It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that it can be extremely difficult to do something when you sense you are being forced into it.

—David D. Burns, Feeling Good

Today I taught a class on modal verbs. This is my favorite subject to teach in English, since modal verbs are the most philosophical area of the language. What is the difference between will and would? Between can and could? Between may and might?

Every time I teach this lesson, I pause on the word “should.” I have the following problem. Very often we use the word “should” for recommendations, such as: “You should avoid eating at McDonalds.” In this situation, there is no moral element; we are telling our friend to avoid McDonalds for his own benefit, not for any ethical reason.

In other situations, “should” has an unambiguously moral connotation, as in: “You should always leave a tip in the United States.” Here, we are being exhorted to do something, not for any personal benefit, but because it is the “right” thing to do.

In many cases, however, it is ambiguous whether the word does or doesn’t carry a moral imperative. This most often occurs when we’re talking to ourselves: “I should really jog more,” or “I should quit smoking,” or “I shouldn’t eat so many donuts.” The situation here is strange, for there is no moral rule involved—is it immoral to eat donuts?—and yet we feel we feel guilty when, as so often happens, we don’t follow our own advice.

David D. Burns, in his popular self-help book on depression, cautions against this last usage of the word should. We are always telling ourselves we “should” be doing this, and “shouldn’t” be doing that. But this leads us into a depressive spiral:

A deadly enemy of motivation is a sense of coercion. You feel under intense pressure to perform—generated from within and without. This happens when you try to motivate yourself with moralistic “shoulds” and “oughts.” You tell yourself, “I should do this” and “I have to do that.” Then you feel obliged, burdened, tense, resentful, and guilty.

The process goes like this. You tell yourself you “should” quit smoking. Then, you create resentment in yourself, since you feel like you’re being forced to do something. This resentment and guilt leads to a spiteful rejection of the advice; smoking becomes, not only a pleasure, but a guilty and rebellious pleasure. The habit thus continues, while your self-esteem is eroded by your inability to do the “right” thing.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing happens to me all the time. It was thus a revelation when Burns, in his book, pointed out this common tendency and also explained why it is illogical.

The error originates from a confusion of the first and the second usage of the word “should.” That is, when we tell ourselves we “should” quit smoking, we are really saying that it’s a good idea and we would benefit in the long run. We are appealing to our self-interest and not our moral sense. But we feel guilty and resentful nonetheless. Why? Because we are importing the moral imperative of the second usage into our understanding of the meaning. We are, in other words, judging something to be an ethical duty which is only a potentially beneficial activity.

This is very easy to do, I believe, because we don’t tend to think very clearly about obligations. I have heard philosophers say that the metaphysical distinction between the sphere of moral and amoral reality is the distinction between “ought” and “is.” Moral statements, in other words, do not report what the facts are, but how they should be. Many books have been written about where this “ought” comes from and what it says about the universe.

For my part, I do not find anything special or mysterious about “ought” statements. Indeed, I’d argue that, at bottom, the first and second of usage of “should” rest on the same basis; that is, recommendations and obligations both rest on self-interest.

That the power of a recommendation rests on self-interest is not controversial. The motivation to follow a recommendation is that you will personally benefit in some way. Usually recommendations consist of suggested ways to satisfy certain long-standing desires. We are recommended to apply to a certain job or to eat at a certain restaurant, and these are strategies for satisfying our insatiable desires for money and food.

The second assertion—that obligations rest on self-interest—is sure to raise an eyebrow. Well, let me give you an example. Imagine that you promised to pick your friend up at the airport, but you then your crush invited you to hang out at that same time. You are very tempted to blow off your friend and make him pay for a taxi, but then your mom tells you: “You should always keep your promises.”

Now, at first glance this is obviously not appealing to self-interest. You are being told to do something that will be dreadful instead of something fun. So why “should” you do it? Simply because it’s the “right” thing to do? But why is it “right”?

Now you must ask yourself: Do you want to live in a world where promises exist, or a world where they don’t? Think carefully about this. What if you could never trust somebody’s word, and you could not depend on anybody to follow a verbal agreement? I don’t know about you, but such a world seems unlivably dreadful to me.

The world seems to have come to the same conclusion, since promises exist. And the reason we have agreed to have the institution of the promise is that, although occasionally painful in the short-term, it is beneficial in the long-term to live in a society where you can trust somebody’s word. Thus people make a compromise. Accept some incidental annoyances as the price for the boon of general honesty. You gain more than you lose with this bargain.

This is, I think, the nature of all moral rules: they are rules of behavior that, while occasionally painful in the short-term, benefit every individual member in the long-term by enabling a society wherein people can expect their neighbors to be respectful, peaceful, and honest. But these rules only work if everybody abides by them. For a moral rule to be beneficial to its followers, it must not allow others to take advantage of them, but must lead to a long-term gain. If enough people chose not to follow a rule, and instead take advantage of its followers, then it will collapse. All moral action is motivated by long-term self-interest, and morality collapses when it is no longer in the long-term self-interest of its members to comply.

To return to the above example, you must realize that, by breaking your promise, you are making an exception of yourself. You want to live in a world where people keep their promises, but you don’t want to keep yours. Indeed, in a small way you are undermining the institution of the promise, and taking advantage of your friend’s trust. You are choosing to indulge in a short-term pleasure rather than consider the long-term consequences of this action.

To conclude, I think the moral force of the advice “You should always keep your promises” is related directly to self-interest. In almost every situation, the benefits of living in a society where you can trust the word of other people outweigh many times over the benefits of breaking a single promise.

Now, of course, in practice the fabric of society doesn’t collapse when a few promises are broken. Moral systems are human things, and thus imperfect. Moral laws can survive with a surprising amount of noncompliance and hypocrisy. But you also have to consider the potential consequences of acquiring a reputation for being untrustworthy. Besides that, by doing your friend a favor, you earn yourself social goodwill and might be able to call upon him in the future.

This brings me back to my earlier point. A moral obligation is, at base, simply the realization that you have more to gain by following a moral rule than by breaking it. A moral obligation is thus like a piece of especially good advice; and at bottom, the first and second usage of the word “should” are identical.

I have found this way of thinking personally beneficial, since it allows me to avoid the feelings of guilt, bitterness, and resentment that I get when I tell myself “I should do such and such.” Now, I remind myself of how I will personally benefit from the action in the future. I remind myself that the things I “should” do are just ways of satisfying certain long-standing, insatiable desires of mine. And nobody feels guilty when they don’t efficiently satisfy a desire.


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