I'm not Supposed to Do What I'm Supposed to Do
This is the story of America. Everybody's doing what they think they're supposed to do.
"Our suppositions are not what they are supposed to be."
"Everyone supposes the meeting begins at five," a simple statement of fact about people's assumptions, when put into the passive can become, "The meeting is supposed to begin at five," which carries a sense of "should". "
"You're supposed to arrive on time," is entirely ought and has very reference to what people actually suppose at all.
The use of "suppose" or even "supposed to" to refer to assumptions, and its use to refer to what someone "ought" or "should" do are often at odds with each other.
- George W. Bush was not supposed to lie about his intent to invade Iraq, even though he was supposed (assumed) to do just that by a great many people.
The terrorists were not supposed to fly into the twin towers, even though the entire world supposes they did.
When you come to a four-way stop in California, you are not supposed to cross the intersection at the same time as the car opposite you does, even though virtually everyone does suppose that that is exactly what you will do.
It's fascinating just how often the two meanings of "suppose" are in conflict, and also how often it's the earlier meaning, the idea of an assumption, which has a better grip on reality.
Not just in the sense of what actually happened—that's easy enough to understand. The moral meaning, like any moral dictum, is assumed (supposed?) to contradict reality.
We only have laws against murder because people do, in fact, murder. To say that Bush was not supposed to lie contains the assumption that he did.
The contradiction I'm talking about is more basic and more real.
Take, for example, the case of the four-way stop.
The reason we are not "supposed to" cross the intersection two cars at a time is a law—like the one I appealed to about on-ramps.
Some committee of lawmakers, presented with the question of how cars should best negotiate a four-way stop, decided that the car to the right should always go first.
This rule, applied to a real intersection, means that two facing cars cannot cross together, since if one of them is to the right of the green Volkswagen, the other must be to the left of the green Volkswagen.
What the committee did not do was to take a trip to the nearest four-way stop and observe the real behavior there, which is rooted in the assumptions (suppositions) of real drivers.
Had they done that before passing the law—or if they did it even after passing the law—they would have found that the set of assumptions real drivers use are much more subtle, more complex, and also much more efficient than the rule they invented.
As are the rules drivers actually follow at freeway on-ramps.
In fact, to return to my experience at the on-ramp, I would probably have been in an accident if I had, for one moment, supposed that the driver of that sports car would do what he was supposed to do.
Our traffic moves as efficiently, and as safely, as it does on a daily basis in part because the average driver operates on a completely different set of suppositions than those enshrined in the vehicle code.
If everyone started doing what they were "supposed to do" and only and exactly that, the roads would be a mess—think of the union tactic of bringing work to a standstill simply by actually following all the rules management has put in place.
The truth is that any system of rules, whether in matters of traffic or business or morality, only works because people don't always do what they are supposed to do.
The real world only functions because people apply their natural wisdom to the nuts and bolts of daily life—working around the rules and even occasionally breaking them in order to keep the systems working.
Every system of rules in the real world is indebted to the wisdom and creativity of the people who apply them. One implication of this is that there is no such thing as unskilled labor.
The lower the laborer is in the hierarchy—and consequently the lower the pay—the more likely it is that he or she brings essential skills to the work.
Not only does the "unskilled" laborer have to know how to do things the executive doesn't, like how to use a shovel or squeegee efficiently, but also he or she needs significant social and organization skills in order to get the job done well in spite of all the artificial rules imposed by those who never had to do it.
Our suppositions are not what they are supposed to be.
But authoritarian systems are not the only place we run into trouble with the shift from assumptions to moral law.
Next: The underlying issue...