My favorite piece ever from Objectivist philosopher David Kelley is his article "I Don't Have To." In it, he takes on the idea that there are these things that we must do or that we have to do.
David links this thinking with Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and it is a natural fit. Also, as with many things she wrote, Ayn Rand said it very well. She quoted a woman, having been told that she's got to do something, responding, "Mister, there's nothing I've got to do except die."
But the point is much more general. Whatever your philosophy of life, a fact is a fact. And the simple fact is that in the vast majority of cases in which people say "I have to," "I must," or "I've got to," they don't have to.
Another way many of us think unclearly is by going through life with a list of made-up obligations. We wake up in the morning with a long list of "must do" items. After a while, our feet start dragging and we feel a heavy burden on our shoulders. But we "must" press on. Such phony obligations get in the way of clear thinking.
There is very little in the world that we actually must do. Let's face it, unless we are in jail or otherwise detained, we have complete freedom about how to spend our day. The reason we don't just pack up and go sit on the beach every day is that our actions lead to outcomes--and many of our "have to's" give us the outcomes we want. Going to work, for example, provides camaraderie and a feeling of importance, as well as the money to buy the things we need and want. The "I must" person tells himself that he must go to work. The clear-thinking person says, "If I work at this job for another year, I'll be able to buy a house. I could quit my job today, but if I want that house a lot, I'd better show up for work on Monday morning."
The "I must" attitude increases our burdens and lessens our humanity. When we have goals in mind, we should reframe the issue from "I must" to "I want." I want to go to work so that I can feed my kids, buy a car, buy a house, or change the world. If my goals don't seem to justify the effort, then maybe I should rethink my goals and my overall strategy. When we act with clarity of mind, we cease being a fake prisoner and realize our true freedom. For more on this, see David Kelley's powerful essay "I Don't Have to."
I thought of all this when I read that my Hoover colleague Condoleezza Rice, questioned on CBS about the situation in Syria, stated:
So, the United States doesn't have an option of no action.
That's clearly false. Whatever the merits of action or no action, the reality is that both are options.
So what's Condi trying to do? She's trying to get us to say, collectively, "We must." She's trying to get us not to think through the option of "no action." What's the easiest, if somewhat dishonest, way of doing that? By trying to persuade us that "no action" isn't even an option. If "no action" isn't even an option, well then, of course, "we" must act. That way she doesn't even need to make a case for acting.