As a person who is not well-versed in philosophy at all, I have no idea how to phrase this properly. But basically, we all want things. I want to read that book, you want to become (e.g.) an engineer, etc.

Do we choose to want things? Or do we want things without our control over wanting them?

I am asking because I am having a bit of an existential crisis, and my expectations of myself currently do not make me happy, since I fall short of them. Yet I feel justified in having these self-expectations, and I do not think I will change them. Do I decide to keep my expectations of myself the same, or do I just expect things of myself without any control over that expectation?

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    The core paradox is "according to what criteria would you chose what to want ?". If a choice is the selection of a prefered outcome among several candidates, then however you break it down and analyse it there will always be a remaining "preference" that hasn't been willingly chosen.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 4:15
  • Not necessarily... maybe there are pulsions/needs that you cannot totally control (hunger) Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 8:40
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    We do not know, we will never know, and it makes no difference. This is a question about "free will" vs determinism, and what happens in the world will not change one bit regardless of which is true. Even if it is all predetermined, we will still want things, and feel good or bad about wanting them too. Frankfurt developed a framework distinguishing between first order and second order desires (desires about desires), where the latter determine the core of self, and "freedom" amounts to accord between that and first order desires.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 9:40
  • @Conifold. We may one day know, and one significant change that will likely occur - at least for large numbers of those who aren't attached to fundamentalist/literalist faith - is that we will come to realise that we all are merely the embodiments of circumstance rather than of virtue or evil. We will hopefully therefore become increasingly grateful for any relative good fortune we have, more compassionate, and gradually shed the retributive instinct. There is certainly more evidence (via logic alone) that we have no (or even, severely limited) free will than there is to the contrary. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 1:49
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    1) If by "choose" or "decide" you mean a reflective and forcing oath "I want this", then certainly not - this is not the way we come to want things. 2) We cannot want to "keep" a thing because we can only want what is lacking or missing; clinging to a dream is but re-inventing it. 3) We have a control over ourselves because we are not self-intimate: consciousness is alien to Ego. 4) Life - as route span - is void of meaning; expectations of kind "what I will become" or "what will become of me" should die, because that is the mode suited to perceive other people or being perceived by others.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Nov 14, 2021 at 22:43

4 Answers 4


In the commentary to proposition IX of part 3 in Ethics, Spinoza argues that we decide if things or situations are good based on our desire for them. It is to say, the feeling we have that we want something to happen, or to belong to us, is the hint we use to label them good.

It is to say, desire comes first and is not the fruit of a conscious decision making process: we decide to reach for the cookie because we are hungry, but we did not decide to be hungry. (Or, we decide to refrain from reaching for it because mommy is watching, but we didn't decide to be afraid of mommy's anger).

According to this view, we can't choose what to want, because we make choices according to what we want in the first place.

But that does not mean we are condemned to be perpetually dissatisfied with ourselves, always unable to achieve expectations we did not choose. In the same book Spinoza also argues that when reality does not match our expectations, the problem is not with reality, which is just what it is, but with our expectations, that were not grounded in a sound knowledge of reality to begin with.

For example, a small kid could expect that if they blow hard enough in their own ship's sail, it will move forward because of the wind they created. They would be very disappointed to see it does not work. But had they opened a physics textbook they would know that the principles of action and reaction make such an idea moot from the get go, they wouldn't expect the impossible and they wouldn't be disappointed.

Here, a clarification should be made about the difference between desire or expectations and wishy washy feelings. One could argue that we could still want for something we know to be impossible, like immortality or Jedi powers. But those are two very different situations. Of course one sometimes think "wouldn't it be nice to have Jedi powers?", one can wish it was possible, but a knowledgeable person would not expect to acquire such powers, and so can't be disappointed by not having them. I might wish I had Jedi powers, but I don't act in order to get them or feel like acting towards this goal, I don't desire Jedi powers. It would make about as such sense as to be disappointed that I can't grab the moon by reaching with my hand because it looks so tiny from Earth.

