Desires—The Nature of Desire and Passion

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 or 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 desire it.

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. Every normal parent feels 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 here.

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 Selfishness]

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 conceptual consciousness.

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 the 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, "they 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 come from?

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 those aromas.

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 reinforcement.

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, the 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 like 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 behaviors.

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 not.

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 desires.

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 everything else.

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 for us.

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 the term 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, 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 objectively.

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 their lives and makes the choices of how they will live, or they surrender 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 (11/02/04)