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I Don't Have To

I Don't Have To

6 mins
April 1, 1996

How many times during the course of a week do we say "I have to..."?

I have to take out the trash...change the oil in my car...pay my Visa bill...I have to give a presentation at the sales meeting...take the final exam in physics...entertain my in-laws this weekend.... My wife and I really have to talk about our daughter's problem in school, about how much we're spending on food, about the fight we had yesterday....I have to lose some weight...get more sleep...take more initiative in my job.

These are the kinds of things that typically appear in "To-do" lists and New Year's resolutions. And most of them, taken literally, are false. In the practice of Objectivism , it is important to keep in mind exactly why they are false.

In her essay "Causality Versus Duty" (reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It), Ayn Rand related the story of a woman's being told she's got to do something. "'Mister [the woman replied], there's nothing I've got to do except die.'" Rand went on to say:

"Life or death is man's only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice...."

"Reality confronts man with a great many "musts," but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: "You must, if " and the "if" stands for man's choice...."

The language of values is "I want" and "I will": I want this, and I will do what it takes to get it.

If I wish to eat, I must take certain steps to obtain food. If I wish to practice medicine, I must acquire the necessary knowledge and skills. If I want to have a happy marriage, there are things I must do to achieve that value. In general, we cannot achieve values without effort, and the nature of the effort is determined by the facts of reality—specifically the law of causality, which relates actions to consequences, means to ends. In that sense, there are a great many things we have to do. But there is always an implicit "if": if we want to achieve the goal in question. Any enterprise depends on our commitment to the goal, and nothing in reality forces that commitment on us.

To say "I have to" is to speak the language of compulsion, duty, authority—the language of injunctions imposed on us from without. Objectivism is not a duty ethic, but an ethic of values, the ultimate value being one's own life and happiness.

The language of values is "I want" and "I will": I want this, and I will do what it takes to get it.

Speaking the language of values instead of the language of duty, "want-to" instead of "have-to," is a daily reminder that we live by choice, with both the freedom and the responsibility that that entails. When I think of a task as something I want to do, I affirm it as an exercise of choice and as an action that serves my values. But when I think of a task as something I "have to" do, I detach it from my values and mentally cede a portion of my life to an alien power; the hours spent on that task feel like a tax withheld from my time on earth.

Of course, it is not the words per se but the thought behind them that counts. Many people will insist that when they say "I have to," there is an implicit "if." They have chosen their goals, and are simply focusing now on the requirements that reality sets if they are to achieve those goals. Fair enough. But there are dangers in leaving the "if" implicit, and corresponding advantages in saying and thinking "I want to."

1) The language of values keeps us focused on our responsibility for our choices. When someone extends an unwanted invitation, how easy it is to say "I'd love to, but I have to study for the exam...visit my mother...do my taxes." In fact, I could choose to accept the invitation, but I have other values to which I'd rather devote the time. This is true regardless of whether I have a conventionally acceptable excuse—an actual appointment or other obligation—or simply want to read a book or go out with someone else. Most of us shy away from saying this in as many words, to spare the person's feelings. But then we are saying, in effect, "My time does not belong to me; it's only because something else has a prior claim on me that I'm justified in refusing your claim." But nothing has such a claim on me apart from my choice, which is based on its value to me. I can be tactful in declining the invitation, but I do not have to cede responsibility for my actions to some impersonal necessity.

2) The language of values keeps us in touch with the fact that our purposes are ongoing projects to which we freely renew our commitment as we go. The important values in our lives, such as a career or a marriage, involve long-term commitments. These values give structure to our lives over time, integrating the days and years into a whole that has meaning. The danger is that we will come to see them as commitments that we made at some point in the past and are now locked into. It is easy for such a goal to become our master rather than our servant, a new form of duty rather than a means to our happiness and well-being.

"I have a sales meeting to attend this week; it's not my favorite activity, but it's part of my job. Yes, theoretically I could quit, but that would totally disrupt my life. I made this bed and now I have to lie in it. So I have to go to the meeting." This is the lament of someone whose goals have fossilized into duties. Though he takes responsibility for his current situation, his situation is one of passively responding to external demands rather than actively pursuing his happiness. When it seems more natural to say "I have to" than "I want to," it's time to pause and take stock. Even if I decide to stay in an unsatisfying job, I can still reaffirm that choice every day by seeking out value—even in a boring meeting.

3) The language of values helps us to make specific choices. Everyone has more things to do than time to do them. One of the certainties of life is that there will be things not crossed off the list at the end of the week. To decide which things to do and which to let go, the rational approach is to put each task in context: what goal does it serve? how important is it to achieving that goal? how much do I value the goal in the first place? If I think in terms of "want-to," these questions arise automatically and I can adjust the use of my time to my long-range values.

But if I think in terms of "have-to," my mind does not pose the important questions. "Have-to's" tend to be all alike: Divorced from the hierarchy of my values, they present themselves in single file, making identical demands on my time. My decisions about how to spend time feel arbitrary; I feel guilty at what's left undone, or I put it off to be done in some unspecified future (which in fact will be filled with its own fresh crop of "have-to's").

Think of how liberating it feels to wake up on a day off with the realization "there's nothing I have to do today."...This is true every day of our lives.

4) The language of values can infuse even menial tasks, like taking out the trash, with the significance of the goals they serve. There is no voice in the sky commanding me to take out the trash. I am free to let it accumulate in the kitchen if I am prepared to live with the odor, the clutter, and the danger to my health. But in fact I value a clean and orderly environment. It's intrinsically satisfying to have a home that is comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, not overrun with litter. As soon as I focus on why I want to take out the trash, it becomes a way of experiencing this value concretely.

Most of the things we feel we have to do are instrumental values: things that we do as means to further ends but that are not enjoyable in themselves. It is the further ends, the things we find intrinsically satisfying—like creative work, a romantic relationship, a good conversation, a moving aesthetic experience—that give meaning to our lives. Yet much of our time is spent on instrumental tasks. It is worth the mental effort to keep these tasks firmly connected to the intrinsically valuable ends they serve, making them things we want to do.

Ayn Rand's great achievement as a philosopher was to prove that all values are instruments in the service of life. Her great achievement as a novelist was to show, through her heroes, how the passionate commitment to one's life can invest every moment, every task, every instrumental value with intrinsic meaning. "No matter what night preceded it, [Dagny] had never known a morning when she did not feel the rise of a quiet excitement that became a tightening energy in her body and a hunger for action in her mind—because it was the beginning of day and it was a day of her life.... She sat down at her desk, smiling in defiance at the distastefulness of her job. She hated the reports that she had to finish reading, but it was her job, it was her railroad, it was morning."

For all these reasons, I have found it a useful exercise to stop short whenever I find myself thinking "I have to," and to ask: Do I want to? Think of how liberating it feels to wake up on a day off with the realization "there's nothing I have to do today." This is not an experience we should reserve for Saturday mornings, or the first day of vacation. It's true every day of our lives.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

Values and Morals