By Daniel A. Kaufman
Philosophy is largely a normative discipline, which means that philosophers expend a good amount of energy telling you what you ought to believe, say, and do. Just look at the concepts with which philosophy is most preoccupied: ‘truth’ – something you should believe – ‘justification’ – a reason you should accept – ‘good’ – something you should value – ‘right’ – something you should do – ‘justice’ something you should receive – ‘authority’ – someone you should obey. Even the business of defining terms and concepts, philosophers’ favorite pastime, has a prescriptive mode: provide necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a term and you’ve also determined all the things to which it does not apply. Define ‘X’ a certain way, and you can be certain that some philosopher, somewhere will tell you that something that doesn’t fulfill the definition shouldn’t be called “X.”
What is the actual force of these sorts of prescriptions? Why should anyone be moved by them?
Prescriptions ascribe imperatives, so it’s probably useful to distinguish the different kinds of imperatives. There are, of course, the “have to’s,” by which I mean those things that you will do involuntarily, if you fail to do them voluntarily: urinating; defecating; breathing; that sort of thing. Then there are the “must do’s,” by which I intend those things which, if you refuse to do them, will result in consequences, the unpleasantness of which may convince you into doing them after all: arriving at school before the bell rings; driving within the speed limit; paying your taxes; keeping at least somewhat healthy; taking certain safety precautions … These are all things one must do, though it should be noted that if a person is willing to bear the pain of the consequences, such must-do’s ultimately fail to have force. Philippa Foot once observed that people seem to think moral imperatives have some sort of intrinsic, binding force, but it would seem obvious that once one gets beyond the “have to’s,” such force only exists if a person feels him or herself compelled. 
Then there are the “should do’s,” which include the list of things we started with, and here, characterization is much more difficult. There are many moral shoulds, the violation of which will earn a person no social punishment whatsoever, and the same goes for authorities and one’s refusal to obey them. And when we consider the rest of the list — calling things by their right names, accepting justifications, believing truths, valuing goods – it should be quite clear that refusing or failing to follow the relevant prescription carries no coercive penalty or sanction whatsoever.
One thing that would seem to connect all of the should-do’s is that refusing to do them is in some way contrary to reason and will earn a person a certain label which, generically, I will brand as that of being “unreasonable,” and which, depending on the should-do in question, may turn more specific – the person who refuses to accept evidence and logical argumentation will earn the label “irrational,” the person who rejects what is right will earn the label “immoral,” and the like.
But what is the force of earning such labels? Suppose that I reject all the scientific evidence and insist that my local hillbilly pastor is correct, and the earth is only six thousand years old, for which I am deemed irrational by Lawrence Krauss and Co. Or I ignore the counsel of Peter Singer and refuse to give everything I can to starving children in Africa or wherever, for which I am deemed immoral. So what? We are not in must-do territory. There isn’t sufficient consensus or passion to coerce me in any way … and unless I want to be a paleontologist or gain access to the Effective Altruist club, all that’s happened is that I’ve been called something. And if this is all the force that such prescriptions have, then I would maintain that they have no force at all and consequently, fail to be truly prescriptive. After all, what is a prescription without force, other than some person’s or peoples’ desire, which may or may not be fulfilled? With respect to logic and evidence, one may want to say that it is not peoples’ desires that are being frustrated by a person’s refusing to buy in, but rather, reason or truth itself, but such talk is purely metaphorical. Such prescriptions have nothing more than what G.E.M. Anscombe — when describing modern moral imperatives stripped of any grounding in divine law or natural teleology — called “mesmeric force.” “It is as if the word ‘criminal’ were to remain,” she wrote, “when criminal law and criminal courts have been abandoned.” 
In ethics, this type of question falls under the “why be moral?” line of inquiry, and surprisingly, what one discovers when surveying the great works of moral philosophy on the subject, it is largely unexplored, and where it is explored, it is done rather poorly. Kant tells us, essentially, that to be immoral is to cease to be a rational person, but unless someone cares about this – and how many immoral people do? – it fails to provide moral shoulds with any real force. Mill maintains that the ultimate “sanction” of moral obligation is that we suffer when we do wrong, and it is this potential pain, then, that gives moral shoulds their force, because they are, in fact, must-do’s. Undoubtedly this is true of some people – those with particularly strong and sensitive consciences — but equally undoubtedly, it is not true of many, if not most, given how poorly so many people behave, so this too would seem to fail to provide moral shoulds with any real, consistent force. And we must always remember that we are not only talking about morals, but about should-do’s across the conceptual landscape — should-do’s pertaining to truth; justification; (non-moral) value; authority – and with respect to these, the accounts of force that we find in ethics, sparse as they are, simply will not do. So, even were we to accept the accounts of moral force given by Kant or Mill, we still would be left without an account of the force of all the other should-do’s that we have been talking about.
