There Are No Shoulds

Academic moral philosophy normally deals with the question: In a world of atoms, how can there be moral “shoulds”? Where does normativity come from in a world fundamentally without norms? Standard answers: from desires, the rational will, community, God, etc.

This debate misses the essence of human flourishing. For flourishing involves seeing that there really are no shoulds at all in the fabric of the world.

Seeing this not just in the scientific sense. But seeing it in lived experience. Someone can believe that the world is made up of atoms, and affirm that the world is fundamentally non-normative. And yet at the same time they might get furious at the waiter for bringing the wrong order.

It is easy to scientifically see the world as non-normative. It takes skill and mindfulness and attention to the right things to see, in the midst of day to day life, that the world is non-normative. To see it from the inner core of our life. That is wisdom. But we don’t need a fancy word like that to talk about it. We can just say: it is merely being fully alive.

In some texts this idea is put as getting beyond one’s mind. The mind that says “this is right” and “that is wrong.” To get beyond good and evil.

Isn’t this moral nihilism? No, it isn’t. It is human excellence. To flourish as a human being is to move beyond seeing the world in terms of oughts and shoulds: of whether a person is being a good husband, or father, or professor, or person, and so on.

How can there be anything as human excellence if there are no shoulds? Easy: read “human excellence” as “human freedom.”

The deepest pain in human life boils to down thing: the mismatch between an ideal we are imposing on the world and the world itself. This is being trapped: caught in the cycle of right and wrong, judgment and guilt. There is no should of whether one ought to free themselves from this cycle. There is only the fact that wanting such freedom is as inevitable for humans as wanting to breathe. As instinctive as a bear trying to break out of a trap he is caught in.

The statement “there are no shoulds” is not a normative claim. In saying it, I am not saying someone ought to be different, better. I am saying: I care for my freedom, and so I won’t let myself be trapped by the ideal my mind and habits are seeking to impose on the world. I am saying: I will look through the claim of the ought rather than being defined by it.

What about, to use a well known moral philosophy example, setting fire to a cat? Isn’t that obviously wrong? One shouldn’t do that; so there are shoulds.

We often use “shoulds” when we are not flourishing as best as we can. We say to a child: “you shouldn’t run with scissors.” Talk of “shoulds” is a necessity for novices. For an expert, it is unnecessary. Not needed in the same way we don’t normally need to be told to breathe. Is it a normative fact that one should breathe? Do we breathe because we grasp through a normative faculty that fact?

To accept that oughts are a part of the fabric of the world is to assume that the ideal one likes matches the world. As if it were sewn into the essence of things. This is to see the world through one’s conceptual glasses to such an extent that one forgets that one is wearing those glasses. That is comforting in a moment, but ultimately painful.

Better to see the effect of the glasses, and so try to take off the glasses. To see the shadows as shadows and to walk out of the cave.

That requires not just understanding normativity. It involves actual growth as a person. To flourish and to excel at being alive, and feeling alive. Understanding without personal flourishing is only the illusion of understanding. Real understanding comes when one’s very perception of the world is changed, and one doesn’t feel the need to impose ideals onto the world through perception.

That is bliss. Freedom.

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