Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Desire vs. convention

There has been lots of debate within the gay and lesbian community about whether the embrace of marriage represents a loss of something significant for the community.  One article on the debate contained a quote from Laurie Essig that concisely captures the sentiment:

"In the past, we queers have had to beg, cheat, steal and lie in order to create our families. But it's exactly this lack of state and societal recognition that gave us the freedom to organize our lives according to desire rather than convention."

Social convention may not always provide the best framework for organizing one's life, but I'm pretty sure that desire is an even more dangerous candidate for that function.


Vischer, Rob | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Desire vs. convention :


                                                        Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"Desire n. - 1: conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment." Rob, not sure how you are defining "desire" that would make you label it as a dangerous candidate for framing one's life. I imagine nearly all of us organize our lives in the way we do because we believe that such organizing promises, on some level, enjoyment or satisfaction if attained. I read the quote as meaning that, before, they really had to *want* it to have their family, as society disapproved; and somehow that made it more special. Akin to an early underground Christians, who really had the faith and had to *want* to practice the faith (at peril of dying) vs. somebody who happens to be sitting in a pew in a modern church b/c it is convention.

Posted by: A reader | Jun 29, 2011 9:30:51 AM

Re your final line, Rob, desire is a key concept in Ignatian spirituality. From an Ignatian perspective, when we uncover our deepest desires, we find out what God wants for us, because it is God who plants his desires in our hearts.

To be sure, discerning our deepest desires takes some work, as those desires are often obscured by attachments to various things, by fear, pride, etc. And that means that not everything one might say one desires in any given moment comes from God.

But rather than being a "dangerous candidate," desire, properly understood, is the best way of organizing our lives.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jun 29, 2011 10:07:11 AM

The other definitions listed for "desire" are "longing, craving" or "sexual urge or appetite." In our society, I think "desire" has the loosest of connections to the Ignatian sense. My only point is that a feeling of desire, unhinged from any second-order principle or commitments, is dangerous for my well-being and for the social order. I may desire my neighbor's wife, but acting on that desire is a recipe for personal/social chaos. This is not an argument against SSM; it's an argument against the "beyond marriage" movement.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 29, 2011 10:37:36 AM


I suppose civilizations can be fairly judged by the extent to which they're willing to subject their desires to the scrutiny of reason and to act on what they discover. The problem is that most articulate people seem to think that civilizations should be ranked higher the less importance they give to reason. Emotional sincerity seems to be all that matters, as though it were in itself the strongest possible rational argument.


Posted by: David Smith | Jun 29, 2011 11:07:30 AM

My comment was prompted by the fact that the article you cited did not use the term "desire." You did and I think it is important to distinguish between what one might term "base" desires and true, deep desires. The failure to do so has led many people to wrongly think that all desire is a bad thing and that one should mistrust desires.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jun 29, 2011 11:07:48 AM

My comment was prompted by the fact that the article you cited did not use the term "desire." You did and I think it is important to distinguish between what one might term "base" desires and true, deep desires. The failure to do so has led many people to wrongly think that all desire is a bad thing and that one should mistrust desires.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jun 29, 2011 11:07:48 AM

The statement I quoted from the article did use the term "desire," which is what prompted my post. I agree with your broader point about desire, though I'm skeptical about our society's inclination to talk meaningfully about that more nuanced sense of desire.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 29, 2011 11:27:38 AM

sorry - I skimmed quickly and did a search and the search came up blank, so I assumed it was your word choice.

Posted by: Susan Stabile | Jun 29, 2011 12:24:13 PM

Desire, as well as love itself, is much like genius: unless directed towards the Good and the Truth, it can take one very fast in the wrong direction.

Posted by: Amelia | Jun 29, 2011 12:59:09 PM

If you watch the recent gay rights parades you will see "desire" at work. Very unpleasant and often ugly. If you doubt me then watch on youtube.

Posted by: Fr. J | Jun 29, 2011 1:53:10 PM

Rob, a nice post on an interesting issue, although I'm not sure where you actually end up on this. If you are saying desire -- of any kind, sexual, religious, or otherwise -- is a potentially dangerous element in human affairs, you're absolutely right. But that doesn't seem to me to affect the point made in the quote you give. To the extent the LGBT community had to construct lives outside or against formal convention, I imagine there was a potentially powerful, if perilous, sense of creativity, liberation, etc. in doing so. And (per Marc's "tragic" sense), it is posible to experience the domestication of desire as a "loss," even if people within and outside that community think the benefits of doing so are great and would ultimately like to reconcile their love with convention rather than experience it only as a reactionary phenomenon or a semi-political act.

