We frequently describe our actions and desires in terms of needs or necessities. “I have to do ______” is one of the most common linguistic formulations in the English language. Living in Latin America, I can also attest to the equivalent in Spanish being quite common. When asked to explain the assumptions behind such a statement, a person will often answer that they must do something because somebody else expects it of them, or because they will be punished by somebody or God for not doing it. They might explain that they have a physical or biological necessity that compels them to do it. Or they might reason that they must do something because it is part of their identity as a person, and to not do it would be to violate their own identity.
For the most part, this is all garbage. When you justify your actions by necessity (excluding the most basic, true necessities–breathing, drinking water, minimal sleeping, and sustenance eating), you are attempting to disclaim responsibility for your actions, to borrow a phrase from Eric Fromm, you are attempting to escape from freedom. This attempted escape leaves you much worse off than you would be if you embraced your freedom of choice in matters that you normally ascribe to necessity because it means that your actions are predicated on unexamined assumptions that may turn out to be false.
Let’s take the family expectations example and work through it. “I have to do X because my family expects me to.” This is a common one in Latin American culture. Imagine, though, if you rephrased the statement honestly:
“I am doing X because if I don’t my family will be disappointed with me and I am afraid of the pain I will experience by being rejected by my family.”
In this formulation, you are accepting that you are free not to do X, but the reason you freely choose to do X is your fear of rejection. Once you understand the reason for your historic pattern of choices in this regard, you are able to determine whether or not this is a sufficient justification for present and future action, embracing your freedom to disappoint your family and determining how you can overcome the pain of rejection. Then, in cases where you want to do what your family expects, you do so with great joy, because it is what you truly want to do. And in cases where you want to do something other than what your family expects, you are freed to do so because you have no longer reduced your action to brutish necessity.
We’ll examine one more example for this post and then hopefully if anybody has any other examples or counter-examples they can share them in the comments section for further discussion.
This one is intentionally controversially and provocative, and I have selected it because I believe it will force more people to really challenge the way they view necessity in decision making. Take the issue of fidelity in a committed long-term relationship. For most people who are not cheaters, it would be very common to say “I can’t have sex with another person because I am in a committed relationship.” Note the operative word “can’t,” denoting necessity. It excludes the possibility by definition. However, clearly you can have sex with some other person outside of the bounds of your relationship. People do it every day. It is simply inaccurate to claim otherwise, unless you have some sort of strange medical condition that literally physiologically prevents you from having sexual relations with somebody other than your spouse/partner (I have never heard of such a condition, but we could imagine it might exist somewhere).
No copping out, either–you can’t amend the statement to say “I can’t because I made a commitment and I always keep my commitments” or something like that, because there is not a living person who literally always keeps their commitments. We all break some commitments. We choose to break some, and we choose to keep others. The moral questions involved in this are to be saved for another day. What we are discussing today is merely the existential possibility of the actions being contemplated.
So why do you choose not to cheat on your spouse/partner? Some possibilities could include: you fear they might find out and subsequently end the relationship, the guilt you would feel for cheating on them, the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease from the third party, etc. These are all good reasons, and having established them as the justification for freely choosing not to cheat, you have accomplished something rather important, you have removed one of the most insidious human motivations to do something, which is that you do it because it’s forbidden (i.e. wanting what you can’t have).
By embracing your freedom to have sex with whomever you want, you are able to see that the actual decision to do so could be damaging to yourself and one or more other people. Your decision not to cheat is thus an exercise of freedom, not the contrary. There is this false belief that liberation means acting without limitation. It pervades because people have failed to consider what is meant by limitation. If by limitation we mean that we refrain from acting in a certain way because we have utilized our gift of reason to consider the consequences and have deemed them undesirable, then to claim that the liberated person must not be limited would ultimately lead to all liberated persons dying tragically through some act of genuine stupidity.
On the contrary, the person who recklessly sleeps with everybody who shows them a passing interest is the person acting out of necessity and not freedom, cementing evolutionary urges as biological necessity. I am not making a moral judgment, and I think post-modern society must come to terms with its need to redevelop sexual ethics–not by returning to some Victorian prudishness–but also not by falling prey to the myth that we are just animals and should act however we feel compelled to do so in the moment.
We are free to choose one way or the other in every circumstance in our lives. Only by embracing this freedom, and accepting the consequences of being responsible for our own lives are we able to transcend the bonds of necessity and emerge into the psychological independence required to reach our full creative, productive, and compassionate potential we have as human beings.