Knowing the Difference Between “Can” and “Should”

“What can one do?”  Clearly, that list is far more extensive than the more important one: “What should one do?” I can this moment walk into my kitchen, find a fork, and jam it into my forehead.  I can do all sorts or self-destructive things, but the question isn’t a matter of what I can do, but instead what I should do.  Knowing this difference is something we hope to teach to our children with enough clarity and just enough severity that they understand the distinction.  It is a lesson far too many seem to forgo on their passage from childhood into adulthood.  More often than not, those who do so become annoyed when you point it out.  They say in childishly obstinate petulance that “it’s my life(or my body) and I can do what I want.”  My question for those who hold this view of life is ever:  If nobody doubts that you can do a thing, why do you hold no doubts about whether you should do it?  This question is at the root of a deep cultural divide, and it thoroughly explains the collapse of our country.

Governments can do almost anything at all, particularly with the popular support of their people.  Does this mean a government should do anything at all?  It is not inconceivable that one could form a majority coalition that would demand that we eat the rich.  Literally.  We can do that, but the question remains: Should we?  We could create any number of similar political majorities that would propose equally obnoxious ideas, and seek to implement them in law.  Should we?  Great disasters in human death tolls made by other men have been carried out on the basis of the idea that since a thing can be accomplished, that it necessarily should be done, but the truth is that ‘should’ doesn’t necessarily follow ‘can.’

Our constitution laid out fairly well-defined parameters for what government can do, but more importantly, our framers laid out well-debated conclusions about what our government should do.  Their example was seen in the first few administrations, during which time government did do very little.  Over time, this tendency to forget “should” and begin implementing “can” eventually gave us a government that is doing almost all it conceivably can, but does very poorly at the few things it should.  Defense? Obama is slashing that, including our critical nuclear deterrence capacity.  Law enforcement?  That’s not something on which he spends a great deal of effort, although regulatory enforcement is now off the hook, with federal inspectors actually looking through pre-schoolers’ lunch bags.

The litany of things government can do is exhausting, and in fact, virtually infinite.  Governments can compel people to buy health insurance, or pay for their neighbors’ lunches, or almost anything you can imagine.  The things governments will do is supposed to be restrained, however, by the notions of what it should do, because in deciding what it should do, you’re also defining what it should not.  That was the point of the founders, and the limited government they designed told us what government should do, and in so framing it, they also made clear what government shouldn’t do.  Yes, they took the time to include a few things that government mustn’t do, but under the auspices of expanding what it can do, they’re now ignoring these limits too.  The proposition that government can require insurers to provide free contraceptive solutions comes at the expense of a thing government mustn’t do, which is to interfere in the matters of exercise of religion.

This is what you ultimately find when you consider only the question of what government can do, because it no longer pays respects to the limitations formerly provided by the things it should not do, or must not do.  “Should” is a matter of some debate, but it is one leftists seek to avoid. If you want simple proof of concept, I ask you only to think back to 2008, when Barack Obama was seeking the office of President, promising hope and change.  He spoke at length about the things that he would do as President, and in rallying his mind-numbed disciples, he exhorted them with cries of “Yes, we can!”

What Senator Obama did not say was: “Yes, we should.”


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3 Responses to Knowing the Difference Between “Can” and “Should”

  1. Daniel Madison says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I am a retired engineer, and for many years developed things that we can do. But it is my thought like yours, there are many things we can do but shouldn't do. With Today's Technology and communication, we can do far more than we should. I thought years ago, why not just put a big red light on the top of our cars and when we exceeded the speed limit it lights up. Game over! But I don't want to live in a society like that.

    Great job.

  2. eyetooth tom says:

    As well as "can" and "should"…there is "may." Old english teacher '59 told me…in answering my request. I asked " Can I please go to the restroom?" She said "I'm sure you can, but you may not."
    That's sort of like really saying "No." And I held it.
    Try and tell representatives in this republic "may not" destroy. Hold it.
    Also back then products were not stamped or labeled "Made in America" but with "Made in the USA." My canvas U.S. Keds for example.
    Alas…they did wear out! And my denim jeans had denim pockets as well. Wonder why your change and keys fall through now? Maybe not if you did not ever have denim pockets.

  3. RebinTexas says:

    Both Daniel Madison and eyetooth tom make several great points – from the Thank You Thank You…along with the things our technology today enables us to do, though – again – just maybe we shouldn't do them.

    Likewise – should not and may not, though similar, convey specific messages when something should not be done or may not be done. I only wish more people paid attention to these trivialities.

    Thanks Mark