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A Dialogue on Desire at Durfee’s

By Ben Colon-Emeric, TD ’22. Ben is majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Joan: Hey, Max! How are you doing? Making the old Durfee’s run, I see.

Max: Yeah, I was too busy to get lunch. I have a bunch of internship applications I’m working on.

Joan: Relatable!

Max: I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me to make the most of my time. I don’t really want to work this summer, but I want to have an internship under my belt.

Joan: Why?

Max: If you’re doing STEM, especially medicine, you need to do research at some point or else you fall behind everyone else.

Joan: So you’re saying you want to be as good as everyone else?

Max: Well yes, it’d be strange if I didn’t.

Joan: What do you mean?

Max: If I see that someone is more successful than me at something, I want to improve so that I can be as good as they are. It’s normal.

Joan: Is it normal though? You’re saying that you see someone succeeding and want to be like them so that you can feel better about yourself; isn’t that envy?

Max: I don’t think so. Look at the classic Ten Commandments idea of envy, the “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s air pods” sort of thing. That is about actual things that can be owned.  For all of those things, if I have them, my neighbor does not. If I choose to get an internship because everyone else is getting internships, there is no material loss to anyone; everyone wins.

Joan: That feels like a really narrow definition of envy. Envy does not need to involve a loss for whomever you are envying. By getting an internship, you are trying to remove your sense of being inferior to people who get internships. Even though you don’t directly take anything away that they own, you are still establishing an antagonistic relationship by trying to place them beneath you; this is still envy.

Max: So give me your definition of envy, then.

Joan: Envy is the state of desiring what someone has simply because they have it and you don’t. Take your situation, for instance. You already said that you don’t really want to get an internship for its own sake–you want it because other people are getting internships and you don’t want to fall behind. If people around you didn’t have internships, you wouldn’t desire an internship.  Therefore, your desire for an internship is envious.

Max: I spy a problem. You say that if I want something because others have it, it is envy. But then that seems to regard all forms of imitation as envy.

Joan: No it doesn’t. You can do what others do, so long as you do not do it just because others are doing it.

Max: That doesn’t work though. Let’s say that it’s winter, and it’s bitterly cold. I see you wearing a nice wooly scarf. I say to myself, “Wow, she looks warm in that nice scarf. I want to be as warm as she is; I should get a scarf.” Before seeing you, I didn’t understand the benefits of scarves for warmth; I thought they were pointless.

Joan: I mean, they are pretty pointless.

Max: But seeing how comfortable you are with your scarf makes me want to achieve a similar state of comfort. By your definition, this would be envy, but I think we can agree that I am justified in my desire to be warmer.

Joan: That’s an interesting point, but it’s a different kind of desire than your situation with the internship. In that example, there’s a comparison between you and the other people that is absent from the scarf example. With the scarf, you don’t care if you’re warmer or colder than me, you just want to be warm. In your case, the internship matters only insofar as it changes your status in comparison to someone else. Your desire is envious because it stems from that comparison.

Max: I don’t buy that. It wouldn’t be envious if I said that I want to be like you because you are better than me.

Joan: It’s nice to hear you say that.

Max: Don’t flatter yourself, it’s a thought experiment.

Joan: Well, as much as I like your statement, there’s still a problem with it. The phrase “I want to be like you because you are better than me” can go two ways. It could mean that you are using me as an exemplar. People do this all the time; that’s why people look to the lives of the saints for inspiration or read biographies of inspirational figures. Seeing virtue and wanting to emulate it is good. But your statement could just as easily mean that you want to be like me, who is better than you, because you do not want to be worse than me.

Max: I don’t see the distinction.

Joan: It’s a matter of motive. You want to be like the saints because the saints are good, and you want to be good. But you want to be like the students who have internships because you do not want them to be better than you. The first is a desire to be a better, holier person, which is good. The latter is the desire to feel better about yourself by placing yourself above others, which is bad. To distinguish between those two forms of “I want to be like you because you are better than me,” you need to add another clause.

Max: So it becomes “I want to be like you because you are better than me, and I want to be good,” versus, “I want to be like you because you are better than me so that I will not be less good than you anymore.” The first is good, the second is envy.

Joan: That’s it exactly.

Max: So the envy is not my act of desiring an internship that others have. The envy is entirely in my motivation for that desire.

Joan: That seems like a solid working definition.

Max: The problem is, of course, how do you improve your desires? How do I train myself to  stop wanting to not be inferior to other people?

Joan: I like that you used the word “train;” that’s very Aristotelian of you.

Max: Your year of DS rears its ugly head.

Joan: Sure, but it’s super applicable in this case. Aristotle believed that virtues needed to be practiced in the same way we think about our bodies. To reach peak physical fitness, you need to work out a lot until exercising becomes a habit. To reach peak moral rightness, you need to constantly make sure you’re acting morally so that eventually you reach the point where acting morally becomes instinctive. I think it’s the same here. To make sure you don’t want things from a place of envy, you need to examine why you want the things you want. Eventually, you’ll instinctively avoid wanting things for the wrong reasons. It has to be an ongoing process.

Max: That makes sense. I have to be constantly critical of my reasons for wanting things until I get into the habit of wanting things for the right reasons. I should still go for the internship, but I need to get myself out of the mentality that I need to do it because others are doing it. I need to shake the desire to not be inferior.

Joan: Pretty much.

Max: That’s a lot of work.

Joan: Yes it is.

Max: Well there you have it.

Joan: Now go and fill out those applications.

Max: All the while scrutinizing my motives for doing so.

Joan: I mean, doesn’t every application ask you why you want to be a part of whatever it is you’re applying for?

Max: You’ve got me there. Alright, I’ll see you later.

Joan: See ya!

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.