|The Distinction of Man's Nature
All creatures except man, live by doing whatever their immediate
desires prompt them to do. Desires play the same
essential role in human beings they do in all creatures. They are the
motivators of behavior. A desire is a call to action. In the
animals, instinct provides an automatic response to every desire, the
call to action specifies the action required and instinct
automatically provides it.
Desire is a call to action in man too, but what action is called
for is not specified. For man, there is no predetermined appropriate
response to any desire. In man, there is only the desire. Before man
can respond to desire, he must discover the nature of the desire; what
it is a desire for; what is required to fulfill it, and what are the
consequences of fulfilling it? And when he knows all these things,
there is still no action.
For man, there is no direct connection between desires and actions.
The missing connection is "instinct." Man is not an instinctive
creature, he is a volitional creature, which means, to act at
all, even to do what his desires prompt him to do, he must
consciously choose to do it.
This is the distinctive characteristic of man that distinguishes
him from all other creatures and determines those aspects of human
nature which are uniquely human, the ability and necessity to live by
conscious choice. It means that everything a human being does and
everything he thinks he must do and think by choice. It means every
act is a chosen act, and to not choose is to not act, and to not act
is to not live. For man, living is choosing.
Human Desires and Feelings
But to choose one must have a reason to choose. I do not mean a
reason to make a particular choice, but a reason to choose at all.
Desires, as we experience them and all feelings are involuntary. We
are not responsible for what is involuntary. Neither desires nor
feelings exist in a vacuum, however, there is always a context and a
cause for them, and almost all human desires are developed, not
provided as part of our natures at birth.
Except for those very basic "desires," more appropriately called
biological drives or urges, all other human desires are developed
through learning and experience. There is almost nothing one can name
that humans desire that anyone is born with a desire for.
[NOTE: Desires are feelings. See the article "Feelings,"
for a detailed description of the difference between
biological/physiological feelings, such as the "biological drives or
urges" and emotional feelings. Most, and all important, human desires
are emotional.] No one is born with a desire for a burger with fries.
No one is born with a desire to watch a certain television program or
to watch television at all. No one is born with a desire to play any
sport, do any job, buy any product, or listen to any music.
Before we can desire anything, we must learn that it exists, what
its nature is, what there is about it to be desired. From the very
beginning this is so. For example, except for the fact we desire food,
which in its undeveloped state is little more than a sense of
discomfort we come to associate with our stomach and not eating,
everything we desire to eat we had to learn about before we could
Two Kinds of Desire
We use the word desire for two different kinds of things. There is
an inextricable relationship between them, but to prevent the kind of
confusion that attends most discussions of desire, this difference
must be made explicit.
One kind of desire only means something someone has chosen to
obtain or accomplish. When we talk about a, "desire for an education,"
or the "desire for a career," we mean something quite different than
we do by a, "desire for a big juicy steak," or a, "desire for a hot
shower." The apparent difference sometimes noted between these two
kinds of desire, that the first kind is not for something that is an
end in itself as is the second kind, is not our point, and not exactly
correct. Both an education and a career can be very satisfying and
pleasure producing ends in themselves as well as the means to other
ends, and, as satisfying as a juicy steak or hot shower are in
themselves, nourishment and being clean are desirable remote ends also
achieved by the immediate satisfaction of those desires.
The important difference in these desires is the "feeling" of
desire, or "passion," we associate with them. While there are feelings
associated with all our thoughts, in general the kind of desire we
have for proximate ends, like an education, jobs, or flu shots, are
not accompanied by the kind of "felt" desire we have for food, or
comfort, or sex.
When someone says, "I want an ice cream cone," it is the feeling,
that urge to taste something cold, sweet, and crunchy, one means, but
when someone says, "I want to get the car washed," there is probably
not much "feeling" of desire in that.
While we usually associate desire with a feeling, a passion or an
urge, it is really the other way around. The feeling is the result of
the desire, (the thing we consciously want), and different desires
produce different kinds of feelings. The "feeling" aspect of desire is
emotional, our consciousness of the physiological reaction to our
conscious or intellectual desire as described in the article
Feelings. The fact that the real desire is intellectual, rather
than emotional, is evident form the fact we still have desires for
things we know are "good," even when we do not feel those desires.
