Desire and Duty in Everyday Life: The Narrative of Ethics by Aaron Perry
C.S. Lewis argued that before writing a story, two elements must be considered: desire and duty. The story begins with the Author’s desire. Something captures the author that he or she needs to get out. Before the writing process begins, however, the story should be considered for its value as well. So consider the would-be storywriter from two angles: the Author and the Person. The would-be writer as a Person must answer not only, “Do I want to write this?” but also, “Should the story be written?” The story can only emerge if the writer has a desire, and the story should only be written if it contributes to the benefit of humankind (duty). Both desire and duty are necessary for this free action to be rightfully taken.
Much popular ethical reflection still begins with desire: what does the “Author” of one’s own life want? However, the check or restriction on one’s desire is almost never the “Person’s” duty. Instead, desire is checked only by how one’s desire impacts the desires of another. The result is a spirit of permissiveness as long as one’s desires do not hinder another’s desires.
But duty still sneaks into the conversation. Think about how often you hear people say that they “owe it to themselves” or need to “be true to themselves” or “deserve to get my rights.” These phrases communicate something important about ethical deliberation. The individual cannot be swallowed up by the community entirely; however, without an objective reality (whether family, community, the Divine, a friend), duty crumples into a simple reaffirmation of subjective desire. Duty to oneself – “I owe it to myself” – is moral language repurposed to express individual desire. In effect, we become our own standards of right and wrong: your moral duty is to identify and fulfill your desire.
In postmodernity, a common move has been to find others with similar desires. Intentionally or not, one may then ground the pursuit of one’s own desire as duty to this community. In this way, desire is carefully hidden in the name of duty for one’s community. In case this feels abstract, consider how the mindset has impacted political communities. The postmodern political move has been to galvanize these communities linked by desire, using the underlying fear of tyranny from those who are “not like us” or whose desires are different. It’s not a phobia: human beings do master and control one another on big and small scales. The final result is communities of desire with self-justifying duty against other communities of desire with self-justifying duty. This complexity then requires a political solution who breaks in from beyond. Hail the political hero who is “not an insider,” who is “just like one of us.”
In contrast to this kind of politics, the Christian narrative teaches that there is no true outsider except for Jesus: the one whose life truly reveals ourselves and whose life truly reveals God; the one who so truly reveals because he is both God and human. In him, desire and duty are unified: his duty to the Father is his desire, and his desire to please the Father through the power of the Spirit drives his faithfulness to his duty.
Here the Christian community, especially in the local church, provides a correcting and prophetic word to other political allegiances. The unity of the church doesn’t come from shared desires with other members: the unity of the church is in its leader. There is membership not in what is owed to ourselves, but in what is owed to Christ because we are now in him. The local church provides an all too flesh-and-blood community that puts us in covenant relationship to other people in Christ not simply in the abstract, but concretely to the man or woman in the seat next to us at our small group or in worship. The politics of allegiance in the church is not simply of desire, but of duty to one another—the actual person—in Christ.
The Christian story, in the form of this community, does not merely affirm that Jesus is the Savior, but that through Christ we will be conformed to his image, too: our lives, from the inside out, will be remade, and any split between desire and duty perfectly healed.