Some may not be aware of it (don’t worry you’re not aware of most things that are true, what’s one more?) but Hume is actually the main intellectual predecessor for the Liberal notion that Reason cannot tell us what to desire. The idea of egalitarian desires is one that seems plausible ignoring both Consequentialism and the very levels and forms of pleasure derived from the desires themselves. Though Reason cannot prevent us from desiring the irrational, the Cynics show their brilliance by showing that much of our suffering (particularly in more modern First World nations) comes from craving what we shouldn’t have or don’t require for happiness or virtue. The most obvious of such desires being that of a sexual nature and the romantic impulse which appears out of the sexual inclination for some with a certain psychology. Spinoza was apt to point out that Reason cannot dissuade us from our desires (always effectively) but it can none-the-less tell us which desires are of a higher value than others. Both on the nature of their consequences and their very nature the higher-cultured impulses (art, science, philosophy, etc.) are superior; for not only are they conducive to great fruits (technology, wisdom, right action, etc) but they themselves are the highest pleasures they produce. The mind is most content when it is active in speculation, unfettered from distractions and exterior stimuli no matter how essential this aspect of survival and human existence is.
Though the reward for the more base pleasures of humanity may be greater momentarily, not only do the rewards of the intellect last longer but they become over time a significant aspect and form of utility for the individual. Sex and drugs however despite their appeal to the brain lack any form of utility save reproduction which is undesired by many if not most who are burdened with newly forming life; and not only this but there are various ways that the Hedonistic pleasures degrade both the human character and the individual’s life or quality of living through general health, addiction and the possibility of disease. Also drugs and sex create a dependency in other individuals which is unhealthy and prevents one from being sovereign in their psychological needs and quality of living. Other humans are of course necessary for a high standard of living, but relaying on others for entertainment, happiness or value in one’s-self fundamentally is to become not a being who is first-and-foremost a thing-in-itself, striving for greatness for its own sake. We all of course enjoyment and a sense of moral obligation to others – and not only is this not objectionable but necessary for a healthy psychology. However if one sees their self as first-and-foremost a being that requires other for their happiness and greatest flowering of potential, then one is independent on them and value is not truly their desired goal but rather at-best the effects of value whether it be happiness and health in others or the nourishing of one’s Ego.
Not only does the notion that all desires are of equal value prove itself detrimental (if not untenable) psychologically but politically. Referring back to Liberalism, it seems common in Liberal society to refer to the market even for one’s source of value in society. Such being the case, in a Capitalist society where one’s job in-relation to market-value and consumption become virtues, anything no matter how immoral it is not only becomes something that is justifiable but even virtuous. If Reason cannot tell us what desires are of higher quality and should be followed, then essentially all desires (particularly the ones that any culture encourages and has as a common trait in society) become of equal importance to any other, and the only matter one has in life is fulfilling one’s almost constant barrage of desires rather than sublimating them into something of higher value which is one of the more ennobling qualities of mankind. There can be no improvement in humans then, or rather, the only improvements one can have in life is having one’s most base and quickly returning desires be fulfilled more quickly and a greater sense of numbed satisfaction – clearly the novel Brave New World is a perfect representation of a perfect world if the satisfaction of desire (any desire) is the highest and most desirable end human beings can achieve.
Essentially what the Humean attitude of Hume and Bentham creates politically is a complete lack of regard for Scientific Socialism. For if we cannot reason what to desire then we cannot effectively reason how to manage our resources to create a society where the higher and more just aspects of humanity are given credence. After all, in a Liberal Democratic society the urge to consume and grow bloated in size and in self-satisfaction, but one has moved away from (at-least in most of the common, the perverse still exist especially in those who believe that humans must be cultivated to obey their masters) from the most perverse and detrimental of desires being that of conquering others and to act under the requirements of rampant Nationalism or religious fundamentalism. If all desires are equal then how is the impulse of a father to see his son be educated and brought up with the chance of a good and decent life surpass a father who is despotic towards his son, nay beats him, and raises him to believe that the Sun rotates ‘round the Earth and a God created it in six days? Either Consequentialism or a more ethical form of Deontology would correct this view, but if one bases morals out of human sentiment, it seems – at-least to myself – that there is no way to defend higher impulses and sentiments especially since (at the very-least throughout the majority of human history) the most base and barbaric of human impulses seem to be the most common. Most human beings have goodness, or rather good impulses within them and motivating them, but they also have warped desires sprung both out of biology and upbringing.
