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Ethics as Dimensions of Desire

Lincoln Cannon

6 December 2015 (updated 9 October 2023)

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You and I begin with desires, physical and spiritual, that we seek to fulfill as the purpose of our respective lives. To the extent that we fulfill these desires, we experience joy. To the extent that our desires conflict, within ourselves or between each other, we experience misery.

We may each extend love to each other and reflectively on ourselves. As that love works on us, moving us to reconcile our desires, we experience greater joy. To the extent that love empowers us to reconcile all our desires, and to the extent that we fulfill all our reconciled desires, physical and spiritual, we experience fullness of joy.

In previous posts, I have used the Mormon authoritative tradition to illustrate this relation between desire, joy, and love. My position is that desire entices us to embrace ethics, based on four principles:

  1. Joy Is the Purpose of Life
  2. Joy Is Fulfillment of Desire
  3. Love Is the Duty of Life
  4. Love Is Reconciliation of Desire

Together, these principles form a model for ethics. To help describe the model, I’ll use a metaphor drawn from a psalm of David:

“The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” (Psalm 23: 1-6)

The love of God fills David’s cup of desires to fullness of joy – and beyond. This metaphor is also expressed in other traditions and cultures. One of my favorite examples is that of the Emperor of Japan, who drank sake, a traditional Japanese drink, from an overflowing square cup, a masu, perhaps somewhat as described here:

“We’re in Japan at a restaurant. I’m staring down at the small glass of sake, filled to the brim and literally overflowing with sake, sitting right in the middle of a square wooden cup. ‘Do you know why it is full like that?’ Sensai asks. I shake my head no. ‘Because,’ he continues, ‘it makes you feel good when there is lots of sake, and it’s spilling over the sides like that. So then you have to drink some,’ Sensai explains as he sips off the excess, ‘and then you pour this back in again.’ Sensai demonstrates by pouring the overflow from the wooden cup into the glass. ‘Then you feel like you’re getting a lot of sake!’ he beams. Yeah!” (“Hikari”, Newsletter of Aikido Association of America Western States, Volume 4, Issue 2, Page 3)

Imagine this filled and overflowing square cup of desires as a model for ethics. Love is the breadth of the cup from front to back. Joy is the breadth of the cup from side to side. Desire (and analogs of desire like will, rule, and law) is the depth of the cup, which, if filled from front to back and from side to side to overflowing, is the purpose of life.

Dimensions of Desire

Love, the breadth of the cup from front to back, consists of two parts. The back is love within and of self, and the front is love from and beyond self.

Joy, the breadth of the cup from side to side, also consists of two parts. The left is the spiritual aspect of joy, and the right is the physical aspect.

Dimensions of Ontics in Desire

Joy and love, the two breadths of the cup, consist of four parts when inter-related. First, the inter-relation of love within and of self to spiritual joy is the individual quadrant. Second, the inter-relation of love within and of self to physical joy is the anatomy quadrant. Third, the inter-relation of love from and beyond self to spiritual joy is the community quadrant. Fourth, the inter-relation of love from and beyond self to physical joy is the environment quadrant.

Dimensions of Ontics

As each of us fulfills our physical desires, the anatomy quadrant of the cup fills. And as each of us fulfill our spiritual desires (according to individual will), the individual quadrant of the cup fills. Likewise, as we reconcile our physical desires (according to environmental law), the environment quadrant of the cup fills. And as we reconcile our spiritual desires (according to communal rule), the community quadrant of the cup fills.

Dimensions of Ethics

Of course, no one of the quadrants can fill independent of the others. Thus, to fulfill and reconcile anatomical desires, I must fulfill and reconcile individual wills, communal rules, and environmental laws as well. When I fulfill and reconcile all of these, all my desires, all our desires, and all God’s desires and their analogs, the square cup runs over.

What is good? Is it good because God says so? Or does God say so because it’s good? If it’s good independent of any God, how so? Is it good inherently or consequentially? These are the questions I asked as I began this series of posts, and perhaps have now answered in a manner that you had not previously considered.

Desire invites us to embrace ethics. Invited, we accept, at least long enough to consider its appeal. As we fulfill desire, we experience a measure of joy. As we reconcile desire, our joy becomes full. Enamored of and enjoying desire’s appeal, we embrace its fulness in reconciliation as our purpose and duty.

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