From "Is" to "Ought"
They flew out of the cloud.
They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.
For a while they flew on, motionless against the infinite sweep of the Universe. And then they turned round.
"It'll have to go," the men of Krikkit said as they headed back for home.
On the way back they sang a number of tuneful and reflective songs on the subjects of peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life and the obliteration of all other life-forms.
BUT AUTHORITARIAN SYSTEMS are not the only place we run into trouble with the shift from assumptions to moral law.
As a straight man, it is easy for me to suppose that men in general are attracted to women.
They are supposed, by me, to be straight.
That may lead to some embarrassment when I learn otherwise, but it's a relatively harmless state of affairs.
But it only takes the arrogance of assuming that my assumption amounts to a natural law for me to remove two words, and
"They are supposed, by me, to be straight,"
"They are supposed to be straight."
Suddenly I have granted myself the authority to dictate to others what their nature should be.
People assume all sorts of things, without any real evidence.
They assume that playing cards, or dancing, or abortion, or going to the movies, or drinking wine is a sin.
They assume that any war our country finds itself in is a good thing.
They assume that real people don't like lattes.
None of these assumptions is particularly dangerous in itself, but when it crosses the line from "is" to "ought", when the "by me" is deleted from the "supposed to", when I start to see my expectations as moral laws, we are in serious trouble.
Sometimes the grammar holds, sometimes it doesn't, but the transition from assumption to moral imperative is the same.
"I assume that dancing is wrong" becomes "dancing is wrong".
"I assume that drinking wine is evil" becomes prohibition.
"True Americans are supposed, by me, to support the war," becomes "True Americans are supposed to support the war."
"Real people are not supposed, by me, to drink lattes," becomes "Real people are not supposed to drink lattes."
"People are not supposed, by me, to be gay," becomes "People are not supposed to be gay."
"I assume that playing cards is a sin" becomes "playing cards is a sin."
My assumptions and preferences about the world become elevated into what the world has to be.
People's desire to force their world view on others is as understandable as it is frightening.
But in the end it won't work.
No matter how many laws are passed, people are going to cross four-way stops together.
I'm going to brake for that sports car, no matter what I'm supposed to do.
Gay couples are going to get married, whether the law calls it that or not.
People will go right on dancing and playing cards and drinking lattes and going to movies.
At least, that's what I suppose today.