The language of ‘should’ and ‘ought’

I think I’ve written about this before but can’t think where…

When I hear the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’ alarm bells go off. So often the language is used to reinforce social pressure to do certain things – because that is the way that the community does them, it reflects what the community expects and considers “right”.

Christians need to exercise extreme caution when dealing with such worldliness. I use this corrective: when considering an action that ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be done, try to rephrase it in terms of the great commandments, ie:
– will this action give glory to God, or
– will this action show love to a neighbour?

If the answer is ‘No’ then the Christian is free from any obligation, no matter how strenuous the efforts to say ‘you should be doing this!!’

8 thoughts on “The language of ‘should’ and ‘ought’

  1. Does that apply when Mrs Norton warns you should be doing more household chores?? Or when the doctor says you should get more excerise? 🙂

  2. Hmm, an interesting thought Sam.
    Where to start? Probably with semantics
    It could be worse; “Thou Shalt not” etc (which these days probably fits better into the mould of Sharia, remembering your earlier RC/Sharia thing) is for me much more forceful than “you should not”.
    This is because “should” is grammatically (as I recall) a conditional, which leaves the hearer with a much greater degree of choice than “shall” which is a direct command (implying future or general action) and doesn’t have an opt out.
    Our problem arises fromn the misuse of “should” in places where “shall” belongs (many of which occur in places like the good old Daily Mail). Well, I say “belongs” but actually (and here we spill over from semantics into socio-political power language,) if the Daily Mail says [hypothetically] “All Supermarket meat should not be halal” what they really mean is “we really don’t want it to be halal” – which has a “shall” sense, i.e. without an opt-out (from the DM’s perspective).

    As a priest, when it comes to community ethics (which is perhaps where “should” and “ought” are most frequently used, even if not spoken out loud, I feel that the best approach is to start with “I ought to” or “I should” and when those conditions are met I am perhaps in a better position to use “should” or even “shall” in (for example) a sermon on personal morality.

  3. Sam,

    Maybe I’m being a bit thickheaded. We are, by nature, beings who make moral decisions — by which I mean decisions with moral dimensions, not good decisions. “Should” is, therefore, part of the fabric of human nature. Mind you, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a world of difference between being moral and moralizing. Not all decisions are of equal moral weight, and some decisions are morally neutral.

    Christians often don’t do what we should – in two distinct ways. Either we don’t do what is morally obligatory, or we don’t refrain from what is morally repugnant. St. Paul specifically addresses this point. Nevertheless, does my (or your) failure to live up to a Christian standard of morality mean that I (or you) should therefore avoid announcing that the standard exists? I think you would agree that it doesn’t, if for no other reason than that we don’t wish others to fall as we have. Naturally speaking, if you get injured (but not killed) by driving off a bridge, you would want others not to make the same mistake. Supernaturally speaking, the two failings I mentioned are called sins, of course, and both are evil because they are ways we show that we don’t love God or those whom He loves.

    Now, with that said, there is a difference between knowing an evil is taking place and knowing the best (most effective) way of preventing it. If it is clear that you are so drunk on the power of the Peak Oil message that you can not hear reason, attempts to reduce that message, or even modify it may be singularly ineffective. St. Ambrose makes this point to St. Monica about St. Augustine. He doesn’t approve of St. Augustine’s behavior, but recognizes that there isn’t any point in trying to get him to stop … YET.


  4. I’m trying to draw a distinction between the oughts and shoulds that derive from merely worldly pressures and the oughts and shoulds that actually come from pursuing God. Does that help?

  5. sam–

    what do you mean, for yourself or in general, by ‘pursuing god?’

    scott gray

  6. Ok., Sam, I’ll bite.

    One reason I’m Catholic today is that I desired to seek the truth, regardless of where that took me. You and I should always pursue the truth, because God is Truth, and truth is one.

    Years ago, I had a strange set of ideas waiting for someone to help me understand or justify. Those which presented contorted “logic” eventually left my portfolio. Those for which intelligent arguments could be advanced I considered and kept.

    By pursuing God, I was doing what I should do. As a result of that pursuit, I left the nest of Protestantism permanently.

    Blessed John Henry Newman did the same thing, and came to the same conclusion. So did St. Augustine. So did a great many others.

    My moral code includes should and ought, and it should do so. This doesn’t mean I go around, Puritan like, trying to find behaviors to condemn, or Anglican-like, trying to find behaviors to justify.


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