An AI generated image that shows a human hand reaching towards what looks like an ancient sculpture head

The term “Desire Laundering” and some thoughts on “Desire Laundering” and Antiquities


Not about crime, all about practical reasoning

The term desire laundering comes from philosophical discussions of the concept of practical reasoning, “the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do” (Wallace 2003) or more simply put “figuring out what to do”(Zalta 2005). Coming from studies of rational choice, “the process of determining what options are available and then choosing the most preferred one according to some consistent criterion” (Lavin 2004) there is a conception of practical reality in which “people act rationally to the extent they do what is likely to bring about the best state of affairs, given both their preferences over the outcomes that may be brought about through their agency and their beliefs about the probability of those outcomes” (Wallace 2003). This is an idea that people ‘maximise’ their actions towards their most desirable result, towards self-interest. Yet for this construction to work, people have to sometimes make errors, they need to be able to not achieve the best state of affairs (Lavin 2004). Lavin (2004) quotes Bennett (1989) on the topic: “For a creature to be correctly said to have a rule, it is necessary that it should be able to break the rule…There is no normatively if you cannot be wrong”. People at times override or ignore their “overall preferences” as they attempt “to satisfy their current strongest desire” (Wallace 2003). To be rational, people must have the ability to be irrational and inconsistent.

Yet with this concept of maximisation comes an important first step of determining which desires are valid and worth following: desire laundering. Wallace (2003) states that “[a] popular form of laundering” would see a person applying maximisation to “only those desires that would survive if the agent were factually well-informed about the objects of desire and the circumstances of action and deliberating in a calm and focused frame of mind.” This sees desire laundering as a “correction of desires” which allows a person to determine which desires would be objectively rational to act upon and towards (Wallace 2003). Goodin (1995) puts forward a somewhat similar concept in his “preference laundering”, which focuses on the idea that if a person’s preferences seem “dirty”, they can then be “laundered” before they are discarded. If something is wrong about a preference (or a desire), people are not required to put aside that preference to still be a rational actor. The preference can be cleaned in various ways. But what about a person who is not factually well-informed, and, importantly, does not know this? What about the desires that survive the laundering process because of a mistaken interpretation of factual information? “In situations of this kind, it may be subjectively rational for us to strive to satisfy our actual desires, even if some of those desires would not survive correction of our mistaken but blameless factual beliefs” (Wallace 2003).

Thus, in moral philosophy, desire laundering is a process of applying a rational framework towards one’s desires in the process of deciding how to act. That framework is idealised as being based on fact in order to maximise a desired outcome, but in some circumstances a person is mistaken about what is factual or accurate, meaning that desires that should have been excluded during laundering are not. People act on those improperly laundered desires.

With that in mind, I put forward that others may have an interest in encouraging a person to launder certain desires. To consider this scenario, we must consider the question: How can a person who stands to gain from the maintenance of someone else’s desire increase the chance that said desire will survive the laundering process when, based on complete and accurate information, that desire should fail and be discarded? To sharpen the point and bring it directly into the case of antiquities, how can the owner of an unappealing antiquity encourage someone to buy it when, rationally, the piece should be ignored? I argue here that they do this by mimicking the social constructions of appeal so that a potential buyer feels that their desire is rational.

If we move directly from the definition of desire laundering from moral philosophy, one might call the process that the seller undertakes to encourage the laundering of less desirable object “desire laundering laundering”. However, I find that to be needlessly long and confusing. Further, and despite the discussion I offered above, the term “desire laundering” has only been used in a limited and indirect way within philosophical discussions and it is ripe for constructive and related use. Instead, I propose a directionality break with the limited prior use of the term, to focus on external actions that a desirer responds to rather than how the desirer internally justifies their own desire. In this paper, I instead use the term “desire laundering” to include the actions of external actors, usually the owners of the objects, who engage processes that clean the desirability of potentially-marketable objects, in this case antiquities. This cleaning, or laundering, process ultimately allows the antiquities to become or remain desirable to rational actors who may not have desired the objects had the process not occurred.

Metaphorically speaking, to make something clean is not inherently or even usually negative. Still, drawing upon the original construction of the term, desire laundering can be seen as a process by which someone determines the right thing to do. Desire laundering uses the metaphor of cleansing to present how objects are made more desirable within the structures and contexts they are consumed within. It is true issues such as poor provenance, past looting or trafficking, or allegations of inauthenticity might mean desire for an antiquity must be laundered prior to sale. It is equally true that desire laundering can be used to improve the value and validity of objects that have other undesirable aspects that have nothing to do with crime or fraud. Desire laundering can increase the desirability of antiquities that, to name a few examples, were once owned by someone unappealing, that are of an unpopular style, that are ugly, or that simply are not currently financially valued at as much as the owner would like.

That said, while illegality is not implied by the term “desire laundering”, some of these cleansing behaviours which include professional and institutional involvement rest at the edges of disciplinary and professional codes of ethics. They are normative grey spaces which should be monitored, considered, and discussed.


Bennett, Jonathan. 1989. Rationality: An Essay towards an Analysis. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett.

Goodin, Robert E. 1995. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press.

Lavin, Douglas. 2004. ‘Practical Reason and the Possibility of Error’. Ethics 114 (3): 424–57.

Wallace, R. Jay. 2003. ‘Practical Reason’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford: Stanford University.

Zalta, Edward N. 2005. ‘Practical Reason and the Structure of Actions’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.