Want (1), Want (2), and the transcendental good

Charles Young once served as a dissertation advisor to someone who researched how many persons are killed each year by rocking vending machines in an effort to get them to dispense free product. Turns out, twenty-five. Young would use this as an example of a time when, if you saw something doing this, you’d tell him “you don’t want to do that”. But focus on the sense of “want” in that sentence. It gets used all the time, but it is quite different from what we usually take the word want to mean. We all know that there is some sense in which a guy who is rocking a vending machine wildly with his arm up jammed in it up to the elbow wants to be doing just what he is doing, but he would still understand what we would mean if we told him he didn’t want to do it. So let’s distinguish

1.) Want (1). Is the want in “you don’t want to do that” or “you really want to figure out another way of getting a soda”

2.) Want (2) This is the want in sense that the guy with his arm up the machine wants to do what he is doing.

If you divide these senses of “want” then we can give a very good account of the transcendental good as whatever a thing wants (1). “Want” is here used in a loose enough sense to include how we use it when we say “this sodium atom combined with chlorine because it wanted eight valence electrons” or “the temperature dropped when you dropped the pressure because the gas wanted to preserve the constant.”  But in spite of being used so broadly, the sense is not vacuous: it is still univocally a want (1) as opposed to a want (2).

This helps to make sense of why Aristotle would say such otherwise odd things as “the good is what all things desire” or STA would say “everything desires its own perfection”. If we specify that we mean want (1), the statements are axiomatic, whereas if we mean want (2) they are certainly false, perhaps even necessarily false.

The temptation is to say that want (1) and want (2) are analogous, but this is not right. Rather, want (2) is a corruption or privation of want (1). Want (2), in fact, is not a type of want, in the same way that a broken car is not a kind of car (it is not a sedan, a sports car, a coupe, etc.) and artificial leather is not a sort of leather (even if it can perform some leather-like activities). Want (2) is a certain failure to want, even if one very familiar to us. This is why Socrates can argue in the Gorgias that the wicked man and tyrant never does what he wants. In fact, when we distinguish want (1) and want (2) we can make a more seamless transition from the transcendental good to the moral good, and back again.


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