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C O U R S E 
Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science
Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Laozi and The Desires of the Eye
Notes taken on August 29, 2016 by Edward Tanguay
the desires of the belly
simple desires which constitute our basic nature
few and finite
the desires of the eye
the things you can see that are far away that you don't have
that's the problem with them: they aren't things that are here that we are appreciating with our belly
created by society and socialization
they are infinite
society can keep churning out new things that we might want
they are insatiable
where the desires of the belly are few and finite
the desires of the eye are infinite
desires of belly satisfy our basic nature
desires of the eye lead us away from our nature
desire of the eye for Laozi
sophisticated tastes that Confucian culture is trying to impose on the population
taste for music
appreciation of fine foods
how to sit properly
how to dress the right way
Laozi feels that developing sophisticated tastes is a terrible idea
the desires of the eye in modern advertising
has a tendency to create endless new desires
endless new things to chase
distorts our idea of what it is we need to be content and happy
the most obvious example fo this is SUVs
this phenomenon in North America of people driving these SUVs
the got bigger and bigger
there was the Escalade and that wasn't big enough so they had the Hummer
why are people driving these vehicles?
often the furthest off roads they get is the supermarket
it's a good example of a ramping up of what you think you need
you see this behind any kind of lifestyle marketing
luxury items
luxury condos
luxury hotels
sold by convincing people that there is a new way of being that we are not yet experiencing yet but we could be
you see these people in the advertisements that kind of look like you but they're better looking and happier
so whatever you're doing is not quite enough
but it's right around the corner
if you could just purchase this condo
you will then have this new lifestyle which is better than the one you have now
the problem is, once you get this lifestyle, there will be another lifestyle that is slightly better which you can also purchase
modern consumerism
corporations want to sell you new products
they don't want you to be happy with the product you have
we are always chasing the next fashion
the Daodejing and the primitivist movement
a reaction against this consumerist problem
resonates later attempts to oppose capitalism, consumerism and large economies
Henry David Thoreau
had similar insights
"The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same."
there is a human thirst for new patterns
corporations are driving this and making money off of our need for this
we have perfectly good clothes and yet we go clothes shopping
Laozi's solution to the constant creation of artificial needs
"know the contentment of contentment"
know to be content with what you have
but this depends on having simple nature which does not always need the newest thing
avoid the hedonistic treadmill
the need to have new things is probably built into human psychology
pleasures are fleeting
people who win the lottery
had an immediate bump in happiness, they revert back to thei baseline happiness level
the same is true for negative events
you eventually return to the state of happiness you previously had
probably has to do with a phenomenon called adaptation
when we are exposed to a stimulus, at a certain point we stop noticing it
if we didn't have this, we would be paralyzed by too much information
a feature of animal sensory systems so that we can note minute changes
you don't want to be constantly focusing on all the leaves moving and all the wind blowing
you want to notice a twig snapping
this extends to hedonistic pleasure
we become used to a certain amount of pleasure and well-being until it becomes merely background information and we look for particular points where we don't have certain pleasures and well-being and concern ourselves with getting more
the emotional reactions to value in the world seem to follow a similar trajectory
this also explains things called the GDP puzzle
within a society, typically the richer you get the happier you get, up to a certain point
it tends to level out once you get your basic needs met
but if you have a society with a very high GDP and a very low GDP, the happiness levels tend to not differ that much
it seems to be that people adapt to their level of material wealth
you have a warm place to live and food on your place
when you have been starving this is an amazing thing, your happiness levels spike
then you adapt to it an it just becomes part of your life
you get used to having food on the table
the you want really nice food on the table
happiness as keeping up
it seems to be the case that absolute levels of pleasure and comfort and well-being as relative levels
in terms of happiness, whatever you make as a salary is not quite as important as what my salary is relative to my neighbors
relative wealth seems more important than absolute wealth
people seem more sensitive to rank among other than to absolute status
we don't care so much about absolute prosperity but where we are in the pecking order
this characteristics of humans seems to make sense at an evolutionary level
if you are going design animals that fight to survive, you probably want to design into them the desire to find it important where they fit in compared to other animals
you would want to design animals to be less like the slacker Jeff "the Dude" Lobowski
and more like the Kevin Spacey character in House of Cards, never satisfied with where he ranks among other people and is always scheming about the next person he is going to knock off
in this way the Laozian concept of the desires of the eye being a corruption of human nature is problematic as an accurate description of human beings
so when Laozian is talking about the dangers of the desires of the eye, it makes more sense to understand this as a normative claim than an accurate description of how human beings actually are
Laozi, or the authors of the Daodejing, seemed to be aware that it was a natural tendency to desire too much
but the Confucians were exacerbating it
the advice of Laozi is to retreat and not partake