On the difference between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ (and getting from one to the other)

I went for a walk at the weekend through the woods near our house to clear my head. While avoiding slipping on the icy track I was struck by something that’s been percolating in my thoughts and conversations for a while. It’s embarrassingly simple, but important to me and hopefully worth sharing. It’s the difference between what is and what ought to be – and how we get from one to the other.

Let me explain.

Most of us believe that the way the world is differs from the way the world ought to be. This may be for many reasons – climate change, religion, how we educate young people, the government’s financial policy…. the list is endless. Consciously or unconsciously we tend to surround ourselves with people who think in a similar way to us. Our Circle of Concern grows wider.

The trouble is that all of us hold views of the world that are theory-laden. That is to say we perceive things through the lens of what ought to be. This, inevitably, leads to a situation where a person/group/state points to something as ‘evidence’ in support of their views. Meanwhile, another person/group/state points to the very same evidence in support of the exact opposite view.

A good example of this would be the current crisis with the National Health Service in the UK. Some point to this as evidence of an ideologically-motivated government de-funding public services. Others use it as an example of the shortcomings of socialised medicine. Each side ends up talking past one another as they have no common ground on which to debate. Not only do they use the same example to ‘prove’ different things, but they use the same words in different ways.

During my most recent self-imposed two month digital hiatus I became convinced that quite possibly spend the other 10 months of the year somewhat deluded. I’m almost certainly surrounding myself with people who live within what is quite a small bubble. While there are examples in history of small numbers of people effecting massive change (e.g. the Renaissance, the Bolshevik Revolution), most of the time change is s-l-o-w and comes from lots of groups of people coming into alignment. This takes time because the reasons for each group’s alignment depend on factors other than ‘evidence’.

“Good things happen slowly; bad things happen fast.” Finley Quaye

To my mind, meaningful change comes through people (and organisations) having a reason to change. They respond to ‘incentives’, loosely-defined. They change in accordance with their own version of reality, not by accepting others. Innovations, if not entirely in harmony, are seen to at least be non-threatening to their common beliefs. If it didn’t sound so mystical and new-age, I’d sum this up by saying change comes from within. There are many staging posts along the way to ‘enlightenment’.

I’m not sure whether any of this makes sense, but for me it’s going to mean a change. I’m kind of done with spending my life talking on all fronts about the way the world ought to be. I’m going to spend more of life enjoying the world as it is and being patient. Otherwise, I’m in very real danger of slowly turning into a Grumpy Old Man. And goodness knows there’s enough of those in the world.

Image CC BY-SA Luke McKernan


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  1. Tim Minchin has a nice take on this: “Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.” [http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/]

  2. This thing about the bubble is one that I remember from being part of a strong group of people advocating for a cause or a set of issues. For me there is a question in this maybe about which convictions I can spare myself, and which I cannot do without. In asking how to face then world as-it-is and how-it-should-be you have to shift the weight of all your energy, motivation and focus between a basically normative view and a ‘non-normative view’ of your world. For me this reminds me a lot of how it feels to be working in the role of a teacher, which demands your constant attention. I think that more successful ways for me to assert this side of myself is to remember to just throw back on others where it will be most helpful to drive their own ‘change from within’. A bit like being a crystal that breaks up light which comes from elsewhere. It is a way of putting yourself first, but not with any sense of denial. It it not to say that you don’t care about a particular change or such and such making X choices because you want the world to move in X direction, but that you don’t intend to engage in that problem in this way because of a choice on your part that is clear. Being in the normative position by default directly makes demands in your personal energy and space which over time may not always be sustainable or even constructive. You end up like a flame which consumes everything far too quickly, which is not entirely useful either. So particularly considering as a teacher and guide you have clearly made very focused efforts to describe your ideas and to share them openly, there is every reason to practise the art of tacit reflection:) Definitely; ride on and turn the people on 🙂

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