It seems then that Kierkegaard is the logical end of Hume’s solipsism. For if all truth is nothing more than what is given to us by the sense, and Reason is utterly impotent, then my senses (desires, fears, loves, etc) must either be the truth or there simply is no criteria at-all for truth. All useful knowledge we of course absorb via sense data, but it is necessary to apply Reason to create an accurate model of reality otherwise all science amounts to nothing but child’s play of watch and name. The same-so applies to the hierarchy of values and to ethics. If it was simply nothing but our desires and inclinations, then no reflection would be required and all could act on their impulses so long as they seemed to not be hazardous in nature (that is they weren’t experienced as hazardous or unpleasant; which actually many of the worse motivations – steal, kill, rape – people possess do on some level to give the Moral Sentimentalists credit) they could simply act on impulse – and therefore ethics as understood as a field of inquiry as well as value-theory as inquiring the nature of the Good would not be necessary or beneficial save as another form of pleasure.
It is Liberalism that teaches us that all desires are sound (save perhaps those that would have us use or endorse force, at-least on the individual level) and therefore the desires of the Rich to exploit the Poor and give him low levels of material compensation for his freedom justified – as is the desire to be a slave and not be independent in action and thought. For in-effect when one endorses the egalitarian nature of all desire, what one is essentially saying is that the most unhealthy and unbecoming of desires (essentially to be a mental slave, or “herd values” as Nietzsche calls them) are not objectionable. Not only this, but they are in equal value to the highest values and sentiments human beings are capable of feeling and professing. It is the weak person’s way of justifying his moral crimes if he cannot claim that piety and sacrifice in the form of sacrificing his integrity to slavery is a value and in-a-sense mandatory as the religious are known to express implicitly. What we see here is not sacrifice to a higher good but sacrifice in renunciation of the good. This is one of the few good points Ayn Rand ever had, though it was made better if memory serves by Max Stirner and she then uses such logic to express contempt for all forms of sacrifice and aid to others out of moral goodness.
No system can persistently or comprehensively practice this type of “desire as the standard” however. For although Kierkegaard preaches that “subjectivity is truth” he claims that we are all in despair even when we are unaware of it and the only way to escape this unfelt doom is surrendering to God. But if my own perception is “my own truth” as the more hippy-dippy people like to say taking Phenomenology and attempting to turn it into a hard science, then how can Kierkegaard say that I’m in despair when I don’t perceive myself or rather experience myself in such macabre spirits? One could compare this with Freudian Psychoanalysis but there is a clear distinction.
Kierkegaard would have us believe that we possess “our own truth” and say then that our truths are circumvent to his. Freud however merely wants to analyze the human consciousness and express that as animals and material beings, our true motivations (in a psychological rather than phenomenogical sense) in terms of causation are at-times unknown to us. For example, we may think we want a person’s love because we think we love them or feel a great deal of affection for them. On the surface there is no denying that the experience is structured as-so, and yet it is entirely possible that one wants another’s affection out of either a need for encouragement or satisfaction of the Ego that one is not willing to admit to one’s self. Especially in ages of Puritanical repression where one could not even be honest (even to one’s self perhaps, though I wonder how conclusively one could deny one’s most fundamental truths – like craving sex when one states they want to marry and raise children to be a good Christian for example) about one’s inner-most motivations, though they were typically apparent. The same on a lower level is true today, though the need to mask one’s true intentions is less; there is likely evolutionary reasons for this type of deception that will make it a cultural constant whether it manifests itself in religious structures or not. Deception of both others and our self seems to be something that is necessary (at-least for many) for healthy functioning as Freud noted in his plagiarisms of Nietzsche. It seems to me that Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, this self-defined individual who accepts life (and himself, though is constantly trying to improve himself) as it is is the closest thing humanely possible to one who does not block out reality or one’s own nature and motivations but instead attempts to only work on the higher inclinations and mold his very desires to his liking – demanding perhaps the impossible in the latter-case but it seems that over time through we can to a limited extent become the “self-defined beings” Kierkegaard and Nietzsche talk about. For if the brain naturally enacts the synapses that are activated the most, if one is given a certain degree of control or restraint that is perceived as free will, then one can choose not to act on anxiety for example which in my own experience as shown to have said anxiety diminish not only in the present but in the amount and severity of any given reoccurrences.
This aspect of humanity, perhaps not in its existence but in its significance is what the Theory of Moral Sentiment ignores or is oblivious to. For not only should we forever strive for greater justice (which is itself a moral impulse that varies) and opportunity of greater inclinations in society, but more fundamentally strive for greater impulsions in character in one’s self – said moral impulses being necessary to strive for visceral recognition and action of the good in one’s self as well as in society, both being decided and guided by Reason. That is what is moral being ultimately decided by Reason as Kant understood and using Reason to sort through one’s inclinations to find the most reasonable and moral. Said impulses in character being alongside with Reason and intelligence to be paramount in the utilization of Reason and intellect, otherwise the most noble of Man’s virtues will never exist, in the sense that they will never have grounds to be acted upon. For though Reason can tell us what to desire, it cannot have us desire it. Anyone who has dated someone not suited for them while a more suitable partner is in their grasps but holds no sway for them will surely be privy to this distinction.