The Ethics of Desire


Our desires play such an important role in forming who we are as persons.  Who and what we value and who and what we want to become all shape what we do to realize those desires. 

Many of us desire a certain level of success in life.  Certainly, a successful life can mean a great many things for a great many people.  The ancients thought success was attained by living the “good life,” a life spent thinking with others about what it means to be human in a socially complex world.  And Plato’s Republic begins with a very simple question: “What is justice?”  An important question many are still rightfully pondering to this day.  Centuries later, the great medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas took this quest to an even deeper level by insisting that success was beatitude, a sort of eternal happiness given only by the grace of God after living a virtuous life.   

Setting aside these important contributions from philosophy and theology alike, success today has taken on a variety of different meanings.  For many, success is measured by a promotion, a six-figure salary, or fame, glory, prestige, and honor.  Still yet, for many, it can also mean raising children to be fully and freely themselves, a healthy marriage, and the personal fulfillment one feels in one’s gut when living out one’s own vocation, whatever that may be.  It can also be a combination of some of the above, or perhaps none of the above. 

Success is also very much a mindset. There are two things I think we should all be particularly mindful of: (1) a “zero-sum game” type of success (e.g., Person 1 is successful only because Person 2 is not) and (2) a “compare and despair” mentality of success.  For starters, I am not at all interested in playing the “zero-sum game” and I will not stoop to such a low level as to enjoy seeing another person fail.  Think about how much better we would all be if we worked together as a team, helping to empower every person in every context to succeed.  Imagine the possibilities of this enriched world!  Moreover, the “compare and despair” mentality is pervasive … amplified, unfortunately, by social media.  It should always be a privilege to share in the joy of another’s success.  But when we become jealous of another person’s success that ought to tell us something about ourselves, which should stop us in our tracks.  Negativity is always a self-fulfilling prophecy and no one enjoys being around a negative person.  Instead of comparing and focusing on what you don’t currently have, focus on what you do have in the present. 

I believe an enduring challenge for all of us is to live in the moment, to focus on the present.  All too often, we desire something that only inhabits the future and we lose proper perspective about what is most real in our lives, which is the very thing we most often miss: the thing that is before our eyes, in our midst, so close we can taste, touch, and feel it.  Like sharing a smile with someone whose name you do not know and taking the time to celebrate the little things that make life so special.  And the list goes on and on. 

When we have those moments of awe and splendor that are only attainable by surrendering to the fast and forward pace of a single second in time, that is desire becoming real in our lives.  And when desire (good and right desire, of course) becomes real, it is then that we have found meaningful success.  Valentine’s Day is a time when we can become attuned to our different desires.  It’s a time when we can step back from the business of life and assess who and what we desire.  It’s a day that invites us to reflect on how our desires are shaping the person we are becoming.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s a day that every person can participate in and celebrate, not just those who are in a relationship.  And this special day of the year means so much more than a dozen red roses or even a box of chocolates could ever possibly convey. 

+ CMJ 


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