When sick, for example, the very idea of food may produce a feeling of
revulsion, even if it is food we are especially fond of. We know we
still like (desire) that food, even when our feeling does not agree
with the desire. All normal parents feel love for their children,
because they love them, even when their children are particularly
exasperating and the feeling they have is not anything like love.
The distinction and relationship between desires in these two
senses, the intellectually chosen objectives and the feelings that do
or do not accompany them, is very important. We can change, simply by
choosing to, what our intellectual objectives are, but the feelings
are involuntary. If we have a chosen desire for something, and
discover it is not good for us, or that some other objective would be
better, we can, and usually do, change that objective. If we have a
felt passion or desire, we cannot just decide not to have the feeling
and have a different one. We can only control the feelings of desire
in the same we control any emotions, as described in the article
Feelings, and also
Where Do Desires Come From?
While I am particularly interested in those feelings we call
desires or passions, all feelings are derived and behave in
essentially the same way. I said earlier, "almost all human desires
are developed, not provided as part of our natures at birth." This is
how Ayn Rand expressed it:
"Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with
cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are tabula rasa. It is
man's cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content
of both." [Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of
The emotions that Ayn Rand is specifically making reference to are
those that directly relate to one's overall emotional state, one's
happiness or unhappiness, or, in her words, "joy or suffering." But
all our emotions and desires depend on the content of consciousness,
both our immediate perceptions, as well as, and more importantly, our
She also said:
"Emotions are not tools of cognition...one must differentiate
between one's thoughts and one's emotions with full clarity and
precision. One...has to know that which one does know, and distinguish
it from that which one feels....to distinguish one's own considered
judgment from one's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." [Ayn Rand,
For the New Intellectual]
The Reason/Passion Dichotomy
There is a mistaken philosophical view that denies what it calls a
"reason/passion dichotomy." The basis of this is a misinterpretation
of the Objectivist rejection of the soul-body dichotomy, as described
in For the New Intellectual and elsewhere. For example:
"The New Intellectual...will...discard the soul-body dichotomy. He
will discard its irrational conflicts and contradictions, such as:
mind versus heart, thought versus action, reality
versus desire, the practical versus the moral. He will be
an integrated man." [Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual]
The Objectivist rejection of the dichotomy does not mean an
obliteration of the differences. The Objectivist rejection of all such
dichotomies is in opposition to those philosophies that make the
differences between these things irreconcilable and contradictory. It
is not a denial of the differences.
To simply reject any dichotomy between reason and passion is like
denying any dichotomy between hands and eyes. The hands and eyes are
different things but we can learn to coordinate their behavior. Reason
and passion are different things, but we can learn to integrate their
function. The proper coordination and integration between reason and
passion cannot be achieved simply by denying there is any difference
or "dichotomy" between them; it can only be achieved by identifying
the differences and integrating their function objectively.
Ayn Rand describes the proper relationship between reason and
passion (emotion) this way"
"An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's
value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash,
no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions—provided he
observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows—or makes it a
point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from
which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never
acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he
does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts
as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his
mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect
harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of
enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This
relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions
as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by
his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them
somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself
to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but
destruction—his own and that of others." ["Playboy's interview
with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, page 6.]
All our emotional reactions are the result of what we are conscious
of, what we know, understand, and value. It is reversing this process
and attempting to make our knowledge, our understanding, and our
values conform to our feelings that is the cause of all emotional
instability and irrational behavior. Let me recast my quote of Ayn
Rand above to explain:
"There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and
his emotions— provided he observes their proper relationship.
So long as he observes that, "proper relationship," his "emotions are
not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are
not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be
reversed .... If a man takes his emotions," including his desires
and passions," as the cause ... if he is guided by his emotions and
uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then
he is ... condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will
achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others."
