I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to say that it’s potentially dangerous to do anything, whether you have a genuine desire to do it or not, if you suppress, ignore, or overlook good evidence to the contrary. People do all sorts of things without fairly considering any of the arguments that could be made against the decisions they’re making and that can be a very dangerous practice. Over the past year, however, I’ve met dozens of young people who are afraid to pursue their interests, follow their dreams, or simply try out new things that are fascinating to them because they’ve been conditioned to believe that their desires will destroy them or leave them drowning in a sea of regret. Many young people live in a world where the primary message they seem to be getting from adults and authority figures is “Your desires are silly and if you can’t give me an argument showing me how your desires make sense, then you’re not allowed to pursue them.” And while I think there is much good that can come from the exercise of trying to come up with justificatory reasons for the things one does, I thought I’d share and explain some of my thoughts on the relationship between desire and decision-making with the hope that it might liberate someone out there to give themselves permission to be a little more open to the practice of following their highest excitement without apology.
To begin, here’s a simple principle I use for decision-making:
In the absence of any logically or morally compelling reason to do otherwise, always do what feels good.
Does that sound controversial or dangerous? Try to come up with a counterexample. See if you can identify a scenario, real or hypothetical, where it would be bad, unhealthy, or dangerous for a person to do what feels good. Now ask yourself the following question: Have you really come up with a counterexample to the above-stated principle or are you just imagining a scenario where a person actually has a logically or morally compelling reason for not doing what feels good?
The concept of following one’s feelings has taken a bad rap for a good reason. If you act on your impulses without subjecting them to any kind of rational scrutiny, you’ll quickly become a danger to yourself and society. Statements like “let your feelings be your guide” are obviously dangerous to follow if we divorce the life of the heart from the life of the mind. But for some people, the all-important emphasis on thinking critically about their choices has led them to the complete opposite extreme of treating their desires as if they can never be trusted unless some kind of evidence can be found to support why they should follow them. I contend that you should always follow your desires as long as there’s no evidence to suggest that doing so would be a bad thing. It’s important to make a distinction, however, between using your desires as a guide for decision-making versus using your desires as evidence that something is true. Regarding the latter, I’m strongly skeptical of that approach. Merely wanting something to be true doesn’t magically make it become true. I can wish I had a million dollars in my bank account all I want, but that doesn’t mean I have it. Feeling like a millionaire isn’t the same thing as actually being a millionaire. When it comes to affirming or denying the truth of propositions and factual claims, we always need to make sure we have some sort of evidence. When it comes to decisions you have to make about acting on your interests, on the other hand, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to do what you feel like doing unless you have a darn good reason for not doing what you feel like doing.
If you like something, give yourself permission to like it. If you’re attracted to something, give yourself permission to be attracted to it. If you’re fired up or turned on by some person or interest, give yourself permission to be fired up or turned on. Desire is not an inherent evil and you are free to pursue your longings, passions, and interests as long as there isn’t a strong argument to the contrary. The question to ask about your desires isn’t “why?” but “why not?” The default position shouldn’t be to do things that are uninteresting, irrelevant, or unpleasant to you. The default position should be to always do things that are interesting, relevant, or pleasant to you unless there’s a logical or moral basis for ignoring or resisting your natural enthusiasm.
Your visceral sense of what feels good isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean you need to be able to lay out a sophisticated argument justifying every decision you make. Desire does not carry the burden of proof. The claim that you should resist or suppress your desires is where the burden of proof belongs. Unless there’s a good reason for going against your interests, a simple “this is what I like” or “this is what I feel like doing” or “this is what I want to do” is enough.
Should you ever think twice about acting on your desires? Absolutely. You should think twice about acting on your desires all the time. You should think critically about acting on your desires, however, not because you need a great reason to do what you feel like doing, but because you want to give yourself a chance to see if there are any logically or morally compelling reasons to do otherwise. If you feel like jumping off a cliff, for instance, you should ask yourself a question like “are there any logically or morally compelling reasons why I should not jump off this cliff?” If you feel like robbing a bank, you should ask yourself a question like “are there any logically or morally compelling reasons why I should not attempt robbing this bank?” If you feel like marrying someone, you should ask yourself a question like “are there any logically or morally compelling reasons why I should not marry this person?” If you feel like quitting your job, you should ask yourself a question like “are there any logically or morally compelling reasons why I should not quit this job?” Cross-checking your feelings with facts to make sure you’re not ignoring useful information is a good and necessary thing. But there’s a difference between making sure you aren’t overlooking good reasons for why you should resist your impulses versus believing you lack the permission to do what you want to do unless you can convince the world that your desires make sense. If you ever apologize for doing what you want to do, make sure you’re not apologizing for the mere fact that you’re acting on your desires. If you’re going to apologize for acting on your desires, make sure there’s a good reason to apologize.
Having interests, curiosities, and passions is a part of life. Some of those interests, curiosities, and passions will not make sense to other people. Some of those interests, curiosities, and passions will not even make sense to you. That’s okay. Desires are not these inherently evil things that we always need to defend, be afraid of, successfully explain, or easily understand. When you have a genuine interest in going after something, take an honest look at the evidence to see if there are any good arguments for why you shouldn’t move in that direction. If no such arguments exists, follow your heart. In the absence of any logically or morally compelling reason to do otherwise, let your sincerest desire be your guide.