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Our definitions of social conditions X often embody unreasonably high demands for X, especially when the topic is “true X” .
For example, definitions of “democracy” that go beyond merely requiring that some particular process be followed often go crazy adding other demands. For example, “active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life, protection of the human rights of all citizens; and a rule of law” or:
freedom of assembly, association, property rights, freedom of religion and speech, inclusiveness and equality, citizenship, consent of the governed, voting rights, freedom from unwarranted governmental deprivation of the right to life and liberty, and minority rights.
Similarly, definitions of “legal justice” that go beyond merely requiring some that some legal process be followed say things like “restoration of fairness” or “protecting rights and punishing wrongs using fairness” or “furthers the common good”.
A “free market” has “voluntary exchange providing the sole basis, without government intervention” or “prices determined only by supply and demand”.
“Education” involves “the whole being, the whole period of existence possible to man, and harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers” or “an awakening of love of truth, a giving of a just sense of duty, an opening of the eyes of the soul to the great purpose of life” or "teaches you to teach yourself, and inspires you with the desire to do that.”
All these standards seem pretty hard to meet in practice.
We also often hold crazy high standards regarding personal interactions. For example “communication” is “an actual connection of the souls” or “meaning transferred from one mind to another” or “starts with knowing your own wants and needs, and it moves towards understanding clearly the needs and wants of those around you.”
Furthermore, “love” is “putting aside personal desires for the other person” or “feeling that you completely and utterly love everything about them” or “an unwavering, unbreakable and unparalleled fondness and devotion for your partner”. I’ve also written about the common mismatch between what we love about others and what we say we want others to love in us.
My co-podcaster Agnes Callard has a not-yet-published essay wherein she shows that we tend to define “apology” in a way that is typically impossible to achieve.
Why do we define so many social conditions using impossibly high standards? Let me suggest that we set excess standards to make it easier to reject each other.
We often have social norms regarding who we should accept or reject for what reasons. This induces people who we reject to ask us for our reasons for rejecting them; they hope to show that we have violated such norms in our rejection of them. And the higher are our standards, the easier it becomes to justify our rejection of them.
Yes, setting high standards also makes it harder for us to justify our acceptance of people. But when we accept associates, instead of rejecting them, they are far less likely to demand that we justify this acceptance in terms of our standards. So they don’t usually notice that they couldn’t actually meet our impossibly high standards.
Yes, we might complain when people accept others instead of ourselves, that those others did not in fact meet stated standards. Which is why choosers often insist on “privacy” regarding the details of their choices. You can’t complain about someone’s choice of someone else instead of you if you don’t know enough about the that someone else.