Desire, the Source of Wrong Behavior
If acting contrary to one's nature is harmful, why would anyone do
it? I noted earlier that desires are the motivators of behavior. In
every case where someone intentionally practices self-harmful
behavior, by their own testimony, it will be because of desire, a
desire they feel so overwhelmingly they either justify the action
based on the desire (it must be normal, good, appropriate, if I desire
it so strongly) or act in defiance of their own best judgment,
because, "he just cannot help it."
But if desires prompt us to act contrary to the requirements of our
nature, they must be in conflict with our natures. How can this be?
What is wrong with us? Why would we have desires that cause us to be
our own destroyers?
Are human desires and feelings really involuntary? If they are, how
can one be responsible for them? Where do human desires and feelings
It is a fact that many people have desires that are not consistent
with the requirements of their nature and do desire to do things which
are harmful to themselves. Since all our emotional feeling, including
our desires, are in response to our thoughts and consciousness, to
understand why both wrong and contradictory desires are developed, I
will examine some aspects of just how we develop our desires. Since
this is not a course in psychology, I will only briefly describe the
following principles: association, reinforcement,
excitement, habituation, and patterns of thinking.
In general, the desires we have as adults are the result of what we
learn and experience growing up. Our experiences introduce us to
almost all of the things like food, activities, and sensations (like
hearing music) for which we develop desires or aversions. But while we
are experiencing we are also learning. We learn what things are
actually good for us (however good or bad, pleasurable or painful,
they seem by experience alone), and what our natures are that make
some things good and others bad for us.
All human desires are developed, even the so-called "physical"
desires (biological drives or urges) and all have an element called
"association." For example, the smell of coffee and bacon frying, for
those who have come to associate those aromas with pleasant
breakfasts, find that their desire for food is greatly stimulated by
Sexual desires are almost entirely associative. While we are born
with the physiological capacity for sexual desire and pleasure, it is
entirely undifferentiated and non-specific, just as is our desire for
food. One must learn what is sexually stimulating and pleasurable, and
what is not. For every individual, those things associated with one's
earliest sexual experiences, if pleasurable, become associated with
sex itself. This is one reason fetishes are so common. In a sense, all
sex is "fetish," and the only difference between what we call a fetish
and what is considered perfectly normal sexual stimulation is, in
fact, normality itself. Within the scope of what is physiologically
and psychologically normal, it is anything goes.
This is the reason a clear understanding of what normal means is
required, especially during those years of sexual development. A clear
sense of normality and how it is determined by human nature itself,
(not the dictates of anyone's ideology, or custom, or what is socially
acceptable), is necessary for healthy sexual development.
So called, "sexual orientation," is one of the aspects of sex that
are learned and developed. That, "orientation," like all other
developed desires and feelings, will be determined by one's earliest
pleasurable experiences and one's mental evaluation of those
experiences. Like all other aspects of human nature, everyone's
experiences are different, and the specific things which individuals
find pleasurable will be different for each individual. For some, no
experience is likely to cause confusion about what normal sex is. For
others, experiences can be confusing, and unless their experiences are
carefully controlled by their best possible reason and a ruthless
intention to be normal (that is, consistent with their nature as a
human being), they are easily persuaded to act contrary to the
requirements of their own nature.
We know that those things which are always pleasurable when
experienced usually become more desirable the more often we experience
them, and those which are not pleasurable, or even painful, become
less desirable with experience. This phenomenon is called
Sexual pleasure is one of the most intense forms of pleasure, in
some cases so potent, it can mask or even subsume some kinds of pain.
It is no surprise that sexual pleasure is self-reinforcing and that
pleasurable sexual experiences produce some of the most intense
desires. Sexual "reinforcement" is not restricted to the actual sex
act, but includes everything that is associated with it, without
regard to the actual nature of those things. Some very unnatural and
dangerous practices become associated with sex in this way. (See also,
syndromic nature of sexual desire.)
Many kinds of pleasure are heightened by excitement. The
relationship of excitement to reinforcement and association is obvious
and the fact that without careful rational evaluation of what
excitement is appropriate and normal, distortions can easily be
developed which are overwhelming.
