Argument by lexical overloading, or, Don’t cut your wants with shoulds

I used the word “cut” in the ti­tle to mean the Prolog op­er­a­tor “cut”, an op­er­a­tor which halts the eval­u­a­tion of a state­ment in pred­i­cate logic.

Fic­tion writ­ers of­ten com­plain, “I keep pro­cras­ti­nat­ing from writ­ing,” and, “No­body reads what I write.” Th­ese com­plaints are usu­ally the re­sult of shoulds stop­ping them from think­ing about their wants.

I’ve never heard any­one say, “I keep putting off play­ing base­ball,” or, “I keep putting off eat­ing ice cream.” Peo­ple who keep putting off writ­ing don’t want to write, they want to have writ­ten. If you have to try to write more of­ten than you have to try not to write, you’ve prob­a­bly told your­self that you should write in or­der to at­tain some re­ward. There’s noth­ing wrong with that, but writ­ers who com­plain that they keep putting off writ­ing are of­ten writ­ing things with lit­tle po­ten­tial pay­off, like fan-fic­tion. They don’t stop and think how to im­prove the pay­off that they want, be­cause they get stuck on the should that they’ve cached in their heads.

I’ve re­peat­edly tried to help writ­ers who com­plain that not enough peo­ple read what they write. I ex­plain that if you want to be read by a lot of peo­ple, you need to write some­thing that a lot of peo­ple want to read. This seems ob­vi­ous to me, but I’m always im­me­di­ately at­tacked by in­dig­nant writ­ers say­ing that they want to write great fic­tion, and that one should write only to please one­self in or­der to write great fic­tion. Some­times these are the same peo­ple who com­plained that they want more peo­ple to read what they write.

Why does their de­sire to write great fic­tion take com­plete prece­dence over their de­sire to have read­ers? Be­cause they have cached that de­sire as a should. (They haven’t cached a should for their goal to get more read­ers be­cause that goal arose much later, af­ter they had already learned to write well and dis­cov­ered, to their hor­ror, that just writ­ing well doesn’t bring you read­ers.) For a moral agent, shoulds trump wants, by defi­ni­tion.

I’ve ex­plained be­fore that I don’t think there is any deep differ­ence be­tween wants and shoulds. The English lan­guage doesn’t pre­tend there is; we say “I should do X” both to mean “I have a moral obli­ga­tion to do X” and “I need to do X to satisfy my goals.” The prob­lem is that most peo­ple think there is a differ­ence, and that shoulds are more im­por­tant. They have a want, they figure out what they need to do to satisfy it, they think aloud to them­selves that they should do it, and boom, they have lex­i­cally con­vinced them­selves that they have a moral obli­ga­tion to do it.