Thursday, 19 August 2010


Should is a big word. It always gets my attention; but usually not in a good way. I flinch when I hear should.

I used to like it though, people would say should and it would trigger an excited bubbling of mental activity as I try to identify a reason why whatever is being shoulded, should not (or vice versa). I.e. "you should keep a tidy desk" makes me think "you should not keep a tidy desk". I imagine the feeling is similar to those of an athlete or free runner, a sense of power and comfort that comes from using a well honed talent. Unfortunately, I'm a bit too good at it. This tends to mean it's not much fun for other people as a game, and as you can imagine, no fun for anyone who takes the should in question seriously. Of course from my perspective I'm taking it very seriously, seriously enough to check that it is being used properly. You see while it's a fun activity it's also very important to me.
It is difficult, however, to tell whether I find it fun because it's important (i.e. I've got good at something that I felt I should focus on and now enjoy the pleasure of being good at it) or whether I've rationalised the importance of something I enjoy (i.e. it must be important because I'm good at it, making me important). Perhaps a bit of both.

It started out simple enough; most children have a bit of rebellion in them, when their desires and their parents (or some other authority) don't match. Everyone's got that survival instinct, a need for food and attention that manifests as a tug of war between parent and child. For my parents, guilt, obligation and self worth were their weapons in this battle. I believe, at heart, this is because, like myself, they feel a strong sense of moral motivation, a need to be good and to have value and because that's how they were raised. But I have to tell you, for a sensitive boy like myself, it's not pleasant. So as a defence against my own strong emotions and these parental manipulations I started to build my own framework for evaluating should.
I think it’s an interesting reaction, because it doesn’t seem to be a common one, although I’ve met the occasional person with a similar level of emotional and moral intensity, none of them have reacted in quite the same way.

For most, the modern parenting solution seems to be consistency. Form a home life that smoothly transitions a child through their daily routine, remaining at all times a calm but implacable front. Provide a reassuring framework that a child will come to accept and embrace. A framework that is as natural and unchanging as gravity. In theory, it seems, this approach is carried through (church?), school, university and employment, in the belief that it leads to an integrated and productive member of society.
This is where the problem of should arises. In an environment based on consistency, an authority saying should is really just a signal, a signal that a ‘well adjusted’ person has come to realise indicates that if the should in question is broken, a predictable negative effect will occur. This is a sensible reaction for a learning machine and leads to what, I suspect, is the majority view of morality:
You should do what anyone who appears like an existing authority tells you to do.
In cases where authorities conflict in what they are saying, the degree to which they are like an existing trusted authority determines who is correct. In this case, the length of time they have been an authority and the degree that other authorities trust them determines their validity.
This is what I would call the “daddy knows best” philosophy, because historically the authority would always be male, with the first authority being a father.
This psychology of influence lies at the heart of a great deal of our society and our entertainment. Power over others and, for many, relative worth, is achieved by manipulating this psychology. Appearing like a person with authority becomes a priority for those with ambition and the intelligence to manipulate.
This ambition can be seen as a rational reaction for a learning machine. This is because, from childhood on, the ability to influence carries with it the opportunity to increase the likelihood of survival, and at heart, we are survival machines.
Historically, however, this system of morality limits the influence of large sections of society (women, children and men who lack opportunities to appear as legitimate authorities). I think it is the reaction to this, the natural survival drive of those not benefiting from the status quo, which leads to the development of alternatives.
Two of the main ones are:
I should do what the rules tell me to do (A formal codified morality, like a religion, etiquette or legal system).
I should do what people like me do (A consensus morality, like most teenagers).
In each case there have been revolutionary social changes brought about when one of these systems gains dominance over the others, changing how influence is obtained and what genetic traits and childhood opportunities help to achieve such influence.
In modern secular society, many people, and a lot of entertainment, view these existing forms of morality as illegitimate. I.e. you should defy authority, break the rules and be an individual. The modern morality seems to be some combination of the following:
You should do what makes you money.
You should do what makes you sexually desirable.
And the slightly less predatory
You should do what makes you loved.
You should do what keeps you healthy.
You should do what keeps you safe.
These can all be explained as survival based values (get resources, have children, get looked after, don’t get ill, don’t get attacked/burgled/invaded). Sensible enough I suppose, but is that it?
Well I guess I should also mention the environment, which seems to be a big deal these days. A bit like religions, the environment is presented as a generic good that must be supported and maintained in its current state. If not we will all suffer one of a number of vaguely described apocalyptic events. Like the morality of sex appeal this is no doubt based on some fairly sensible survival motivations, but just like sex appeal, can become a sort of fetishised combination of consensus and rule based morality. (Edit - I’m sure I’ll get some heat for that one :) )
Ok so that serves as a kind of overview of some existing perspectives that seem to explain what most people actually do (unlike most introductions to morality which immediately delve into what some old guys have said, or get people debating things without any frame of reference). It would be much more rigorous if I could map this to some kind of measurable quantity, like the categorisation of news articles, major historical changes or the spending of disposable income, but short of that we’ll stick to my intuition for now. I’m not trying to prove anything at the moment; I’m just trying to communicate a perspective. Also I should mention that I’ve got another way of looking at all this based more directly on survival motivations but I’ll save that for later.
It took me a long time to put all that into perspective. It’s very difficult to understand something when you’re inside it. You may also have realised that the key to unravelling it all is in the terms: survival and learning machines (phrases that don’t come up much in most morality discussions). How to do the unravelling and why it’s a good idea is best left for another post. For now, getting back to the big question:
What should I do?
The question remains unanswered, but at least there are a few starting points to pick from and more importantly the statements of others can now be understood in some kind of context.
By understanding why people might be feeling strongly about something, it’s much easier to be able to neutralise their influence or manipulation. Even more importantly, it offers the chance to learn from people you disagree with and would otherwise be forced to consider crazy or stupid. A necessity as the alternative is to have your own values altered by the strength of their character or powers of manipulation.

To finish, I'll leave you with some very interesting questions (for me at least), which I think get to the heart of what is truely important:

Is there a better way to determine what should be done?
What would it mean to be perfectly good in a morality (a right answer)? Is such a thing possible?

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