This is especially true of sex. It is not necessary for that
excitement to be specifically "sexual" in nature, so long as it is, in
the mind of the individual, "associated," with sex. One common
distortion of this aspect of sex are frequently sex-linked disorders
pyromania, kleptomania and other
paraphilias (pedophilia and exhibitionism, for example).
Human beings, being volitional creatures, do not have an automatic
pattern of behavior like animal instinct, instead, human beings are
able to develop their own automated patterns of behavior. This
ability, called habituation, is one of the most important aspects of
human nature. Without it, almost nothing of any level of complexity
would be possible from eating a meal to using language or working out
complex mathematical problems.
Habituation enables human beings to develop both simple and complex
patterns of overt physical behavior as well as patterns of thought and
emotional responses. We develop habituated patterns of behavior,
especially for all those aspects of life that are routine and
repetitious, to leave our attention and minds free to concentrate on
more interesting and important matters.
Habituated routines are a requirement of human nature. They provide
the same kind of efficiency and effectiveness that instinct provides
the animals, except that they are, "programmable," and, within limits,
"alterable." The essential methods of forming and strengthening habits
involves deliberate intention, (leaning to touch-type, for example)
repetition, (learning the times tables, for example), and pleasure
reinforcement (sexual practices, for example).
Before habits are well formed, they are quite flexible and can be
altered with little effort. The longer habits are reinforced and the
stronger the emotional and physiological associations, the more
difficult it is to alter or eliminate habitual practices and
Because habituated behavior is, "automated," it is often the most
difficult to notice in ourselves, which is one reason why habituated
behavior is not often changed. The rational person will make a point
of observing their own behavior, of attempting to discover habits
which might be wasting their time, or energy, or other resources, or
preventing them from being fully in control of themselves. When
habitual ways of acting, thinking, and feeling have become so
automated the means for judging them is completely eliminated, there
may be no hope of changing them.
Habituated behavior frequently becomes so completely automatic and
familiar the it is mistaken for one's "nature." Often, how the habits
are formed, or even when, are forgotten, and one cannot imagine that
they were not always part of their behavior. They have become the
individual's personality. Most people assume this, for example, about
their own sexual, "preferences," and sexual, "practices."
Thinking as Content of Consciousness
Association, reinforcement, excitement, habituation all play a role
in the development of our passions and desires, but the most important
part of that development is our thinking, which ultimately determines
the specific character of that development, becomes part of it, and
determines how it is expressed behaviorally.
We do nothing we do not first think of or about. Since everything
we do we must be consciously chosen, before we can do anything, we
must choose it, and to choose it, we must be conscious of it, that is,
we must think it.
The development of our values and our thinking processes are
subject to the same influences of association, reinforcement,
excitement, and habituation as all other behavior. We develop habitual
thought patterns, which are reinforced when pleasurable and exciting.
The content of those thoughts, the associations, will come to dominate
our interests, desires, and usual ways of thinking.
It is also our thoughts that are the major contributors to the
development of or desires. While what we experience is not always
voluntary, and whether those experiences are pleasurable or painful,
exciting or boring, may not be within our field of choice; what we
think about them always is. It is ultimately what we think
about our experiences that determines how we evaluate them, which in
turn determines how we feel about them and whether we desire them or
The answer to the question, where do wrong desires come from is
simple. They come from wrong thinking.
The Virtue of Repression
One of the most damaging of false concepts perpetrated on the world
by the Freuds is repression. How such a concept could possibly
be smuggled into the body of ideas that are supposed to be Objectivist
is difficult to even imagine.
The word "repression" found its way into the corpus of psychology
in the 1930s. It was actually Sigmund's daughter, Anna Freud, who
introduced the word together with "denial," as part of the Freudian
theory of psychological defense mechanisms, supposed to prevent
unacceptable ideas or impulses from entering the consciousness.
There is terrible confusion about this idea of repression, and it
is used, almost always, as a means of justifying choices, that on any
other grounds, would be unacceptable. Repression is nothing more than
self-imposed limits. It is not oppression, not self-abnegation, not
self-sacrifice, it is self-control.
