Ethics, our laws and civilization itself are products of our shared preferences, or desires. We desire food, clothing and shelter. All things being equal, we prefer not to have a knife stuck in our back or our eyes poked out. If someone runs at us menacingly with a knife or a sharp object, we will flee or fight back; we will seek the assistance of the community to defend and protect us, and expect that it will do so. These basic preferences are the core of civilized life.
Our basic preferences can be categorized as health, satisfaction of material needs and wants, pleasure, longevity, happiness and fulfillment. A stab in the back is unhealthy and unpleasant. Significant hunger is unsatisfying. Death at an early age is undesirable in itself. We avoid unhappiness and seek to be happy, and to be fulfilled.
These basic preferences are the necessary bridge from our sensations, emotions, thoughts and actions, to ethics, law and society. The brain’s processes create experiences, which we may interpret as sensations, emotions, thoughts, actions, or a combination of domains. Those experiences have both a content and a quality. Because humans agree on fundamental points about the quality of experience – we have a common ground of broadly shared preferences – we can understand and appreciate each other’s desires, bond together in families, communities and nations (imagine a universal human family without boundaries), adopt and enforce laws, develop ideas about justice, and strive toward a better world in which all people live to the fullest, while stewarding and preserving foundations for the future. People marry, each partner imagining a future together; many marital disputes arise when preferences are not shared. Parents may have one vision for their child’s future, while their child has another vision. Sometimes the parents do not agree on what is best for – what they prefer for – the child. Communities and nations are divided over political preferences, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The theory proposed herein traces obvious points (e.g.. people do not wish to have needles stuck into their eyes) back to their origins, and connects the dots forward. Seen another way, if we start building at the bedrock, then perhaps we can better understand how our common preferences can be used to bring us together into a more unified human community.
Without our preferences – our desires – there is no such a thing as morality, ethics or religion. Set in ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, morality implies a set of preferences, such as life over death, as in “Thou shalt not kill.” Similarly, ethics implies an evaluation of conduct that either serves or disserves desires. The entire field of religion is a set of narratives and prescriptions for everything desired, from the desire for rain to the desire for a sense of peace. Messy though they are, our preferences are inescapable. They form a necessary bridge into moral, ethical, religious and spiritual development.
Our preferences have their foundations in our character as human beings. The organic brain is to ethics as chemistry is to biology: its essential foundation.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010).
Ogi Ogus and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (Dutton, 2011): “The concentrated essence of this curious book is contained in its 11th chapter, which attempts to explain what the ‘Mona Lisa’ has in common with Chicken McNuggets, vampire novels and the concluding scene of most pornographic videos. Each of these works of human creativity . . . exploits perceptual trickery to arouse and gratify our desires.”
Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Crown Publishers, 2013): “ . . . psychologist Paul Bloom draws from his research at the Yale Infant Cognition Center to argue that ‘certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.’”
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.): a new translation “addresses modern well-being”.
Cosette in her shadow, like Marius in his, was all ready to take fire. Destiny, with its
mysterious and fatal patience, slowly drew together these two beings, all charged and all
languishing with the stormy electricity of passion, these two souls which were laden with
love as two clouds are laden with lightning, and which were bound to overflow and mingle
in a look like the clouds in a flash of fire.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling), Harry discovers a mysterious mirror in a back corridor. On it are letters that at first appear unintelligible, though they are arranged and separated like words. When Harry realizes that, read backward, they say "I show not your face but your heart's desire," he gains the inspiration and self-knowledge he needs to triumph. The reversed letters are a metaphor for unawareness of our deepest longings. Harry's discovery of their meaning is a metaphor for our discovery of meaning in any phase or aspect of life.
Barry Hannah "could at gunpoint write the life story of a telephone pole." He lived an inner life large. His fictional works fairly drip with unsentimental longing.
- Barry Hannah, Long, Last Happy: New and Selected Stories (Grove Press, 2010).
- Barry Hannah, Geronimo Rex (Viking, 1972).
- Barry Hannah, Airships (Knopf, 1978).
- Barry Hannah, Bats Out of Hell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993).
- Barry Hannah, Ray (Knopf, 1980).
- Barry Hannah, Boomerang (1989).
- Barry Hannah, High Lonesome (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996).
- Emma Donoghue, Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
- Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2012): an interpretation of The Arabian Nights “as an overgrown garden of delights and hazards of desire.”
- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arugments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books, 2010): “ . . . philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel.”
- Christos Ikonomou, Good Will Come from the Sea: A Novella (Archipelago Books, 2019): “A novella consisting of four connected stories, the first installment of a projected trilogy, ‘Good Will Come From the Sea’ is set on an imaginary island in the Aegean that serves as a proxy for Greece — a place to which displaced Athenians are forced by unemployment and other economic necessities to flee and start their lives again.” ^^^
- Jean-Philippe Blondel, Exposed: A Novel (New Vessel Press, 2019): “The increasingly intense relationship between older muse and younger artist takes a turn, however, when Alexandre hesitantly asks that for the final portrait Louis pose in the nude. ‘Exposed’ leaves open to the last minute whether that concluding canvas will be more Lucian Freud or David Hockney, and who, exactly, is undressing whom.”
- Amanda Popkey, Topics of Conversation: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): “How Much Power Do Women Want?”
Music: songs and other short pieces
Film and Stage
- Like Water for Chocolate, a fable about a woman whose mother tried to repress her desire
- Fire: a story of “two beautiful women, one . . . married to a cad, the other to a fool,” who fall in love with each other. To the film-maker Deepa Mehta, the film is about women having choices and so it is but to me the most moving moment in the film is when one of the women tells her husband, whose religion leads him to renounce desire, that she wishes to love and live.
- Black Orpheus, a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which a man tries to reclaim his murdered lover by following her into hell
- Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCV
- John Keats, “Fill for Me a Brimming Bowl”
- John Keats, “On a Dream”
- Theodore Roethke, “The Long Waters”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Egyptian singer Oum Kolthoum, said to be the one thing all Egyptians agree on, was a voice of barely restrained desire.
§ Hadeeth El Roh (?)
§ Raq El Habib (The Servitude of Love)
§ The Second Book of Madrigals
§ The Third Book of Madrigals
§ The Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611)
§ The Sixth Book of Madrigals (1611)
§ Berenguer de Palol, consort works: this 12th-century composer wrote about the longing for love and joy.
§ Though he composed entirely during the classical era, Hyacinthe Jadin captured the unashamed longing of Romanticism in his fortepiano sonatas.
§ Saariaho, L'Amour de loin (Love from Afar) (2000): is longing for an ideal human love the same as or different from a longing for God?
§ Orff, Der Mond (The Moon) (1938): the characters steal the moon, because there country does not have one.
§ Bantock, Sappho (1906)
§ Bernstein, Trouble in Tahiti (1952)
§ Raga Bihag