–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Prescription, Reason and Force

by | Jun 9, 2024

Philosophy is largely a normative discipline, which means that philosophers expend a good amount of energy telling you what you ought to believe, say, and do. Just look at the concepts with which philosophy is most preoccupied: ‘truth’ – something you should believe – ‘justification’ – a reason you should accept – ‘good’ – something you should value – ‘right’ – something you should do – ‘justice’ something you should receive – ‘authority’ – someone you should obey. Even the business of defining terms and concepts, philosophers’ favorite pastime, has a prescriptive mode: provide necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a term and you’ve also determined all the things to which it does not apply. Define ‘X’ a certain way and you can be certain that some philosopher, somewhere, will tell you that something that doesn’t fulfill the definition shouldn’t be called “X.” (See, for example, the “What is art?” debate, as it unfolded over the 20th century.)

What is the actual force of these sorts of prescriptions? Why should anyone be moved by them?

Prescriptions ascribe imperatives, so it’s useful to distinguish the different kinds of imperatives. There are what I will call the “have-to’s,” by which I mean those things that you will do involuntarily, if you fail to do them voluntarily: urinating; defecating; breathing; that sort of thing. Then there are the “must-do’s,” by which I intend those things that if you refuse to do them will result in consequences, the unpleasantness of which is intended to convince you to do them after all: arriving at school before the bell rings; driving within the speed limit; paying your taxes; keeping at least somewhat healthy; taking certain safety precautions. These are all things one must do, though it should be noted that if a person is willing to bear the consequences, must-do’s lack force. Philippa Foot once observed that people think moral imperatives have some sort of intrinsic force, but it would seem obvious that once one gets beyond the “have-to’s,” such force only exists if a person feels him or herself compelled.

Then there are the “should-do’s,” which include the list of things we started with, and here, characterization is much more difficult. There are many moral shoulds, the violation of which will earn a person no effective penalty whatsoever, and the same goes for authorities and one’s refusal to obey them. And when we consider the rest of the list — calling things by their right names, accepting justifications, believing truths, valuing goods – it seems clear that refusing or failing to follow the relevant prescription carries no sanction whatsoever.


One thing that would seem to connect all of the should-do’s is that refusing to do them is in some way “contrary to reason” and will earn a person a certain label which, generically, I will brand as that of being “unreasonable,” and which, depending on the should-do in question, may turn more specific: the person who refuses to accept evidence and logical argumentation will earn the label “irrational”; the person who rejects what is right will earn the label “immoral”; etc.

What is the significance of such labels? Suppose that I reject all the scientific evidence and insist that my local fundamentalist pastor is correct and the earth is only six thousand years old, for which I am deemed irrational by the geological community. Or I ignore the counsel of Peter Singer and refuse to give everything I can to starving children in Africa or wherever, for which I am deemed immoral. So what? There isn’t sufficient consensus or passion to coerce me in any way, and unless I want to be a geologist or gain access to the Effective Altruist club, all that’s happened is that I’ve been called something. If this is all the force that such prescriptions have, then they have no force at all and thus fail to be prescriptive in any meaningful sense of the word. After all, what is a prescription lacking force, but an expression of some person’s or peoples’ desire(s), which may or may not be fulfilled? With respect to logic and evidence, one may want to say that it is not peoples’ desires that are being frustrated by a person’s refusal to buy in, but rather, reason or truth itself, but any such talk is entirely metaphorical. People can be frustrated, insofar as they possess a nervous system. Abstractions cannot and do not. Moral imperatives, when stripped of divine or other such threat for noncompliance, have nothing more than what G.E.M. Anscombe called “mesmeric force.” “It is as if the word ‘criminal’ were to remain,” she wrote, “when criminal law and criminal courts have been abandoned.”


In ethics, this type of question falls under the “why be moral?” line of inquiry, and surprisingly, in surveying the great works of moral philosophy on the subject, one discovers that it is rarely explored and when it is, it is done poorly. Kant tells us that to be immoral is to cease to be a rational person, but unless someone cares about this – and how many immoral people do? – it fails to provide moral shoulds with any real force. Mill maintains that the ultimate sanction of moral obligation is that we suffer when we do wrong, and it is this potential pain that gives moral shoulds their force, which renders them must-do’s in our normative taxonomy. Undoubtedly this is true of some people – those with strong and sensitive consciences, for example — but equally undoubtedly it is not true of many, so this too fails to provide moral shoulds with any consistent, substantial force. And we must always remember that we are not only talking about morals, but about should-do’s across the conceptual landscape — shoulds pertaining to truth; justification; (non-moral) value; authority – and with respect to these, the accounts of force that we find in ethics, sparse as they already are, will not do. So, even were we to accept the accounts of moral force given by Kant or Mill, we still would be left without an account of the force of all the other should-do’s that we have been talking about.

