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Came across this article -

http://www.paulgraham.com/want.html

Need some help decodifying it ?

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  • "Until you make up your mind, you can't change it." You always have to do Step 1 before Step 2. Now, how shall we begin on Step 1? Where do our preferences come from? Hmm...
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 18, 2023 at 18:58
  • I don't think it is true, there are plenty of things that I want to do because I chose to want to do them (e.g. going out for a run, enjoying fielding when playing cricket ...). Mar 18, 2023 at 23:20
  • Down-voted because this comes off as advertising for a blog-post.
    – Nat
    Mar 19, 2023 at 5:18
  • What is your specific problem understanding it? And why did existing questions like this one not help you?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 19, 2023 at 16:06

2 Answers 2

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Welcome to the Philosophy Stack Exchange.

Yes, this is very puzzling, partly because the way it is explained is confusing. The starting-point of this problem is the fact that our values often conflict with each other.

For example, there can be a conflict between the attraction of going out for exercise and staying in where it's warm. I can want both, but cannot have both. This case is resolved by making a choice.

But in other cases, what is wanted has both positive and negative characteristics. So we are ambivalent. But while it is relatively easy to avoid eating something that doesn't taste very good if it is also harmful, it is can be very hard to avoid eating something that tastes delicious even though it is also harmful. That situation is sometimes described as wanting not to want.

It is not a particularly helpful way, but has the merit of getting our attention. Some people describe this situation in terms of first- and second- order wants. Wanting to eat the goodie is a first-order want. Wanting not to eat the goodie is a second-order want. Perhaps that is less confusing, though like the author of the article you link to, I am not a fan, myself.

The problem starts with thinking that we need to control what we want, as if wanting something is like doing something. Doing something is what we are in control of. Controlling what we do is enables us to achieve what we want. What other point does being in control have? When we are doing something we don't want to do, we are not in control.

The problem is how it is possible to understand what is good or right, but do what is bad or wrong It is as old as philosophy. It is usually characterized as lack of self-control, which describes the problem without resolving it. Some people call it weakness of will, which is, on the whole, unhelpful. Philosophy has not, in my opinion, come up with any useful solutions, but psychologists have developed some techniques that can help. Perhaps it would be better to leave the problem to them.

EDIT ADDED AFTER COMMENTS BELOW

This topic gets very complicated when one tries to think it through.

For example, while wanting is not the sort of thing we can control directly, it is also true that wanting is often a response to something, (which is why food shops display their goodies and restaurants benefit from the smell of their food getting out into the street).

When that is the case, one can exert indirect control of what one want (if we want to!) by avoiding the trigger events. "If we want to.." means "if we don't want to feel hungry" and that could be described as "if we don't want to want food." The last description is fun for philosophers but not necessary or helpful, in my opinion.

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    I had misread the title question as: "...but you can't want what you want", meaning, as you said, we can't choose our wants (desires, preferences) the same way we choose our actions. To choose, we have to prefer, so choosing preferences is like running up a hill of loose sand: tiring, and one never gets any traction. Preferences are evaluated, eventually if ever, by results. It is too slow and indirect. So the statement is that wants are simply not the kind of thing we get control of in the moment. It would be like controllIng which way your car is going by changing where it was a minute ago.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 18, 2023 at 21:37
  • Thanks alot! makes sense now Mar 19, 2023 at 4:12
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You can do what you want...

This is slightly misleading as we do not generally want to do anything. We do not want the action, we want the results of that action. A better wording would be: You can choose what to do to get what you want. For some people this is the essence of free will.

...you cannot want to want what to want.

This has too many nested wants, which makes it a little confusing. A better wording would be: You cannot want to want something else than what you already want. This means that you cannot choose your preferences. You must have preferences before you can choose anything and you cannot willfully change your preferences either. For some people this is the proof for the absence of free will.

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  • If we merely 'generally', not exceptionlessly, 'do not ... want to do anything ... do not want the action', this allows the possibiity of wanting [to do] the action for its own sake and not for the results. We can grant the Questioner this possibility.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 19, 2023 at 15:12

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