That this really matters – that failing to have any account of the force of an imperative that lacks either external or internal coercive power is worrisome — is evinced by the fact that when people offer prescriptions, they tend to use language whose aim is to imply the stronger forms of imperatives, where the matter of force is not in question. How many times have you been told that you “Have to ….” or that something “has to be …,” when what comes after the “have to” clearly, obviously, manifestly does not fall into the first category of imperatives? What I always do, in such situations (providing I fail to find the imperative compelling), is simply repeat the phrase “Have to,” with increasing emphasis and decreasing speed, until the person finally relents, after which he commonly will switch to “must do” language, trying to help himself to the force of social sanction. More often than not, this is also bogus, and the best response is simply to inquire what precisely he will do if you refuse, after which he will tend to retreat – at this point usually somewhat sheepishly – to “should do” ways of speaking.
Which is where he would have started, was he not painfully aware that a prescription without force is nothing more than the voicing of a desire. But people don’t want to ask nicely and hope for the best, accepting the fact that you may not accede. They want to try and make you think that you have no choice.
Among his many insights, Kant had one that really stands above the others, and that is that in a modern, secular framework we should understand morals as a kind of self-legislation. Now, I think his conception was too narrow – focused, as it is, only on moral shoulds – and he made the mistake of simply assuming that rational personhood was somehow compelling – and thus forceful – in itself, but the core idea is rock solid, and provides the ground for an account of what the force of at least some shoulds consists in.
Prescription at the level of some should-do’s is an invitation to self-governance, broadly understood as the opportunity to regulate one’s own behavior, within the bounds of what is reasonable, and as a result, it must be seen as a precious gift. Because a should-do can easily turn into a must-do, if the matter at hand is one of sufficient social consensus and concern. Put plainly, you can be reasonable on your own or we can make you be reasonable. And if you are foolish and stubborn enough to be willing to bear whatever coercive force we apply and persist in being unreasonable, you will be removed from our midst permanently and perhaps, even killed. The day even may come when, A Clockwork Orange style, we can “reprogram” those who refuse to be reasonable, in which case the should-do’s, which have turned into must-do’s, will become have-to’s.
The force of should-do’s like these, then, lies in the value one places on one’s own autonomy and welfare. There are already a number of things that we have made legal must-do’s and not left to self-regulation — either because enough people have demonstrated that they will not govern themselves in sufficient numbers or because feelings are so strong on the matter than we are not willing to take the risk — so the question is how much more of our autonomy we’d like to give up, something we should take very seriously, every time we are considering behaving in a mule-headed fashion.
But these are a small minority of cases, among the shoulds described at the beginning of the essay, which means that the rest still lack any identifiable force and thus, fail to be prescriptive. And it is this fact really that led me to put down these thoughts in the first place. As Anscombe believed with regard to moral oughts, I think it would be to all of our benefit to drop the language of shoulds, when the “should” in question has no actual force. For as irritating as the unreasonable person is, equally irritating is the person who loudly proclaims what you should think and do, with regard to things for which there is no — and never will be — sufficient public agreement and concern to provide them with the sort of force we’ve described. But beyond irritation, there is a real, substantial risk to overdoing the “should-do’s.” Just as stupid, petty, and unenforceable laws cause the public to lose respect for law generally, and just as – I think – the wild overuse of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ and their cognates has eroded respect for morality, the proliferation of weak, groundless, often self-serving “shoulds,” whether of the moral variety or otherwise, may cause people to lose respect for reasonableness itself. The language of coercion and implicit (and sometimes explicit) insult – which is what the language of prescription ultimately involves – when used with no real force behind it, is much more likely to have the effect of causing a person to hunker down; to become even more defiant and extreme, and thus, even more unreasonable. (I have written a number of times about defiance in the face of this sort of hectoring here at the Electric Agora.) The language of wishfulness however, when combined with politeness and respect for the other, may bring people closer to your position, and at least, if they fail, will not push them even farther away.
- G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” p. 6. (1958)
- Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” p. 310. (1972)