That failing to have any account of the force of an imperative that lacks either external or internal coercive power is worrisome is evinced by the fact that when people offer prescriptions, they tend to use language whose aim is to imply the stronger forms of imperatives, where the relevant force is less in question. How many times have you been told that you “Have to ….” or that something “has to be …,” when what comes after the “have to” clearly, obviously, manifestly does not fall into the first category of imperatives? What I always do, in such situations (providing I fail to find the imperative compelling), is simply repeat the phrase “Have to,” with increasing emphasis and decreasing speed, until the person finally relents and switches to “must do” language, with the idea of leaning on the force of social sanction. More often than not, this is a bluff, as there is no consensus that would produce such social sanction, and the best response is simply to inquire what precisely will happen if you refuse, after which one’s interlocutor will tend to retreat to “should do” ways of speaking; i.e. the expression of a wish.

Which is precisely where anyone would start, were we not all aware that a prescription without force is nothing more than the voicing of a desire. Alas, people don’t want to ask nicely and hope for the best, understanding that you may not accede to their demands. They want to make you think that you have no choice.


Among Kant’s many insights, one that really stands above the others is that in a modern, secular framework, we should understand morals as a kind of self-legislation (though Anscombe thought little of it.) Now, I think that Kant made a mistake in simply assuming that rational personhood was somehow compelling – and thus forceful – in itself, but the core idea seems sound, and provides the ground for an account of what the force of at least some shoulds consists of.

Prescription at the level of the should-do’s is an invitation to self-governance, broadly understood as the opportunity to regulate one’s own behavior, within the bounds of what is reasonable, and as a result, it must be seen as a precious gift. Because a should-do can easily turn into a must-do, if the matter at hand is one of sufficient social consensus and concern. Put plainly, you can be reasonable on your own or we can make you be reasonable (and yes, what is reasonable or not is determined by the “we,” not by any individual’s ratiocinations or thought experiments, no matter how clever or special one might think one is). And if you are stubborn enough to be willing to bear whatever coercive force we apply and persist in being unreasonable, then we will remove you from our midst permanently in one way or another. The day even may come when we can “reprogram” those who refuse to be reasonable, Clockwork Orange style, in which case the should-do’s, which have turned into must-do’s, will become have-to’s.

The force of should-do’s like these, then, lies in the value one places on one’s own freedom and welfare. There are already a number of things that we have made legal must-do’s and not left to self-regulation — either because enough people have demonstrated in sufficient numbers that they will not govern themselves or because feelings are so strong on the matter than we are not willing to take the risk — so the question is how much more of our autonomy we’d like to give up, something we should take very seriously, every time we are considering behaving in a mule-headed fashion.

But these are a relatively small number of  cases, among the should-do’s described at the beginning of the essay, which means that the rest still lack force and fail to be prescriptive. And as Anscombe believed with regard to moral oughts generally, I think it would be to all of our benefit to drop all the should-do’s that lack force. As irritating as the unreasonable person is, equally irritating is the person who proclaims what you should think and do, with regard to things for which there is insufficient public agreement or concern to provide his or her imperatives with the force we’ve described. But beyond irritation, there is a real, substantial risk to overdoing the “should-do’s.” Just as stupid, petty, and unenforceable laws cause the public to lose respect for law generally, and just as the wild overuse of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ and their cognates has eroded respect for morality, the proliferation of weak, self-serving “shoulds,” whether of the moral variety or otherwise, may cause people to lose respect for reasonableness itself. The language of coercion and implicit (and sometimes explicit) insult – which is what the language of prescription involves – when applied with no force behind it, is more likely to cause a person to hunker down; to become more defiant and extreme and more unreasonable. 

The language of wishing however, when combined with politeness and respect for the other, may bring people closer to your position, and at least, if they fail, will not push them farther away.