As for seeing "desire" at work in gay rights parades: Well, one can see all kinds of things at gay rights parades, and some of them will be viewed as inappropriate, unpleasant, or ugly by others, including by some members of the LGBT community (including, no doubt, some gay parents). I'm not sure how that's relevant, however, except perhaps if one wants to argue that they demonstrate why it would be better on the whole for the LGBT community to organize its lives according to convention rather than desire. I'm sure many members of the pro-gay-marriage community would agree with that view. One could actually have an interesting conversation about this question, but it would have almost nothing to do with gay marriage.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 29, 2011 3:40:32 PM

I agree with Amelia. I think what I understand from this discussion is that neither "convention," nor "desire" is what makes something good. "Convention" that points toward something good is good. "Desire" for something good is good. I cannot imagine that Ignatian spirituality says that "desire" for anything is all that matters, regardless of whether or not it is good. I certainly hope that Ignatian spirituality means to say that desire can be a useful way of choosing among several goods.

Posted by: Ben | Jun 29, 2011 4:24:02 PM

Rob, "desire" does have other meanings, as you note, but the one I quoted was listed "1", which is usually the most common. You say you doubt society's ability to speak of desire in a more nuanced way. Given the definition I list is number one, I don't think the conversation has to be so nuanced, as the word simply means just what you want (which could be a good, profound thing ... or not). I've always liked the phrase 'my heart's desire' and thought it meant something pure, good. I hate to see "desire" (the word) come only to mean something tawdry; I guess you've decided that already is the most common understanding. May be. Wasn't mine. I detest how economists twisted the word "rational" to mean money-maximizing: if someone chooses an action that is not money-maximizing, it is somehow not rational, or not in the person's rational self-interest ...when, in fact, the joy of the action is so immense and so profound it most certainly *is* in the person's rational self-interest to do, if not money-maxizing. Hate to see 'desire' only mean tawdry.

Posted by: A reader | Jun 29, 2011 5:14:03 PM

Paul, good point. I guess it depends how we interpret such laments about the loss of desire as the primary norm for the ordering of one's life. If it's simply a recognition that something has been lost, I don't have a problem with that. (Bracketing, for the moment, questions regarding the substance of whatever desire may be at issue in a particular case.) But if the lament is more along the lines of "And this loss is too much to bear; desire must maintain its primacy," then that's the point at which I jump off the train. And to be clear, I'm not offering convention as the only, or as the preferable, alternative. It seems to me that norms such as commitment, obligation, and accountability often stand in tension with both desire and convention. (Susan might argue that the tension between these other norms and desire emanate from our misuse/misunderstanding of "desire," but I'm talking about the use of desire in common discourse.)

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 29, 2011 5:18:19 PM

A reader: I agree that we shouldn't just abandon "desire" properly understood. I guess I'm just trying to respond to what I read as the underlying sentiment reflected in the quote. Maybe the quote is consistent with the more noble, fulsome sense of desire, in which case I would not object to its use as the normative value for ordering our lives, though I would then object to deploying it as a justification for abandoning the life-ordering capacity of institutional marriage (same-sex or otherwise).

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 29, 2011 5:47:11 PM

Anyone who thinks gay pride parades reveal the true nature of gay people should take a look at XXX clips, available in abundance on the Internet, of what heterosexual men and women do during Mardi Gras.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jun 29, 2011 5:49:04 PM

What we should desire as followers of Jesus Christ, is to seek to do God's Will.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Jun 29, 2011 8:55:06 PM

Just on Paul's little incisive intervention, and Rob's per usual smart reaction (and please forgive my one-track mind, but since Paul raised it...):

As Paul knows, one difficulty that I was challenged with (Chad Flanders was the instigator) at our conference was what exactly we ought to regret. If someone really loves to (or, for purposes of this post, "desires to") chew gum, and that person is forced not to do so, is that a loss just like any other about which one ought to feel regret? If one chooses the life of a committed and monogamous spouse (to be sure, a "conventional" life) over the life of the abandoned thrill of adultery (Madame Bovary), should the regret that one feels about having abandoned the latter life count?

Thanks to some of the comments I got, I can think of two ways to delimit the idea of regret -- a moral way and an experiential way. One could say that it's only losses with moral salience or power that we ought to regret. I think that might well knock out the gum-chewing case; we can agree that whatever values are implicated by gum-chewing, they are not morally salient values. Conceivably we could do the same with experientially significant values -- sure, someone might experience gum-chewing as intensely important, but by and large people don't feel the way they do about religious liberty (or marriage) the way they do about gum-chewing.

The case of, let's say, adultery is more difficult than the case of gum-chewing. The experiential answer is less powerful in this case. If we used the moral criterion, we could say, look, sure there's loss by choosing against the life of adultery, but it isn't a choice between two values which we, in our considered moments, think is one between two equally morally viable options. In fact, feeling too acutely the loss involved in choosing against the life of adultery might indicate some kind of character failure -- an undesirable egoism, for example. But I acknowledge the Flaubertian point that Paul is making too -- though I think it can be countered at least partially effectively by Rob's answer.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jun 29, 2011 9:37:17 PM

Well said, Marc, but are we getting closer to a point where it is difficult to differentiate the moral from the experiential -- i.e., where the subjectivity of moral truth boils down to the subjectivity of experiential value?

