British moral philosopher Bernard Williams (1929-2003) believed that categorical desires are those desires and aspirations that buoy us, give our lives deeper meaning, and really matter. The rest are mere ancillary and contingent desires. In Williams’ words, he believes we must have “systematic desires around which one organizes life activities which make life worthwhile.” Desires can give life meaning if wisely-placed. At least for a while. This blog will briefly summarize and reflect on the kinds of values human beings hold, and how positioning certain values front-and-center can be inspirational and motivational.
The idea that there is a group of desires that can effectively provide meaning for one’s life is somewhat akin to the idea of motivational factors and hygiene factors discussed by Clay Christiansen, Professor at Harvard University. His book entitled How Will You Measure Your Life is a pretty good, quick read. It enlightens about what goals one is pursuing, why, and so on. According to the publisher, “In this groundbreaking book, Christensen puts forth a series of questions: How can I be sure that I’ll find satisfaction in my career? How can I be sure that my personal relationships become enduring sources of happiness? How can I avoid compromising my integrity—and stay out of jail? Using lessons from some of the world’s greatest businesses, he provides incredible insights into these challenging questions. How Will You Measure Your Life? is full of inspiration and wisdom, and will help students, midcareer professionals, and parents alike forge their own paths to fulfillment.”
Basically, motivational factors are those values, goals, aspirations, and desires that can effectively give life meaning. Authentically. Christiansen, an alumnus of Harvard University, noticed that at the 10-year reunion, many of his classmates were looking good and doing well. They had the right spouses, the impressive jobs, the nice cars. However, in future meetings it was clear that many of them had gotten off-track. Indeed, despite all the potential, they were in the weeds, swinging at the elusive golf ball of success. He sought to find out what the issue was, and it seems that when one pursues certain goals, life is better. Desires can be authentic and fulfilling or they can be vacuous and ephemeral.
Hygiene factors, on the other hand, are those things which can only support, contribute to, or buoy one’s core values and meaningful goals. Goods and desires such as money, fame, power, admiration, dominance, and the houses/cars/sexual conquests are not going to be a solid foundation for a life. This is probably why “the wise” never counsel that one must try to find a “hot wife,” “marry a rich man,” get facelifts, become skinny, ascend the corporate ladder, or look good in front on one’s peers. No, more virtuous and authentic and intrinsic values such as generativity, overcoming, love, flow, significance, creativity, and mastery are truer and more reliable.
If one doesn’t have the requisite, minimum hygiene factors in place, it is noticeable. If you only make $30,000 a year in modern-day America, you’re going to be hamstrung with what you can do, afford, and the like. When health insurance can cost $4,000 or more per year, and cars cost $15,000 at the minimum, one’s life is going to be noticeably Spartan with that kind of pay. However, once one gets past $75,000 or so, more money does not make one any happier. It’s an amazing psychological research finding. Yet it’s so alluring to think: “One more promotion…One more house…One more great role…One more year of sacrificing….”
My professor in a class I am currently taking on meaning in life highlights motivational and hygiene factors to a tent on a camping trip. What is the point of camping? Why bother? Because it can be fun, interesting, fulfilling, beautiful, novel, and there can be family and friends with whom to bond. Desires for fulfillment that are reliable and true. However, at night, if one has a mosquito in one’s tent, it’s going to be very disturbing. One won’t be able to relax. Take whatever steps are necessary to rid the tent of that pest. That is a hygiene factor because if it’s present, it is disturbing to the whole experience. Just like having poor health is disturbing to one’s existence. However, having a mosquito-free tent is not the point of camping. The point of camping is to commune with nature, get physical exercise, enjoy beauty, and fraternize with friends and family. That is the difference between values that provides legitimate meaning and fulfillment, and goals which are prerequisites and really basic.
Life would theoretically be meaningless if one lost or exhausted one’s categorical desires. Think of the interesting poem “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge. It is more or less the story of an adventurer who longs to find the ancient, fabled realm called Xanadu, presided over by the mighty and omnipotent ruler Kubla Khan. It is a place of wonder where one is supposed to be fulfilled by all the sensuous and earthly pleasures imaginable. I think Williams would approve of the wording by the brilliant lyricist Neil Peart, who penned marvelous lyrics in the song “Xanadu”:
To stand within the Pleasure Dome
Decreed by Kubla Khan
To taste anew the fruits of life
The last immortal man
To find the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
Oh, I will dine on honeydew
And drink the milk of Paradise.
Once he finds it, though, he is not able to leave, and must spend eternity there. It turns from heaven to hell because one cannot live life forever and remain engaged, satisfied, healthy, and optimistic. The final stanza is somewhat haunting:
Held within the Pleasure Dome
Decreed by Kubla Khan
To taste my bitter triumph
As a mad, immortal man
Nevermore shall I return
Escape these caves of ice!
For I have dined on honeydew
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
My point of view is that yes, one must have categorical desires to be happy. How many times has sex become dull over time or a car lost that “new car smell.” The higher virtues such as self-growth, education, generosity and noble pursuits such as child-rearing, the search for God, productive and ethical work, and loving many fellow beings are really the pith. Life would be worthless without them. Imagine sitting on a pile of gold like the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck from 1980s television. All that gold can only bring so much contentment. Emerson wisely and pithily said: “The desire of gold is not for gold. It is for the means of freedom and benefit.”
Whether one could make one’s categorical desires last an eternity is a question. I suspect they, too, would become old eventually, just as the sailor longs to be out to sea until they have no wind, and then it is a slow descent into madness. The human brain becomes inured to new stimulation and achievement, placing us on a Sisyphean quest for more and greater than we currently possess. Perhaps Schopenhauer was onto something by noting one can easily become bored in this life.
‘Tis very puzzling on the brink
Of what is called Eternity to stare,
And know no more of what is here, than there.
~ George Gordon Byron
Here is a podcast about finding fulfillment and purpose in life from Values of the Wise.com