Wednesday, July 7, 2010

should and could

My last post got me thinking about exactly what the difference between "should" and "could" is.

Both of them, of course, imply a difference between the current state of affairs and some alternative state of affairs. It "is" this way, but it "Could/Should" be some different way.

Consequently, they both assume a few more things -- first, that some alternate state of affairs is possible. Second, that some act of will could change the current state of affairs to the alternate. Finally, that the alternate is somehow better than the actual.

That said, the two words describe very different relationships between the actual and the alternative.

"Should" implies a failure to live up to a standard. "Could" implies an opportunity to improve, regardless of any standard. Thus, you SHOULD go to college so you're not a bum, vs. you COULD go to college so you could make more money.

So where does "Should" come from? I think it comes down to a logical error. When we say "should," we really mean "I or someone else want you to, and you're existential value depends on living up to the wants of that person."

Both parts of that equation are essential to a "should."

If I just want you to do something but your value doesn't depend on meeting my wants, then I don't say you SHOULD do something. I tell you I would like you to, and ask you if you would.

If your existential value depends on meeting my wants but I don't want you to do something, then of course there's no should at all.

And all this is not to say my wants are inherently illegitimate. I may WANT you not to waste your life away on crack. Nothing wrong with that.

The danger in the equation, however, lies in the second element. The implied premise that your value -- your "okayness" depends on living up to my standards.

What arrogance. What foolishness to say that if you fail to live up to what i want you to do, you are somehow less valuable than you otherwise would be. What fallacy to project my values on someone else. What utter nonsense.

And that's the fundamental horror of "should." It places the "Shouldee" under the "Shoulder" in value and power. It is inherently coercive and controlling.

Could, on the otherwise, is composed of a completely different scenario. Could is essentially "You would benefit yourself if you did X." It doesn't matter what I want. And you are no less valuable for having done what I wanted or not. It only says "You could benefit if you did X."

Thus, you would make more money if you got educated. You would be healthier if you exercised and ate better. You would be happier at home if you were kind and supportive to your family. Simply put, benefit yourself.

I believe in "Could."

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