Sunday, September 04, 2011

I Must...

(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...)


  1. >> 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. <<

    Unless you are making more than a phenomenological point about the way in which we -- even moral relativists like myself -- regularly experience moral imperatives, shouldn't the above read more specifically in the following way?

    >> 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, seems to come from outside of me. Seeming to come from outside the self, it cannot simply seem be a desire, which arises from within. <<

  2. Hi Rob!

    Ok, so my somewhat snarky response is that if I'm making a phenomenological point, then everything I say here is bracketed within a "seeming."

    But I'm also trying to make what Wittgenstein might call a "grammatical" point about the difference between "must" and "want." And I'm trying to do this without committing myself to a form of discourse as dictated, say, by an error-theorist or emotivist picture, which would be to concede too much too soon.

    But in a sense, of course, I agree with you that it "seems" to come from outside of me, and it could turn out that what I have taken to be a demand on me is really a deep and unconscious desire.

    What I'm only starting to think about is what I want to say here about experience. Suppose I have an experience, say, of seeing another person in great need (who I could help directly), and think "I absolutely must help this person." Of course, I may also want to help. We can say that it "seems" that the other person's need makes some demand on me in this case--at least some will experience it that way--and when it seems that way to us, then that person's need comes to outweigh our own desires. "I absolutely must help" means, among other things, something like, it's not about me (it's about the person who needs help).

    I realize I'm only talking around your point, but I will think more about it.

  3. I guess I have always thought that we should be just as resolutely opposed to any continuum between the will (rational appetite) and desire as we should any continuum between thinking and sensation. When we see that the realm of the ‘mental’ divides into two very different sets of powers or capacities, the intellectual (cognitive and appetitive) and the sensory-imaginative (sensation and desire), there is little reason to find ‘must’ all that mysterious, and certainly none for expecting that will reduces to desire, any more than there is for expecting that thinking reduces to sensation.

    Part of the phenomenology you aptly described thus seems to me to be this: when we find that we must do something, but also find that we have not only no desire to do it but overwhelming desires not to do it, we experience a disintegration of our ‘mental’ lives, a “felt” pull in a direction we do not go alongside, often, no opposite “pull” in the direction that we do go (the direction we judged we must go). This makes the ‘must’ seem as though it has been “beamed into us” from the outside, as though it is something that is “over and above” us. –I don’t pretend that this fully explains the phenomenology, but it strikes me as a useful start.

  4. Thanks, Bosphorus. Yeah, there are lots of different possibilities. I'm trying to use the "I-must-even-if-I-don't-want-to" example to help make the distinction between desire and (the sense of) necessity stand out. But then there are also cases of inspiration, where one feels that one must do something (paint a picture, help another person, etc.), where one might also, as it were, want to do it, but again, where the whole thing does not reduce to desire. I'm trying now to get back to my original question--how did this notion that "I absolutely must" ever get into anyone's head?--by thinking about inspiration. (It shares with what you said that kind of "beaming in".) We'll see how that goes.

  5. Here's a hypothesis. Sometimes you have to stop doing something, you can't go on. Running up a hill, for instance, or standing for very long periods of time without falling over. You reach a point where you simply cannot do it any longer. (At least, I do.) Before that point you start to feel that you need to stop, and before that you are likely to feel that you want to stop. There need not be much difference between the feelings of wanting and needing to stop, but some wanting to stop is mere wanting (you could go on) and some needing to stop is more than just a feeling (try to keep going and your legs will buckle or your heart give out).

    Perhaps it's by analogy that we sometimes feel that we cannot leave a situation as it is, cannot walk away from someone's suffering. It's not just that we really don't want to, that it would be too painful (although there is such a thing as more pain than one can stand). We feel somehow, dimly, that our own existence is at stake (which is not to say that it is at stake. But that's putting an interpretation on the feeling. It's really more that we have a feeling that we cannot express better than by saying that we cannot leave the person unhelped.

    That sounds very unhelpful, but perhaps it is helpful to consider the feeling of having to do something as negative, whereas desire is positive. I don't think this is completely right, but I do think there's something in it. The feeling that you must help is more like a feeling that you cannot just walk away, I think, than a positive feeling of duty or obligation. Desire, on the other hand, is typically positive. Even the desire to leave a smoky room is either desire for cleaner air or aversion to the smoke. Maybe that's a grammatical truth in the trivial sense though. Speaking for myself, I don't think I have much of a positive sense of duty (except to my family, perhaps), but there are lots of things that seem unacceptable or unbearable to me. An idea that I think I got from Cora Diamond seems relevant here. Thinking about a Good Samaritan case: as long as someone helps the wounded man, it's OK. It's not that any particular person has to do any particular thing. It's just that the man must not be left to suffer or die by the side of the road. Perhaps this example is clouding my thinking, but the "must" feeling seems like a "must not" to me. And what must not be is a situation outside oneself, the solution to which need not involve oneself. Whereas, if I desire something, I sort of have to be involved in some way. (Although that doesn't sound quite right either.)

  6. DR: Thanks! The contrast between wanting to stop and needing to stop is helpful. I'll have to think more about "the feeling of having to do something as negative." That certainly makes sense if we experience something, as it were, prohibitive in the situation. But I suppose we could see two sides of the coin here. One might think: "I must not leave this person to die." But also: "I must help this person." I don't have a good feel as to which of these thoughts (or the experiences or perceptions that trigger them) is more basic. But I'm not sure that either one is. As I said above in response to Bosphorus, I'm trying to think about cases of inspiration, where there's a positive kind of "beaming in." ("I must write this down, paint this, etc." Of course, one could say, "I must not fail to write this down," but either way, what one must do is a "positive" action, rather than a withholding of action.)

    I can at least imagine someone seeing a person in need, and thinking, "I must help," and being almost instantaneously driven to action. Perhaps when later asked to account for this, the person says, "Well, I just had to help." The other might ask, "Sure, but why you?" Response: "Well, I couldn't just walk away." However, someone might say further: "I couldn't have forgiven myself if I had walked away," or something like that. But this introduces a new thought, about oneself. And when the person I've imagined did the helping, he was not thinking about himself, and so couldn't have been thinking about whether he would be able to forgive himself if he decided instead to walk away.

  7. Yes, the negative thing might be just me. But even with the case of feeling "I must write this down" there are other positive options, such as memorizing it. The crucial thing seems to me that it not be forgotten. Then again, I don't see a good reason why it might not be clear to someone that they had to act positively (speak out, give money, join the fight, etc.). I'm not sure about describing this kind of thing in terms of duty or obligation, though (not that you do, it's just a concern I have). It seems more that the situation calls for action, not that the moral law does so.