There are things that we try to get. There are things that we enjoy when we have them. There’s overlap, but they aren’t the same. When people notice they aren’t the same, they often try to change or override their wants – or more often others’ wants – in the direction of reflecting what’s actually enjoyable*.
This observed disconnect seems for instance to underlie many people’s support for government interference into personal choices and markets, indifference to taking money from the wealthy, advice about personal choices, and the ethical position which says that if a person expects a lifetime of pain, yet wants to live regardless, it is still a good thing if they die.
An argument I’ve heard sometimes for this last manifestation in hedonistic utilitarianism is this: on introspection, it seems that enjoyment is the only thing that could be valuable. Since we should try to get things that are valuable, we should try to get that, and forget the things we thought we wanted. We were either wrong about our wants or just downright silly.
This seems to use a trick though, of only sometimes assuming the identity of different definitions of value, ‘that which feels good now’ and ‘that which we want’. In working out intuitively what could possibly be valuable, the user of this reasoning presumably considers what seems good now – really what is meant is something like ‘the only thing which seems good at the time is enjoyment’. But then the argument goes on to implicitly assume ‘value’ as in what we enjoy is equivalent to ‘value’ as in what we seek, so as to conclude that it’s good to seek enjoyable things. But if from the outset we used ‘value’ to mean both to what we like currently and what we want, ‘things we want’ must be another contender for what intuitively might be inherently valuable. If we are going by intuitions, ‘we should try to get what we want to get’ looks far more self evident than ‘we should try to get what we enjoy’.
If there is a disconnect between wants and enjoyment, there are three possible resolutions. First, we could leave it be and believe simultaneously that it’s good to pursue what we want, and good to have what we enjoy, without them having to be the same thing. After all, we see empirically that wants and enjoyment aren’t the same – why assume they should be? This seems silly, but won’t go into arguments. Secondly we could do the usual thing where we try to make people pursue things they actually enjoy. Thirdly we could go the other way and try to enjoy the things we naturally pursue.
For example people often say that money doesn’t make us happy, and therefore we should stop seeking it. However we could equally well just try to enjoy being rich more. That doesn’t sound obviously harder, but is rarely suggested. Perhaps ‘what we enjoy’ seems more like an end goal and ‘what we seek’ seems instrumental, and in theory it seems more sensible to change instrumental things than final goals (why would you change a final goal, but to achieve your final goals?). In practice though, we are mixed up monkeys with plenty of inbuilt urges, tendencies, and pleasures in no neat hierarchy. So why should wants submit to pleasures?
Presumably this has been discussed at length before somewhere – if you know where, please tell me.
*In this post ‘enjoyment’ refers to any positive mental state.