Repression means choosing not to do something one has a desire to
do. It is impossible to live as a human being without repressing
In the first place it is not possible to fulfill and satisfy all
our desires. We just desire too much (and only stop desiring more than
we can have when we are dead). Life is like a menu, we may desire most
or even all of the items on the menu, but neither time nor our
appetites allow us to eat everything on it. We must choose something,
and whatever we choose, it means we have to "repress" our desires for
There are always conflicts in desires. There are only so many hours
in a day, we only have so many resources, and every day there are more
things we desire to do and desire to have than it is physically
possible for us to do and have. We cannot fulfill our desires for two
or more things that all require the same hours of our time. We cannot
read the book, watch the television program, play the game of cards,
and wash the car. We have to make a choice and that means "repressing"
one (or more) of our desires.
We do not usually think of such choices as repression because the
choices usually involve picking from all the desirable things, the one
we desire the most. (Washing the car is probably out.)
Sometimes we desire what we ourselves know is wrong. If those
desires are not strong, we have no problem, "repressing," them,
because it is our own values that prompt us to avoid what is wrong. It
is our values that enable us to determine a thing is wrong, even when
desired, because it conflicts with all that we know is right and best
It is only when a desire for something we know is wrong is also
very strong that the question of, "repression," as the psychologists
misuse comes up. Some of us have learned the, "hard way," just how bad
the consequences of yielding to some desires are, and would never
consider doing those things again again, no matter how strong or,
"overwhelming," or, "persistent," the desire is.
Anyone who has ever broken a bad habit or overcome a behavior that
was harmful to themselves (like eating too much) has done so by
"repressing" desires. Everyone who was ever tempted to do something
they knew was wrong and chose not to do it, "repressed" a desire.
There is another word for repression. It is
self-discipline. Self-discipline is being in rational control of
ones desires and passions for one's own benefit. One or the other must
be in control of one's life and behavior, the rational self or the
irrational passions. Repression only means self-control, those free
of repression are out-of-control.
Freedom is Self-discipline
Freedom means freedom to choose and determine for one's self, how
to live and what to do.
Discipline means control. One is "disciplined," by whatever
determines or is in control of an individual's behavior. If one is
under another's discipline, a slave-owner or an oppressive government,
for example, they are not free. Freedom is being under one's own
discipline and one's own control.
Human beings have only one faculty for making choices, their
rational consciousness. Self-discipline means rational self-control,
it means, making one's choices by means of one's best possible reason.
Surrendering ones choice to whim, or passion, or desire is
surrendering reason to the control of the irrational. One must choose
to act; desire is the motive, but which desires one chooses to pursue
and how one chooses to pursue them must be chosen rationally and
Freedom is self-discipline, it is the opposite of being
disciplined by something else, one's desire, one's feeling, one's
circumstances, or other individuals. It's one or the other; one either
takes the authority for his life and makes the choices of how he will
live, or he surrenders that authority to something or someone else.
Almost always, the act of surrendering to a desire or a passion makes
one subject to someone else's authority, the authority of whoever it
is that supplies the object of the desire or passion.
Surrendering to the desire for security makes one the subject of
the government that "guarantees" it, surrendering to the desire for a
free lunch makes one the lackey of the politician that promises it,
surrendering to a desire for approval, makes one the lap dog of
whoever provides it, surrendering to the desire for sex, makes one the
slave of the next prostitute, pimp, or whore that comes along. All
these same desires, under our control, their object earned by our own
effort and enjoyed in the knowledge we are worthy of their fulfillment
are our servants providing joy and happiness; but if we serve them and
our behavior is determined by them, we are the slaves of our desires.
Those who make their desires serve them are free and know all they do
is because they chose to do it. Those who serve their desire are
slaves who have no idea why they do what they do, they only know,
"they cannot help it."
Reginald Firehammer is a
filosofer and author of the book:
Hijacking of a Philosophy: Homosexuals vs. Ayn Rand's Objectivism.
He is the author and host of
an online intellectual journal, as well as a contributor to The
Rational Argumentator. In the future, he intends to produce a
comprehensive treatise on ontology, consciousness, and ultimately
filosofy itself. Mr. Firehammer can be contacted at