–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Wanting and Doing

by | Feb 21, 2024

I do not understand my own actions. 

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

—Paul, Letter to the Romans 7.15 (Revised Standard Version)

There is a certain line of thinking that has been part of the Western narrative since antiquity, one source of which is the Pauline letters of the Christian New Testament and especially, the Letter to the Romans, quoted above. I’ll refer to it as the “weakness of will” tradition, and it goes something like this: I can want to do something and yet wind up doing exactly the opposite; i.e. what I do not want. In Christianity, this weakness is taken as being metaphysical and endemic – a legacy of the so-called “Fall of Man” – and only resolvable via divine intervention. In contemporary addiction discourse, it is taken as being sufficiently beyond ordinary people’s means to overcome as to require extraordinary measures, the most rigorous of which involve ascriptions of powerlessness that rival and sometimes even explicitly evoke their Christian counterpart, as in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I’d like to suggest, however, that the tradition leads nowhere but dead ends and is in fact unsustainable when considered in light of the subconscious and unconscious. I am speaking in conceptual terms, of course. That a school of thought or intellectual tradition is incoherent or unwarranted need not mean that it is inefficacious. My claim is not that programs like AA do not work. 

On the Christian side of things, the Fall of Man is supposed to have robbed us of our capacity to control ourselves to such a complete degree that Divine Grace is the only means by which a person can overcome it. Augustine maintained that this Grace restores us to our natural, “pre-Fall” condition; one in which we are able to act as we intend. But how do we accept this Grace, without already having received it? At this point, we are still in our compromised condition. And if we have sufficient mastery over ourselves to accept Divine Grace, why don’t we have sufficient mastery to do good in the first place, in which case Grace is unnecessary? If this all doesn’t strike you as confused enough, consider that it sets the stage for Calvinist Predestinarianism, which represents the gold standard of confused religious takes. 

The addiction version suffers from similar problems. Everything involved in participating in, sticking with, and embracing the programs and philosophies that are successful in getting people sober involves precisely the agency that the addiction version of the tradition claims addicts lack. And it would seem as if substantial numbers of those who cease drinking or drug taking or unhealthy eating do so on their own which, again, would suggest that whatever the phenomenon of addiction is, it does not involve any actual loss of agency (as would be the case if one was hypnotized or some such thing) or require extraordinary interventions, as a general matter. 

My interest here is not in making some sense of the concept of addiction, but achieving some measure of clarity with regard to the intersection of desire and action. Or perhaps more accurately: coming to greater clarity with regard to why there is likely to remain a certain lack of clarity regarding it.

That people want things is undeniable. That people do things is also undeniable. That people do things because they want things is also undeniable. Just this morning, I turned the espresso machine on, because I wanted to make – and drink – espresso. Those who deny these things always do so in the grip of some theory or other that inevitably is less plausible than the thing it purports to deny.

One barrier to understanding the relationship between wanting and doing is that our desires are many, complex, and operate not just at the conscious level, but also at the semi-conscious and unconscious ones, so we often are unaware or only vaguely aware of some of the reasons for our actions. Another difficulty is that our desires are often conflicted: we want one thing but also another thing that contradicts it. A third is our capacity to deceive ourselves and others as to our motives. When you combine all three – I may be aware of wanting one thing, but unaware of wanting another that contradicts it or I may be aware of both and lie to myself and to others about one of them – you can see just how bad the problem is and why claims that one did what one didn’t want to do may be glib, inaccurate, or even self-serving.

One last obstacle to clarity that I will mention is a confused conception of the relevant relata: desires and actions. I’ve written quite a bit about this, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but there is a tendency to view desires and actions as discrete material events. Or as a discrete non-material event and a discrete material one. In this regard, the Cartesian and the Physicalist are on the same page. Desires are said to be these chemical-electrical things in your head or “spiritual substance” things in your head, and actions are movements of your arms, legs, mouth, etc. This makes it possible to separate the two and express the idea of doing something on a kind of autopilot in contradiction with one’s desires. The trouble, as I’ve noted on several occasions, is that actions, as opposed to mere motor movements, are intentionally “thick,” which means that there aren’t any in the absence of representations and reasons. Your body may engage in various movements absent any representation or reason, but a person doesn’t act without them. My arm may shoot up, as might occur during a muscle spasm, but I only hail a cab when that set of motor movements is represented by me and by others in particular ways and within the context of various aims or purposes, with corresponding conceptions of what counts as success and failure. In the absence of actual action, there is neither anything to interpret nor to engage with ethically, other than perhaps via the crudest sort of consequentialism and I doubt it even makes sense from within that framework. 

I presume that those engaged in discourse having to do with addiction or morality are concerned with the things we do – i.e. with our actions – not with the involuntary movements to which our bodies are prone. That is, I take the concern with excessive and destructive drinking or drug taking or eating to be fundamentally different from the sort we might have over the kinds of involuntary movements associated with, say, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, or the like. And with regard to the former, representations, reasons, and aims must be a central part of the picture.  

So we are back then to the idea of doing what you don’t want. I don’t think there’s such a thing.  Rather, there are: [a] things one does when one is consciously conflicted – aware of wanting two or more things that contradict or otherwise interfere with one another – and chooses one over the other (about which one might then lie to oneself and to others); and [b] things one does when one is conflicted and only somewhat aware or completely unaware of the conflicting desire, as when one or more conflicting desire is sub- or unconscious. 

But actually doing something – acting – when one in no way wants it and in fact, wants its opposite? I don’t think so.

One of the things that caused me to gain a lot of weight was eating late at night on a regular basis. Indeed, I would describe it as having become a regular habit; part of the night’s routine. And once the weight became not just dangerous but profoundly uncomfortable, I certainly wanted to stop. Yet, I didn’t, at least not right away. Indeed, it probably was more than a year before I even began reducing the frequency with which I did it, and it took even more time after that before I was regularly sticking to a “no food after dinner” regimen.

Was I acting contrary to my desires? Was I experiencing catastrophic “weakness of will”? Was I “addicted” to late night eating? Some might want to say such things, but they wouldn’t be true. Certainly, once I was regularly entertaining the desire to stop, I was acting contrary to a desire, but it was not contrary to all desire. I wanted to stop, but I also clearly wanted to continue, and for all sorts of perfectly ordinary, comprehensible reasons.

I eventually did stop; not entirely, but enough to lose serious weight. In conjunction with other lifestyle changes, including a regular exercise regimen, I’m down about eighty pounds from my heaviest. When I have a late-night snack, have I “lapsed” or “fallen off the wagon”? Again, some might want to say such things, but they strike me as mischaracterizations. At a certain point, my desire to lose weight became stronger, on average, than my desire to eat late at night, but not so overwhelmingly so that there are never occasions where the balance doesn’t tip the other way. It just doesn’t happen very often. This seems normal and unexceptional and what one would expect.  

Interestingly, what I’ve found in confronting this and other well-entrenched habits is that there never really is a moment of decision, when one “decides” and forges a new course. Rather, one just finds oneself doing less of something or more of something else, and it is only at that point that it makes sense to ascribe a change in desire or in the balance of desires. This too is unsurprising given that in the case of longstanding habits, whatever desires are being served have long sunk into the obscuring mists of the sub- and unconscious and are only really discernible in the behaviors themselves. When in the grip of habits, one may have the impression, then, of being on autopilot or acting for no reason – or contrary to reason – but it is a false one that obscures rather than clarifies matters.