What should I want? (The Ethos)

My entire youth alleged authorities dispensed the same advice. "Go after what you want." They thought they were bestowing their guidance upon an aimless young person who lacked the courage to grasp what he valued. Aimless, yes, but courage wasn't my most pressing issue. I distinctly remember feeling dominated by the paralyzing question, "what should I want?"


Some insist that "should" doesn't belong in the question. Just go after whatever you think is good. But what is good? No answer. Good is whatever people assume is good.

An Olympic runner can run 100 meters faster than anyone. This is supposedly amazing and great and of course, people assume that this is the sort of thing I should want. But why not change the terms of the competition from "run 100 meters the fastest" to "do exactly whatever I did the last three days." I won. Where's my gold medal?

What if I kill 100 people and make it onto the world's greatest serial killers list. It feels good to be the best at something. Is that good?

What if I become a garbage worker rather than a teacher? Why isn't that good?

Is this the garbage worker or the serial killer? I'll never tell
Meet The Ethos. He's a ravenous holy dragon who sets guiding ideals that characterize a community. The ethos rules the land, rewarding people with social status for their willingness to mistake the ethos' appraisals for goodness. If you renounce The Ethos, it will appraise you poorly and people will think less of you - the weapon of The Ethos

I don't like The Ethos. I might hate The Ethos. I think I've always hated The Ethos.

He grades what you wear, how you speak, how you walk, what you believe, where you work, what school you go to, where you shop, what you own, who your friends are, who you marry, what you eat and drink, the shows you watch, the music you listen to, and even your stupid haircut. The Ethos is a freakin' stalker tampering with every aspect of your life.

I don't know what a Ferrari looks like. Is this a Ferrari?
When I talk about the slaves of The Ethos, I'm not just talking about guys with expensive suits, haircuts, and Ferraris. Everyone looks at these dolts and says, "no, not me. I'm not gonna chase status like one of these guys. I'm my own person" (just before they post a highly curated immaculate picture of themselves on Instagram). I'm talking about every little tinge of shame you feel when you tell someone you shop at Walmart, every time you check "some college" on a form, every time someone asks what you do for a living, every time someone stares at you for questioning the social utility of recycling. The social status game is bigger than suits and Ferraris. It's hard to tell the difference between someone who's losing and someone who's not playing.

You live in fear of stigma from the Ethos, but the price you pay to avoid it is enormous. Huge quantities of your money, your time, and your attention will go to feed The Ethos. People do it bit by bit and at a subconscious level so they don't realize how much they've paid until it's too late. Famous last words: "I wish I'd spent less time at the office". Instead of building yourself a beautiful bubble, you live in The Ethos's dungeon.

And then there's the fragmentation of your own mind. Affirming The Ethos's propositions means living a life of contradiction. One can never work out a cogent worldview so long as they can only choose from a menu of socially convenient beliefs. We pay the dragon with our integrity.

Is there merit to The Ethos' grading system? Even I can admit there is. But demand has made the price so damn high that you're probably better off spending your time, money, and attention on other things.

I remember noticing all these chinks in The Ethos's armor that I wasn't supposed to think too hard about. I felt like every rational human knew at some deep level that The Ethos's grades were inflated to bullshit, but they put their brains away and obeyed its commands because if they didn't then The Ethos would strike them with his mighty weapon - he would grade them poorly. That social power to humiliate dissenters is a strong incentive not to think too hard about whether The Ethos's depiction of what is good truly is good.

But being strung along by The Ethos's arbitrary grades sounds horrible to me. What could be worse than looking back on a life of obedience to a ravenous holy dragon?

The artist gets this picture of The Ethos mostly right, but The Ethos actually has blue hair
In my 20s I went on a wilderness retreat. My group of college students played a game where we bid on various values. Some values were about family, friends, and relationships. Some were about environmentalism, altruism, and politics. Some were about careers and money. One of them was to know what's true. I put all my money on that one. It seemed right to me. It still seems right to me. If I don't know what's true then all these other values could be illusions maintained by The Ethos.

It's the first answer to the question, "what should I want?"

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