(A little something I've been musing over; compare, for example, to the view of morality and desire that DR discusses here.)
“I absolutely must.” How did it ever get into anyone’s head that anything absolutely must be done? Some of the things I must do are things that must be done in order to satisfy other desires and goals I have. I must go to work if I want to get paid. I must take care of my children if I don’t want them to suffer. I must love my wife, and show her that love, if I am to reasonably expect that she love me in return.
Is every must thus relative to some other desire? Suppose I say that there is something I must do, even if it gets me fired, or causes my children to suffer, or alienates me from my wife so that she is unable to love me any more. Does that show that there is something I desire more than a paycheck, happy children, and my wife’s love? If I am acting out of moral conviction, then one might say that what I desire more than these other things is to do what I think is right, cost what it may, and that I have put my desire to be moral (as I see it) ahead of my desires about my livelihood and family.
If that were the right way to characterize my judgment, then we would have to say that the phrase “I must” is no more than a variation of the form, “I want,” and that it expresses what I really, or most deeply, want. But I do not think this analysis will do. I may not want to do what I believe I must do, but I must do it anyway. “But what you want in that case,” so the retort goes, “is to realize the object of your judgment.” Perhaps what I want is to be a moral person, or to preserve my integrity. Or more directly: I want to do what I believe is the right thing to do (to blow the whistle on a vicious colleague or boss, or to advocate for an unpopular cause at the risk of danger to myself and my family, or so on).
Here is the trouble with the attempt to reduce all judgments of what one must do to expressions of desire: if I believe that something must be done because it is the right thing to do—and not simply to achieve some other desire of my own—then what drives the judgment that I must do it is not so much the desire to be moral as the belief that something is required of me and that I must do it. This is because I can believe that something is the right thing to do, even if I wish—to the bottom of my heart—that it wasn’t. I might wish that I was not put in this situation, or that I could talk myself into a way of believing that would relieve me of the judgment that I must do something that may bring great pain to myself or to those I love. A person who has this kind of conviction is not expressing a mere desire: what I desire is not relevant to what I must do in such cases. To believe that there is something I absolutely must do is to believe that I must do it, even if I don’t want to. If I also want to do it, all the better. But my wanting to do it is not what makes it—in my own judgment—something I absolutely must do. What I must do, in this sense, comes from outside of me. Coming from outside the self, it cannot simply be a desire, which arises from within.
(To be continued...)