Second-order desire

From Academic Kids

A second-order desire, is a desire an individual has about his own desires.

A simple desire, as the one identified by common language, is therefore described as a first-order desire at this regard. For example, a person may desire a new car, or to meet the Pope, or to get drunk on Wednesday, or many other things. A second-order desire, is then a desire an individual has about his own desires. For example, an alcoholic may desire a drink, but at the same time desire to not desire a drink. Someone can want something, yet at the same time wish they did not want it. And likewise, someone can not want something, and yet want to want them. For example, a man may feel no love or sexual desire for his wife, and yet wish he did.

As the two above examples demonstrate, humans second-order desires can be unfulfilled -- you can want to want something (or want to not want something) and yet still want it (or not want it, respectively.) However, it is also possible for someone to want something, and want to want it, or not want something, and not want to want it either. For example, someone could want freedom and liberty, and also want to want freedom and liberty (i.e. not want to turn into Winston Smith at the end of 1984.) Or likewise, someone can not want their hand amputated for no medically necessary reason, and they can also not want to want to have their hand amputated for no medically necessary reason.

Given some state of affairs x, there are 12 different possible combinations of first and second order desire in respect of x:

  1. I have no desires concerning x, nor do I have any desires concerning having desires concerning x.
  2. I desire x, but I have no desires concerning having desires concerning x.
  3. I desire ~x, but I have no desires concerning having desires concerning x.
  4. I have no desires concerning x, and I desire to have no desires concerning x.
  5. I desire x, but I desire to have no desires concerning x.
  6. I desire ~x, but I desire to have no desires concerning x.
  7. I have no desires concerning x, but I desire to desire x.
  8. I desire x, and I desire to desire x.
  9. I desire ~x, but I desire to desire x.
  10. I have do desires concerning x, but I desire to desire ~x.
  11. I desire x, but I desire to desire ~x.
  12. I desire ~x, but I desire to desire ~x.

Real-world examples can probably be found for all of these, although for some the examples may be more contrived than for others.

Since such desires must be described symbolically in some sharable form for a comprehensible debate, and since sexual desire is basic to animals, it may be helpful to think of x as being a match with a sexually desirable person who is particularly troublesome or boring, as explained or excused to a third party in language - it is easy to imagine states where it may be desirable or undesirable to (admit to) desire them or not.

A thirteenth, or "moot", or "zero" state, where "I do not know x" yet, could be said to be different from 1. in that we may have a prototype or expectation or anticipation of some group that we (later) see as including x, and may not know yet that x is of that category, e.g. we may desire x the person and only later learn that x is Indian or Jamaican, which may alter or redefine our desire in some unforseen way(s) - to the degree they are unforseen, they are undescribed, and so no "category that includes x" can be said to exist unless and until we meet x and discover (for instance) that we like lilting musically-accented English, or hot food, or people who respect their grandmothers. Any such "category" would have to be a stereotype created after the fact, to explain our acquired desires.

This alone could reasonably account for most of the complexity in people's rationalizations of desire.

Bring third-order desire into the equation, there are exponentially more possible combinations. It is conjectured, but seemingly unproven, that real-world examples cannot be found for any of these, except for those which are repetitions of the 12 above.

Yet, an exception could be: I desire to not have any second order desires. This would be a third order desire. In the hypothesis someone decided that reflexive desires were bad, that people should just accept their desires for what they are, and not try to change them, but neither care if they are changed by others. Of course, in this case they must desire not only not to have any second-order desires, but logically speaking also not to have any third or fourth or fifth order desires, or any other higher-order desires; which might cause a semantic paradox (since a desire not to have any desires of order > 1 is a desire of order > 1). Unless they say "I desire to have no desires of order N, where N > 1, with the exception of this desire and any other deisre logically entailed by this desire", which would resolve the paradox.

Still there should be a limit to human self-reflexivity: if it is not the third order, it must be the fourth or fifth.

Limits to human self-reflexivity

Logically speaking, the concept of second-order desire could also be extended to third-order desires (a desire to desire to desire something), fourth-order desires, fifth-order desires, and so on, ad infinitum. However, in practice, humans only ever seem to have first-order or second-order desires.

Human beings don't get that self-reflexive. Indeed, there appears to be a general limitation in human thought against third-order anything: people want things, and want to want things, but they never seem to want to want to want things. And likewise, people think about things, they think about their thinking about things, but they very rarely seem to think about their thinking about things (the rare circumstances when they do is where they think they think about their thinking about things too much, or when they congratulate themselves on their own philosophical self-reflexivity), and they certainly never think about their thinking about their thinking about things, or think about their thinking about their thinking about their thinking about things.

Of course it will be noted that every statement of that sort might be seen to be self-defeating. Since if we are talking about first order thought, we are having second-order thoughts, therefore in talking about Nth order thoughts, we are having N+1th order thoughts; and since in saying "Nth order thought is impossible", we are thinking about Nth order thought, we are having N+1th order thoughts, thereby proving that N+1th order thought is possible, and therefore obviously N+1th thought is impossible as well. This is argument is invalid, however -- in thinking about an Nth order thought, we are only having an N+1th order thought if we are thinking about our own Nth order thought. If we are thinking about someone else's Nth order thought, or Nth order thoughts in general, we are only having a 1st order thought. Of course, any statement about Nth order thoughts in general implies a statement about our own Nth order thoughts, but we can think about the general without thinking about the particular; or in other words ~((x -> y) & Thinks(x) -> Thinks(y)).

In any case, even if this argument were valid, this would only occur in the restricted area of thinking about the limits to the order of human self-reflexivity, so other than this small exception a limit on human third- or fourth-order self-reflexivity holds.

Why do these restrictions hold? Part of the reason may be limited human short term memory, and the fact that regularly thinking 150th-order thoughts is evolutionarily useless, or rather evolutionarily deleterious (in the same way as an infinite recursion crashes a computer program, thinking about your thinking about your thinking about your thinking about your thinking..., if taken to its logical conclusion, takes an eternity, and yet in no way contributes to the production of the next generation). We could also note that, in functional terms, only the first three orders of thought have any functional use -- and a 151st-order thought has no more or less relevance to human life than a 150th-order one does. First-order thoughts are obviously important -- we must think about things. Second order thoughts can also be useful ("I'm thinking depressing thoughts too often..."). Third order thoughts can guard us about getting caught up in too much self-reflexion. Fourth-order and all higher-order thoughts are only useful as philosophical experiments or silly infinite recursion games (a philosophical version of Lamb Chop's "This is the Song that doesn't End"). Thus there are only three, or at most four, orders of human thought, since all orders fourth or higher serve the same practically useless purpose.

It could be noted that while there are three (or maybe four) orders of thought, there are only two orders of desire, or so it is supposed.

Dutch advertising slogan stating the desirability of a desire (translated): You are lucky if you like fish!

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