The Philosophy of Life – Part 1: Expectations

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In the short time that Sustainable Balance has been around, Graham has written extensively about our bodies and the physical world around us, about how the two interact with and influence one another.

While understanding our bodies and the physical world around us is undeniably of critical importance for our overall wellbeing, the same must be said about our minds. Indeed, the two are intimately connected; two parts of the same whole, both instrumental and complimentary to how we experience and interact with the world.

Yet understanding how our minds work is far more elusive than gaining knowledge concerning our bodies or the physical world. Understanding our minds is largely a philosophical inquiry – the concepts involved are intangible, vague and not so readily dissected through scientific inquiry.

This is not to say that our bodies or the physical world cannot be philosophical in nature; indeed, see the recent thought-provoking post about the essence of life. But ‘life philosophy’ usually refers to concepts dealing with our minds, and specifically our identity as individuals. What makes us who we are? In other words, what determines how we think, act and feel? How do we, as individuals, come to understand what ‘life’ is, or what we think it should be?

I do not profess to hold the answers to these questions. Mankind, through scientific study, has come to understand many things about our bodies and the physical world around us. Yet we are still in many ways grasping at straws when it comes to answering the fundamental questions mentioned above. But grappling with these questions, hard as it may be, is central to our wellbeing.

Over the course of several posts, I will explore these questions. What are the sources of our thought, action and feeling, of our identity? How are these are influenced by the modern world? As I said, I can’t promise any answers. However, as is the purpose of philosophical inquiry, I hope that the exploration of these ideas will stimulate further thought and discussion.

Understanding Expectations

What are expectations? Where do they come from? Why should we care?

The Oxford Dictionary says that to ‘expect’ is to

‘think or believe that (a person or thing) will happen; wish for or be confident of receiving’

The definition of ‘expectation’ is the same, but adds the notion of ‘probability’.

To believe that something will happen, with some probability, begins to capture the notion of expectation, but is far too limited. Expectations arise when we form a view about something, or someone, before we have actually experienced that thing or person. We presuppose, we project, not only about the thing or a person and how it will think or act, but about how it will make us feel. Similarly, others also form expectations about us, and we are aware that this is happening. Within this tangle of our expectations about others and theirs of us, we also begin to form expectations of ourselves.

Inherent in the above notion of expectations is that there is some basis for forming the expectation, otherwise, we would really just be guessing rather than expecting (this is where probability factors in). Expectations are then opinions formed based on prior experience or knowledge.

Over time, we develop a core set of expectations about life – what we come to expect of others, of the world and, perhaps most significantly, of ourselves (more on that later). Some of this is necessary. Our capacity to anticipate the consequences of certain situations is imperative for our survival. But expectations can also be a destructive influence in our lives. If we are not aware, expectations will dictate our thought and action and rob us of the chance to experience things, people and ourselves for what they are, rather than what they are expected to be.

Roles and Expectations

Modern society is complicated. Really complicated. Over time, industrial and technological development has resulted in an elaborate and largely artificial system of economic, social and political interaction.

Of critical importance to the functioning and stability of this system is that there be a system of regulation, of rules and boundaries that facilitate the system and govern its function. Technically speaking, it is law that is tasked with performing this function. However, notwithstanding the centrality of law (a topic for another day), I want to focus on something I believe to be equally important: the roles and expectations of those roles that exist within this system.

Roles regulate how we operate within the system. A role could be any behavioural framework that regulates how we think or act. I primarily use it to mean a particular social position that we may inhabit (eg, job, friend, sister, father, male/female, young/old etc), but it could also be a forum (e.g. at the office, at home) or method (e.g. email, social media) of interaction. It is thus quite possible to occupy numerous different roles, even (and often) simultaneously.

While the stability of the system depends on roles, roles depend on expectations. When you occupy any given role there are expectations – imposed by the system, by society at large – of how one should act and behave in that role. The very stability of the system, of our society, depends upon on the fulfillment of these expectations, and the system demands that we adapt to a variety of roles and fulfill the expectations that each one of them imposes.

