What is, and what ought to be
It’s easy to think that because something IS a certain way, it OUGHT to be that way. It’s a way of essentially saying that things must stay as they are, simply because you’re familiar with them in this form.
For example, it’s common to think that because we celebrate Christmas in a certain way, it should continue that way. Or it might be saying that we do not currently regulate the amount of byproducts in cow’s milk; therefore we do not need to do this. Or it’s saying that because we don’t find something in nature, it’s not natural. Or perhaps since something isn’t in the Constitution, it is not necessary to add it now.
These are called logical fallacies. They are errors, and we make them all the time. But they are limiting and dangerous. Learning to avoid them makes your life and the lives of everyone around you better.
Here are three common forms:
Appeal to Nature
This is the belief that because something is ‘natural’ or happens in nature, it is always right. An animal can kill another over territory or a mate, prey on the very young and helpless, kill a sibling to further it’s chances of living, and all is forgiven. Of course these behaviors in humans would be deemed evil and wholly unacceptable. So when a beaver takes down a tree for its house, it’s seen as what ‘ought’ to happen, but if a human being chops down that tree, they are profiteering or pillaging. And the opposite argument is often made, when a substance does not appear in nature – substances like plastic – they are branded as somehow incompatible with the very planet from which they arose. It ‘ought’ not have been created. Legos – man’s evil hand at work.
This kind of fallacy demonizes all kinds of human activity, and all in the name of attempting to appeal to a higher authority to make what is just a personal preference a stronger case. It’s manipulative at best. Certainly it’s okay to want to save the wetland and stop the strip mall, but we need to admit it’s just because we prefer it that way – not because it’s the way it OUGHT to be, and certainly not because we’re valiantly upholding some set of universal laws. Declaring things right or wrong based on the fact that they do or do not appear in (this current version of) nature on this planet is illogical. It’s a fallacy.
This is akin to flipping on a random television set for the first time, and declaring it to be the ‘natural’ channel of the tv. Silliness.
With nature, we like what we see around us, we like what it provides, we like how it makes us feel, and that’s perfectly fine. We can admit it. There’s nothing wrong with that. We love our environment – when it’s not swallowing our homes, drowning us, covering us in lava, shaking our dwellings to rubble, or setting us on fire – but yes, generally we do love it. It’s okay to simply say it’s a personal preference, and not inflate it to be a grand duty to keep the Earth on track toward some master plan. Saving trees can just be our choice, and not the Earth’s plan – especially in light of the fact that Earth has ‘chosen’ not have trees on it for 95% of its 4.5 BILLION year existence. You’d think if trees were important to the Earth it might have started planting earlier. Just saying.
Appeal to Tradition
This is the belief that because something has been done a certain way, it must continue that way. Seems harmless when it’s Easter, perhaps not so good when it’s slavery.
Now, traditions are also often based on what’s ‘tried and true’, and have ‘stood the test of time’. There is value in that. The result of the accumulation of wisdom can be very valuable. However, the reason something is ‘time-tested’ is because it is TESTED. That means it’s reviewed, checked, and questioned, and continues only because it still works. There’s a huge difference in doing something because it has continued to show value in the face of examination, and just something ‘we’ve always done this way’. Not seeing the difference is foolhardy.
Without examination, following these beliefs can lead to continuity of poor results. What will you miss out on next year by doing things the same way you have always done them? What about in 10 years of doing the same thing? When it’s an Easter holiday tradition, the answer’s ‘not much’. When it’s not reviewing finances, the answer can be ‘tens of thousands of dollars’ – and the opportunity that it represents – travel, experiences, giving, and so on.
Appeal to Majority
Similarly, this belief is about the ‘norms’, or what everyone else is doing. It says that the right things are the things that everyone else is doing, simply because everyone is doing them.
Ever gotten pulled over and tried to explain to a cop that you were just ‘keeping up with traffic’? It usually doesn’t fly, and it shouldn’t, because it’s garbage logic. Just because a lot of people around you are doing things in a certain way is no reason to continue them yourselves. Parents love the old ‘if everyone else jumped off a bridge’ routine, but they do it as much as anyone else. Same clothing and hairstyles, same diet (and same health problems that go with it), same errors in judgement with money, same conflicts and sticky points with relationships, same results from decision-making, and on and on.
Yet this belief holds fast to the idea that if many people are doing it, it’s the right way. And like with traditions, there’s some truth to that, and certainly safety in numbers. But when it comes to beliefs and behaviors that affect our lives, they must be tested and examined personally, else we stand to suffer the consequences of the majority as well.
So Why Do We Do This?
We do this because we are reaching for permanence. We are seeking some sort of reliable framework – laws of nature, set traditions, social proof – that help us feel more secure in life. It’s understandable. We all do it. It’s because we find ourselves born into a world with no real answers to any real questions – like what the hell is this, why are we here, and for what reason. And to boot, we know we may go at any time, and certainly aren’t making it out alive. So we look for things to be fixed and known.
What’s The Harm?
When we cling to the permanence of things – nature, traditions, status quo, even things like objects and memories – we are creating a poor map of reality. And when our map doesn’t accurately reflect the actual landscape, we can get into serious trouble. Our desire to preserve, maintain, and not to change things is in direct conflict with the simple truth that everything in life is temporary, and constantly changing. In fact, if it were not that way, we wouldn’t be here.
Life is change. Embrace change, and you embrace life.
To live in harmony with that means first and foremost accepting that things change. Not just accepting it, but welcoming it. Life is change. Embrace change, and you embrace life. Run to change, seek change.
You know what is permanent? Death. You know what’s always changing and reforming itself? Life. Which mode are you emulating?
Making The Shift
The key is simply recognizing these kinds of fallacies. It’s about being aware that man created the ‘laws of nature’, just like every other concept of ‘the way things ought to be’. Understand that it’s simply a preference created in your brain, not a rule dictated by the universe. That can open new doors of thinking and welcome in flexibility and opportunity. It asks us to question ourselves, our choices and habits. It demands we stay objective and see things as they really are, not as they ought to be.
This takes work, because often upon inspection we have to admit some errors in thinking and behavior, and face them or correct them. It also takes courage in doing things that are not as safe or commonly accepted. It’s easy to stay warm under the blankets of ‘what everyone else says and does’. Much harder to get up, cast that blanket off, and look at your life and your decisions with a seriously critical eye, searching for truth and looking diligently for gaps between your beliefs and reality.
It takes a desire to live better. Use any analogy or phraseology you wish – life as a game, life as a journey, life as an experience – but you have to want to live more fully in the very limited and uncertain time you have. And to do that, you need to be willing to look at life as it IS, not what you – or everyone else – believes it OUGHT to be.