Everyone I’ve ever known (myself included) has been oddly constrained by notions of what he or she “must” do. Not “should,” not the moral question of what the right course is, but “must,” almost an inevitability. What we “must” do is that which, left undone, produces unthinkable or intolerable results. But of course, what we mean when we speak of the unthinkable, intolerable results of not going off to college, not following the law, not living up to somebody’s expectations, is only that we don’t want to think of or tolerate those results. Unthinkable and intolerable are notions much like “valuable”: Attempts to reframe subjective notions as objective ones. We would rather call something intrinsically “valuable” in some cosmic sense than use the less certain, but wholly accurate term, “valued.” We’d rather treat departure from the norms of our social group or from our own concept of normal life as “intolerable” than admit we have exercised our own power of choice in refusing to tolerate it. We live thus in imaginary chains.

Obviously this notion of “must” does not bind the will or the person, except insofar as the person chooses to comply with it; should you decide to do so, you certainly can disregard any “must” that inhabits your mind; the mere neglect of duties is well within the power of anyone. Yet “must” obligations of the type to which I am referring have, for the believer in them, a sort of inevitability. The most remarkable thing about these obligations is how different they appear to the believer and to anyone else; a man who thinks he must do something believes in his heart that he has no choice in the matter, that all alternative courses of action can be dismissed out of hand, and it appears the same to anyone who shares the same beliefs about the obligation. To an outsider however, the case is more clear: This man chooses to spend his time and effort on this matter, that is all.

But of course the believer has his resolve strengthened, and forgoes all kinds of internal struggle when he simply adopts “must go to work”, as a replacement for the cost-benefit analysis regarding other jobs or no job or anything else he could do with his morning instead. In making his obligation psychologically part of his environment, rather than himself, he simulates the (unreal) situation in which he acts without choosing. He deludes himself into automation, and thus is more successful in getting to work consistently than he is at getting to the gym consistently. “Must” and “no choice” are quite useful little tricks for the routine matters of human life, and the calling up of effort. Useful enough to be seductive.

This mental activity, where one artificially limits one’s own choices by imagining them to be controlled or at least limited by some outside force, usually involves social pressure, in my observations. It is rare that someone “must” do something he really wants to do, or even mildly desires, but it is common for him to feel so constrained, to the point of helpless, about duties somehow involved in his place in a group, particularly those not made explicit, ie. people behave this way towards staying ahead of a rival, or maintaining a level of professionalism above explicit requirements. Yet this is misleading, for it will be assumed that the weight of the obligation (the strength of the internal voice yelling “you must!”) is derived from the value we attach to maintaining our place in the group–I contend that this understates the strength of the “must” obligation, since people will willingly leave groups or quit jobs where they felt so obligated, without ever yielding the charade of automatic obedience. Rather, small obligations arising from normal life are promoted to great internal importance by this self-deception, or discipline, as you will. Yet, in my own observations, this performance is not a solo, and a voice of consensus is necessary for my helplessness before an obligation to appear believable. I cannot suspend disbelief if the rest of the crowd does not join in.

And of course, it is within groups of human beings where this behavior has the greatest impact anyhow, even if it were a common activity for solitary individuals. The social connections I previously mentioned form the basis for obligations that an individual promotes to inevitable “musts”, and there are many other individuals who find it profitable to have those duties owed them treated as inescapable, not subject to cost-benefit analysis or any other sort of question. The professional pride of employees is a powerful, and cheap, ally for a manager, while the whole system of military discipline practically excludes the possibility of disobedience from the military mind. In both cases, the obligations to obey are removed from normal decision-making processes, and it requires something of a revolution in the mind to mutiny. It is made difficult psychologically to perform acts which are easy physically, and may (in many cases) directly serve the interests of the obedient person far better than obedience does.