"Listen to me. I am shoulding all over myself."—Stuart Smalley, "Stuart Saves His Family" (1995)
Before he became a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken created the character of Stuart Smalley, first on Saturday Night Live and later in two movies. Smalley is the pin-up boy for 12-step programs, offering pithy statements when faced by any sort of adversity or challenge. And, as is often the case, gentle humor reveals some of the most important truths in living.
What happens when too many things are turned into things we should do or must do? The result can be a misery that has a deep current of resentment.
Our lives are governed by shoulds and oughts. This is exactly how it ought to be, according to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who offers two types of oughts and shoulds—hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives—in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:
Hypothetical imperatives are actions you should take if you want to realize certain goals, and Kant identifies two types. If you want to run a marathon, then you should train in certain ways, stretch, eat healthfully, etc. Kant refers to these sorts of shoulds as rules of skill. The other type of hypothetical imperative Kant calls counsels of prudence, and they’re concerned with pursuing happiness or living a good life. These are more like guidelines or advice. Given your understanding of happiness you might pursue a life of a scholar while another might pursue the life of a caregiver.
The defining characteristic of hypothetical imperatives is that they are contingent—if you change your desire or understanding of a happy life, then your particular demands and oughts change. With hypothetical imperatives, the force of the should is contingent upon the desire; lose the desire and the power of the ought disappears.
Categorical imperatives are moral demands that hold for all universally, come what may. They allow no exceptions; they are absolute and universally binding on all people. They do not depend upon having any desires, even the desire to be moral. Our reason tells us what we are morally required to do—for instance, one ought never to commit suicide and one ought never to lie. Additionally, he offers that one ought to develop some of her talents and that one ought to help others sometimes. These are all duties that we have to ourselves or to others.
Kant would agree that we ought to “should all over ourselves” when it comes to categorical imperatives, because part of what it means to be human is to perform our moral duties. Kant would be worried about the unchecked expansion of hypothetical imperatives into alleged duties. But people today do it all the time—not to good effect.
A few examples will help to make this more obvious:
- You love to ride your bicycle and you live in a gorgeous place to ride. On a day of glorious weather, you say to yourself, “I should go out on a ride,” even though you are exhausted or have other demands on your time. Either you go on the ride and perhaps you are too cranky to enjoy it (even though you should), or you ride and think to yourself, “but I really should be writing a piece on the power of should,” or you don’t ride and you feel like you are somehow a failure or lazy bones.
- You love to entertain and you tend to measure your self-esteem by how others regard you. You decide to have a dinner party, and suddenly find yourself in the midst of a shoulding avalanche. You should choose a main dish that is complicated and sophisticated. You should pair it with a wine that will complement the flavors. The music should provide an ambience that will lead to deep thoughtful conversation. And of course, you should clean the house and even all the cupboards, because people might peek.
- You are a perfectionist, in recovery. Perfectionism is the ultimate form of the Should Storm. Everything becomes something you should not only do but do perfectly. You should never have thoughts about drinking. You are the person who will wedge in the bicycle ride, and the dinner party, and sponsor people in your 12-step group, and sew your child’s costume (well, actually, all the cast’s costumes) for the school show, and write the grant to help the local pet shelter.
Turning all your desires and goals into a series of shoulds carries the potential for catastrophic failure. It is impossible to meet all the demands created by our goals and wants. Some of the demands will clash because the desires or goals that spawned them clash—humans often are not consistent in what we want. Practical considerations will also limit how many of the shoulds can be met, and met well. You can’t be in two places at the same time no matter how much you think you should be able to do so.
People who are not just governed but tyrannized by oughts and shoulds will often judge themselves in an overly harsh manner, as inadequate, lazy, or failing. A person can also come to resent herself or parts of herself. A person may also come to resent those who do not similarly acquit themselves of their obligations, resent some others who acquit their obligations better than they themselves do, and ultimately come to have an anger that knows no bounds. This is what may keep you from meeting your genuine moral obligations.
Back to Stuart and Kant: If you want to avoid volcanoes of resentment and anger, then stop shoulding all over yourself. (This would count as a contemporary formulation of a Counsel of Prudence.) Learn to identify where shoulds properly belong in your life, and where they have begun to invasively colonize.