A rant on "is" versus "ought"

David Stark / Zarkonnen
7 Oct 2013, 6 a.m.
This happens to me quite a lot, and it's really aggravating: I mention some kind of issue that concerns me, like abusive labor practices at game companies or golden parachutes for deeply incompetent managers. The response I get: "But that's just the way it is!"

I know that. My point is that it should not be like that.

So I'm trying to wrap my head around why people keep on saying those words in a tone that indicates they believe they made a meaningful contribution to the conversation rather than just pointing out the utterly obvious.

Theory one is that they are so used to dealing with description that they confuse it with prescription. Especially if they studied something like economics, which at least in some places is pretty much the western equivalent of studying Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union - an indoctrination into the dominant ideology.

Theoretically speaking, economics is a science, and concerns itself with describing and predicting things. However, it's pretty badly contaminated with ideology - switching from description to prescription, from observing how prices change with circumstances to believing that these prices are correct at some moral level.

"Is" and "ought" are hence the same thing, which works just fine if you happen to be the one benefitting from the status quo anyway.

Theory two is that people who keep on protesting that "that's the way it is" do feel pretty guilty about their acceptance or even complicity with these things, and assume a fatalistic attitude to mitigate their guilt - if they are powerless to change anything, then they are not at fault!

Complaining that game companies abuse their employees is hence about as meaningful as complaining that mugs shatter when you drop them: gravity just is, and something you have to work with, at least for now.

Often, this attitude is combined with a belief in inevitable Progress. Much like gravity, Progress also exists as an immutable force: the world is moving towards being more equal, healthier, wealthier, and more technologically advanced. Any indications to the contrary are mere temporary blips.

Again, this attitude neatly lets people off the hook for actually doing anything. If progress is automatic and built into the world, there's no reason - and indeed no point - to work for it to happen. In reality, progress is by no means guaranteed, is frequently undone by the interests of the powerful, and is driven by the hard work and self-sacrifice of people who don't have the luxury of deluding themselves.

These people are often uncomfortable, and not always well-dressed or well-spoken, and tend to be ignored in favor of looking up at "world leaders".

As for me, I can't claim to be too virtuous or constantly fighting for a better world, but I know who I stand with, and try not to take things for granted.