As explored above, there must be a foundation for the expectations of each role. Each role has an ideal form, created by society, that sets expectations (on the notion of idealized forms, see Plato’s Republic). We are told to judge our thought and action when occupying a role against the archetype for that role, as well as by reference to others occupying that same role. And most importantly, we are taught that if we fulfill the expectations of the role, or at least come closer than others in the same role, we will receive the approval and accolades of others and be successful.

Why Does it Matter?

So, you might think: this is all very interesting (well, hopefully you are thinking that!), but what does it ultimately matter? What is the problem with trying to live up to some idealized version of a role? Isn’t self-improvement and progress in a role how we become happy and successful?

The problem is, when we focus too much on what is expected of us, we risk losing the capacity to think critically. By this I mean the ability to think independently and reflectively about ourselves, the world and our place in it. When we do not think critically, we simply think and act as we are expected to (ie, told to). Within our roles, we do not question the legitimacy of the expectations, of whether they are coherent with our own morality or sense of purpose.

A few years ago while taking a class in legal ethics, I read a fascinating article by philosopher Alasdair McIntyre. In ‘Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency’, McIntyre examines how socially approved roles within a social order – where responsibilities are clearly allocated to each role – can compel individuals to abandon all behaviour that falls outside of the expectations for that role [1]. They are not able to separate themselves, as individuals existing beyond any one role, from the expectations of that role.

As Macintyre explores, this process of compartmentalization can go so far as to jeopardize the ability to have independent moral thought. McIntyre offers the example of a train conductor living in Nazi Germany who is told that his role does not involve concerning himself with the contents of the train carriages, only whether the trains leave and arrive on time. If he fulfills those expectations, he will be an ideal train conductor, and so will be rewarded by his superiors and be considered successful by his peers.

Understanding the power of a well-defined role helps to explain how atrocities such as the Holocaust can be committed with the assistance of so many seemingly normal people like the train conductor. While this may be an extreme example – Macintyre’s train conductor exists within a social order where the roles are ‘unusually well-defined’ and where to disappoint the expectations was to bring ‘severe disapproval and other sanctions’ – it demonstrates how roles, and by extension expectations, can compromise our capacity for independent, critical thought.

I am not suggesting that within roles people no longer have the capacity to act as moral agents. Rather, I want to point out the pitfalls of being beholden to expectations. Most of the various roles that we occupy are pre-defined, and when we step into them certain things are immediately expected of us. In this way, the roles are ‘artificial’ to us – they do not allow or leave much room for natural or spontaneous thought and action.

What I hope this post has brought to light is the importance of being aware of expectations. So often we are simply not cognizant of the fact that our behaviour is largely governed by expectations of others. However, this is only the first step. Once we have this awareness, we must then critically assess the expectations and decide whether we will seek to fulfill them. By no means do I want to suggest that trying to meet expectations is never a good thing; many of our own and others’ expectations may be worth striving for. The point is, we cannot blindly pursue them – we must determine for ourselves whether their fulfillment will deliver us happiness or something else that is worth the effort.

The mass of expectations collected throughout our lives begins to form a narrative, a story, for who we are, for what life is and how we think ours should unfold. It is this personal narrative that we form that will be the focus of the next post on this topic.

Until then, thank you for reading. Are you aware of expectations based on the roles in your life? Have these expectations influenced your behaviour? Has this been positive or negative? Please leave a comment!


[1] Alasdair MacIntrye, ‘Social Structures and their Threats to Moral Agency’, 74 Philosophy 289, p 311-329, 311.

6 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Life – Part 1: Expectations”

  1. The further my wife and I get into marriage, the more we realize that failed expectations are a huge part of martial strife for us and many people. We have found removing expectations of each other is generally a better way to improve the marriage, rather than trying to motivate or demand the other meet those expectations. This definitely extends well outside a marriage to friends, family, coworkers, and the yet to be released Star Wars movie. Love the article, and I think it can be applied in so many contexts for better living!

  2. Mr. Gordon’s article is deep and thought provoking. I will reread it several times, I’m sure. I see this posting as a superb extension of the high quality thinking we’ve come to expect from Sustainable Balance!

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