The Ought

I teach the English language at a University. One of the many glorious things about my job (and I say this without irony) is that I get to introduce people to the complexities of our language in use. At times this takes the form of grammar exercises (bleghhttt), and at others it’s more nuanced, dealing with semantics and frequency and colloquialism.

One of my favorites that falls into both categories is modals. In the English language, modals imply some interesting things- you may find, he could become, should we assume… you get the drift. Of course there are grammatical rules for the use of modals, but what I love to focus on is modals in use. Specifically the modal ought.  Similar in form to need to, which is more common in American English, it implies some kind of moral compulsion: you ought to thinkabout your words, I ought to pay that ticket.

I always have to note in my classes that “ought” is very infrequently used in American English. Outdated? Perhaps. I think it may have more to do with the American spirit. Yes, that spirit that we’d all defend to the death of being able to do what we want, when we want to. The sullen individualism so despised by other countries, the reckless stubborn “personal freedom” that we prize so much. We don’t like being told what to do. The ought is not for us.

It also may have something to do with moral relativism. If there is no moral absolute, and “whatever works for you” is the rule, then where do we get off telling people what they “ought” to do? Possibly the only people I use this word with are my kids- the “you ought to finish your spinach” phrase so beloved by generations of parents. But I have an objective moral authority, so this works. I wonder how it works when one doesn’t? What happens when the child is old enough to say, “why ought I”? Without the ability to access an objective truth, how does one determine values?

Thought lately about ought?

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4 Responses to The Ought

  1. antropologa says:

    It’s not so hard, really. You do what helps yourself without hurting other people in socially unacceptable ways, or bringing problems for yourself. It doesn’t have to be moral. Just practical for living in a society. You can pass your ideas of what’s important on to children (e.g. proper nutrition, living in harmony by sharing so everyone is happy), model them, and hope they take them on, without there being one verifiably “right” way.

  2. evenshine says:

    A- thanks, as always, for commenting. So you’d say that the ultimate goal of/reason for life is to uphold society and protect oneself? This is the question I ask at the end- the “why ought I?”.

  3. antropologa says:

    Self-preservation, balanced with keeping one’s community happy so you get its benefits, is the biological mechanism for survival and perpetuating one’s genes. It’s instinctual, I think. I subscribe to Dawkins’s selfish gene theory in this regard.

  4. evenshine says:

    Yikes, you’re fast!
    1. So what happens when self-preservation conflicts with “keeping the community happy”? Who wins?
    2. Also, there are many examples from biology where perpetuating ones’ genes conflicts with the preservation of others- i.e., birds pushing siblings from the nest, etc. So if perpetuating my genes involves taking out my neighbor, is it justifiable?
    3. I’m not familiar with Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. Please to explain?

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