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 29, 2011 11:53:10 PM

very interesting comments made the quote look different from how it originally reads
i almost expect Ms. Essig proceed, "choosing convention over desire would be replacing religion with morality, persisting on our strong reasoning vs. accepting God's will and hoping for His grace"
hmm, it's an Augustine, of some other religion

Posted by: elena | Jun 30, 2011 2:21:53 AM

Marc, thanks. I'm just not sure how much you ought to delimit regret, or why. I understand the importance of distinguishing between "trivial" and "non-trivial" regrets, kind of an analog to the "is religion special" argument. And I could imagine doing so on the basis of what is morally salient or powerful. But I don't think you should do it on the basis of what is morally "viable." If we didn't experience morally non-viable (by some lights) choices as powerful choices backed by powerful urges, we wouldn't much need a theory of tragedy in the first place. And failures of character, again, are a powerful and tragic part of the human condition. Both the adulterer and the desire-guided LGBT (or straight person) offer good examples. In neither case are these impulses just about license or lazy pleasure-seeking. They involve powerful experiences, a questing after freedom or self-definition, following the dictates of the heart, etc. None of which is meant to validate these choices (although I don't want to trivialize them either; adultery can be both wrong and emancipatory, both destructive and creative), just to urge you not to be too quick to try to dissolve what is tragic about them, and about human life. And perhaps that supplies my partial answer to Rob: I'm not trying to stick up for those who simply put desire above convention, or I suppose vice versa; I'm just trying to retrieve what is powerful about each of those choices.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 30, 2011 8:07:31 AM

Paul: I agree, and part of what makes desire both so powerful and potentially tragic is the tension it creates with social convention, commitment, etc. That tension is there for good reason, in recognition of the real cost of disregarding those other legitimate norms. The danger in some of the arguments I see in "beyond marriage" rhetoric lies not in giving desire its due, but in failing to give these other norms their due.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 30, 2011 9:16:20 AM

David, that is the point. The XXX stuff is not done or seen in public. You would get arrested. They have a sense of shame at least and keep it private. Unlike the homosexual rights lobby who celebrate by showing this behavior publicly.

Posted by: Fr. J | Jun 30, 2011 11:17:30 AM

Rob, it might help my understanding if you choose some word other than "desire" to set against "social convention" and "commitment" as things in tension. Seems to me the now social convention of traditional marriage, with its admirable commitment, grew out of properly ordered desire; desire is not something in tension. Further, I see the "social convention" aspect of it all as the lesser of everything. Marriage born of properly ordered desire? Wonderful. Commitment? Ditto. That it's all a social convention? Not so important, or not as important as the underlying wonderfulness and motivating aspects.

Posted by: A reader | Jun 30, 2011 1:14:22 PM

Maybe "ungoverned desire?" Or "unchannelled desire?" One purpose of Family Law, it seems, is to channel our desires toward ends that promote social stability, etc.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 30, 2011 1:29:51 PM

"One purpose of Family Law, it seems, is to channel our desires toward ends that promote social stability, etc."

Rob, do know any family law scholars?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jun 30, 2011 1:34:25 PM

That's, 'do you know any family law scholars'? The carelessness of provocation...

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jun 30, 2011 1:40:58 PM

Paul gave an idea:
can the gay movement produce a hero? can we witness a tragedy? a fight of equals on the arena of life? (just as exciting as Tsonga's match against Federer the other day, only more uplifting, because it's not about tennis skills but about human spirit)
a hero means first of all a powerful will; willing above traditions, social conventions, biological instincts
he is fighting the divine order (as titans fought against gods in Greek tragedies) or another equally strong will
can anything like this be born in LGBT movement?
is Harvey Milk a hero?

Posted by: elena | Jun 30, 2011 3:06:55 PM

I'm sorry, Elena, but I didn't quite understand your comment.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 30, 2011 3:13:22 PM

Marc: granted, this channelling function is not exactly in vogue at the moment, but it is out there. Mitt Regan has done good work along these lines, and Don Browning approached the same theme from a theological perspective.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jun 30, 2011 4:13:44 PM

Although it is true that it is the duty of the Government to secure and protect our inherent, unalienable Right to be treated with Dignity and Respect, any person who affirms the engaging in or condoning of demeaning sexual acts is denying the Right of all persons to be treated with Dignity and Respect. How could someone who would deny the inherent, unalienable Right of all human individuals to be treated with Dignity and Respect be considered a "hero "?

Posted by: Nancy D. | Jun 30, 2011 4:19:51 PM