The point I am getting at is, the more we know ourselves, the more our expectations about ourselves tend to match reality and be achievable. This does not mean we have to give up all expectations. We shall always strive for realistic betterment, but knowledge helps us strive for what we can actually obtain.

Instead of feeling bad for not realizing unrealistic expectations, learn about our mistakes, analyse what fact we didn't consider that made our expectations unrealistic, and work toward a better, more suitable goal. Educating ourselves won't help us decide what to desire, but will inform our desires and have them match reality. While this is a way we can influence what we want, note that it is still not a choice as we can't choose what reality is made of and will bring forth.

  • "We decide to reach for the cookie because we are hungry, but we did not decide to be hungry". We feel a stir in the stomack and we interpret the cookie as the presence and the sign of our hunger. The hunger is out there, on the cookie, and only because the cookie can or might be reached and put in mouth the hunger is understood as the want to eat. No cookie - no hunger.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 1:31
  • (cont.) Another day I can put myself or fall in a situation where the same stir in the stomack will be interpreted as a sign of ulcer; then cookies will look inappropriate, will not offer themselves, and through that I grasp I'm sick. I do not select me a stir, but I de facto select it to be hunger or pain, and with the direct assistance of the object "cookie".
    – ttnphns
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 1:31
  • The wisdom to trim and manage our expectations, as they are secondary of reality and should normally match it, is often beneficial in everyday life. But they philosophically are misleading (in my view). Reality we only have access to is human reality, which is in the permanent construction process, and where we are commited from the beginning, while we are always counter it, we are who has shaped it.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 2:39
  • @ttnphns anyone who ever felt hungry while not in presence of food can say something is mistaken in your analysis. When we are hungry, we are hungry, when we are cold we are cold. I never heard of anyone who ever survived exposure by attributing their sensation of cold to fever... Also, freedom to mistakenly attribute a cause to some sensation can hardly be called freedom to decide what we want.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 12:01
  • armand, people often do "mistaken" (you say) or "choice-dependent" (I say) attributions even on the level of biological sensations (one classic example would be that finger under very cold or very hot water initially produce the same momentary sensation). And there exists no pure biological hunger for a human; every hunger which only we can experience is already an interpreted by us hunger.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 12:41

Recommended reading: Lou Marinoff, Plato, not Prozac. This answer is loosely based on such text.

Following your question, you imply that emotions determine what we want. But this is not always so. A great deal of our acts depend on the capability to determine our acts by means of reason, and not due to emotions.

Imagine that you feel depressed. In your conceptual structure, you might want to commit suicide in order to escape from depression (statistics tell that the main reason for suicide is depression). So, you commit suicide. That, allegedly, because emotions rule our acts at the base. Or you might have a disagreement with your boss, and you start a box fight. Or you feel the need of new emotions and take cocaine.

But personal maturity implies precisely the capability to re-conduct emotions in order to follow a deeper goal. Maturity implies interposing reason between emotions and acts. So, if reason is interposed between emotions and acts, different acts will be taken; and in many circumstances, even emotions ARE voluntarily modified.

Let me provide a couple of examples.

You feel depressed. Instead of committing suicide, you interpose reason. Scientific studies tell that smiling produces dopamines. So, you feel depressed, but smile voluntarily. Dopamines raise, you feel better, and depression might decrease remarkably. Of course, this is just one action that a depressed individual could take. There are others, like rationally identifying the sources of depression and avoiding them, or taking actions that produce joy.

Second example. You have a verbal disagreement with your boss. Instead of hitting him in the face due to anger, you could think. Thinking will probably tell you two things: a) that it's better to lose the argument than losing your job and b) that overcoming loss is important. So, you do it, you don't lose your job, and by learning to lose, you will surely reduce the anger emotions in future interactions (even if it implies just avoiding arguments with your boss).

In synthesis, we do choose what we want, and emotions can be changed by means of reason, so, emotions do not necessarily determine what we want.

