Transfiguring desire

The idea of ‘transfiguring desire’ has been playing on my mind since reading Amia Srinivasan’s Right to Sex piece in the LRB (which I talked about here before). Srinivasan is making a moral argument about romantic and sexual attraction, asking whether we have a duty to attempt to change our desires. Thinking about this I butted up against a common block: intellectually I agree with this, but emotionally I don’t know how to put theory into action.

I was close to fully vegetarian for the better part of two years, only stopping when I went to stay at my parents house for a few months rent-free and felt uncomfortable about asking for separate food. I got into vegetarianism simply because I had a vague idea, intellectually, that it was morally better and some of my friends showed me how easy it is. But I never felt a genuinely moral drive towards it, or felt as though I was actually transgressing when I ate meat.

I am firm believer in the idea that the strongest and realest moral motivator is disgust. It most adequately explains changing views through history and matches my own experience. Disgust is the opposite of desire and is similarly resistant to rational attempts to persuade it to change. This is why I am sceptical of hyper-rationalist modes of argument, the idea that we can debate our way to justice. The way to change moral outcomes is to change attitudes, and for that cultural power beats intellectual arguments the majority of the time.

The other natural context for talking about transfiguring desire is self-help, particularly the idea of abolishing desire and paying attention to the present—the language of mindfulness. This is nothing new of course: it’s same thing Seneca and the Bhudda were talking about. I truly believe people who desire less are happier: that’s as close to a universal truth as I can think of. But in a culture that defines itself through its taste, especially if you’re a person lacking deep relationships, giving up desires feels like giving up part of the self, a little death.

So how to actually transfigure or abolish my desires? How to want what I want to want? That’s something I’m going to be thinking about for a while.

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© Tom Harris 2015–2018.

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