The Tyranny of the Shoulds

Crispin Sartwell is a philosopher, aesthetician, and social activist who is a professor at Dickinson College. I heard him speak at a meeting of the Society of American Aesthetics in the early 1990’s and was impressed with his ability to speak and write as a human and avoid what I call “academeze.”

In his book, “Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality,” Sartwell addresses what in clinical lore is known as “the tyranny of the shoulds.” He argues that we must,“Hold our ‘shoulds’” until we have embraced life as it is, starting Iwith our own personal life.”  It is easy to hold forth about how the world should be, usually with great fervor and self-righteousness, without first accepting it “as is,” ugliness and all.  He declared:

In a true affirmation of the world, there would be no “oughts.” For…to say that something ought to be the case is to consign what is to an imaginary oblivion.  Every claim that something ought to be is a judgment that what is the case is insufficient.  One might formulate the quandary this way:  There ought to be no oughts. Thus the notion of affirming the world is shattering: it transforms our values, or does not allow us any more values in the way that values are traditionally understood.  In Western philosophical history, ethics and aesthetics are the studies of what ought to be the case: every value that is valued in the Western philosophical tradition is incompatible with loving things as they are.  Every value demands a transformation: we ought to be better than we are, or, more often, you ought to be better than you are; that is, you ought not, as you are, to be.  We cannot very easily conceive what would happen if we saw that all such efforts at transformation are pathological.  Every flight from the world as it expresses the pain inflicted by that world; all our values are minted in fear and nurtured in cowardice.

Accepting life “as is” is very challenging.  For example, we naively demand that life is “fair” but often are reminded by others, “Whoever said that life is fair?”  Life is not “fair,” it just is though there is often fairness to be found.  But it is not intrinsically fair, it just “is.” But it is often inherently unfair for many though less often for those of us who live in plenty.

We are born into a world that is “always already underway.”  That means it is rigged when we arrive, the structure is in place when we arrive, and is daily grinding-on relentlessly daring anyone to disturb it.  The rules are in place and we are hard-wired to orient ourselves to these rules, adapt to them, and contrive a “ruled” identity that will fit into this structure.  For many their “role” in this structure is one of impoverishment and disempowerment and it is the responsibility for those who are more fortunate to attempt to intervene with the structure and seek to soften the blow of this daily grind.  Yes, “We are our brother’s keeper.”


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