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    But why do people want to be reasonable? It's not an obvious choice, some people who are emotionally attached to an opinion throw away rational discourse to favor an emotional response, sometimes explicitely (just try explaining to a new age believer that the law of attraction is not making their life any better). There is an emotional appeal to being reasonable, just like there is an appeal in raving into comfortable self-deception. If choosing to be reasonable was just a matter of reason, everybody would be reasonable all the time. Deep down our wants are the key, and we don't choose them.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 3:14
  • @armand You are mixing the problem of choosing to be reasonable with the problem of wanting contradictory stuff. To want what is contradictory is a misunderstanding of wanting. The typical case is that people wants to be rich but they also want to avoid effort. So, they ALWAYS CHOOSE what they want, and that's a rational choice. Behind ALL CHOICES (ergo, behind anything people wants) there are rational decisions. Life is not a straight path, one would seldom want or reject both sides of most choices. That's why they are choices, otherwise they will be just mechanical actions.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 5:26
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    You missed my point. If choosing to act rationally was a problem of reason, devoid of emotion, people would always be rational. The example you give "hitting people in the face in anger" would never happen. People could still hit each other, but out of calculated interest like a thug hits someone who owes him money, or a professional executioner, not in anger. So in the end it's the emotions that determine if we act rationally or not and we don't choose our emotions. Also, choices are indeed mechanical (or rather, biochemical) actions that happen in our brains.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 7:26
  • Emotion is a mere psycho-physical arousal (or a collapse). It itself conveys no meaning, no ends. The function of emotions is "noise (or silence) wall". To surround us from information and hence from the danger to think back, to re-select. Emotion is "hiding". We don't choose to be emotion-free, but we are free to drop from emotion any time. Unless we are unconscious under it (as in delirium or such). Emotion itself does not aim us to this or that goal: the goal is selected basically the same mode in a "rational" and in "emotional" states. We are still responsible under emotions.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 2:24

We choose an action if we select that action from among alternatives, according to a mental process driven by our desires. That's what choice means.

We choose some of our wants, in the sense that some of our wants are driven by other, more fundamental wants.

Even when we choose an individual action, like choosing to "throw a ball," this is generally not an indivisible, immediate action. It's really choosing to want to throw the ball. In other words, the decision to throw the ball is really a decision that sets a subgoal for having thrown the ball in the immediate future. This subgoal, which we could also call a desire, is fulfilled when we've thrown the ball, and might fail to be fulfilled if it slips through our fingers instead. Once the subgoal is set up, other mental processes get to work fulfilling this subgoal (this "want").

So really almost all choice is a choice to want something - a choice to set up a goal, rather than a choice to instantly achieve an action.


We do not choose our wants.

We can only choose our actions, the method by which we plan to get what we want.

That is the essence of free will.

"Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

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    That makes no sense. If we can't choose what we want, including what we want to do, we can't choose our actions, which is precisely the meaning of the Schopenhauer quote. We can't even choose to act or not, because, unless impeded, we act when we want to act, and we can't choose wether we want to act or not.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 4:23
  • @armand It does make sense, you just need a different, compatibilist notion of "choose." We choose an action if we select that action from among alternatives, according to a mental process driven by our desires. That's what choosing means.
    – causative
    Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 5:02
  • @armand We never want to act. We would prefer to get what we want without actually doing anything. We only want the results. Actions we must choose in order to get those results. Commented Nov 10, 2021 at 8:37
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    @armand: The opposing argument is this: If we could choose what we want, then we would need to have some criteria by which we choose what we want. But we could not use "what we want" as a criterion for choosing what we want, because that would be circular. So therefore we would have to have some other criterion, and it's unclear what that criterion should be.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 4:36
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    Sophistry about semantics is fun and all, but it's the same thing. Each different course of action has consequences, if I desire the consequences I desire the course of action that brings them to reality, if I fear the consequences I reject the course of action. You can't engage in special pleading and dissociate both like that. Otherwise how exactly do you chose a specific course of action, if preferences don't apply to them?
    – armand
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 8:57

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