocated. The ethical question cannot be equated with possession of the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, for that is precisely the form of self-possession which led to the fall. Adam and Eve thought they could dispute what God’s Word really meant, get behind it to judge both it and God.[35] The assumption that we have the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong and to act upon it is in itself and on its own already a corruption of the image. It isolates one from God and others because what is right for one and others is assumed to be already known. The assumption that one already knows what is right stops communication because no new information or external agency is necessary. In what follows I will describe the image and its redemption as a relational process of seeking what is right in openness to others and God and thereby to the fact that one’s understanding and capacity are fundamentally in question. (43–44)


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