Should, Must, and Ought
Updated: Jul 26
Though you may be areligious, irreligious, or otherwise, this is not a post in promotion of religion. If you assume an anti-religious stance, I invite you to see past your own limiting assumptions and consider the information contained herein.
The Ten Commandments
When I was a child, I heard the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments from my dad. Also, when it aired on TV, I watched The Ten Commandments, as I appreciated visual depictions of the story more so than words concerning the King James Version of the Bible from which my dad read.
While I don’t claim to be a biblical scholar, I retain some familiarity with how in Exodus 20 G-d issued to Moses a verbal decree for the Israelites. These were the first ten of many commands to be disseminated.
In Exodus 21 through 23, additional commands were laid out. In Exodus 24, Moses verbally relayed the commands to the Israelites. Right around Exodus 32 is when things become a bit dramatic, as the Israelites were said to have become corrupt by disobeying G-d’s commands.
Discovering violations of the orders, Moses grew angry, threw the tablets upon which G-d had written—breaking them, burned an erected idol, and made the people drink its ashes. Moses then ordered the Levites to slaughter approximately 300 people.
Subsequently, G-d struck the Israelites with a plague for their disobedience. In my young mind, the moral of the story was to obey G-d’s commands—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
He was the supreme ruler of the universe and could establish inflexible demands as He saw fit. To mimic His behavior of a rigid and extreme attitude was to play G-d, as multiple passages in the Bible discouraged His believers from assuming His role.
Then again, I was a child. What did I know?
When practicing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I demonstrate to clients how irrational beliefs often manifest in the form of should, must, or ought narratives. Such demandingness may be akin to absolute commands issued by an eternal Creator.
Whereas it may be rational for one who makes everything to simply issue any rule deemed necessary, lesser beings behave in an irrational manner who emulating such actions. We aren’t deities, though I’m aware some will disagree with me.
Albert Ellis, creator of REBT, referred to these rigid demands as “Jehovian fiat,” as one source states, “REBT teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose absolutistic [J]ehovian demands and commands, they disturb and upset themselves.”
Though should, must, and ought prescriptions of how we demand others to behave are often used synonymously, there are subtle differences related to these terms. According to Merriam-Webster, the following definitions apply:
The word “should” implies a condition, obligation, or expectation. As I understand, one source states that in law, “Shall is an imperative command, usually indicating that certain actions are mandatory, and not permissive,” as shall is a derivative of “should.”
It’s one thing for an all-powerful deity to regulate actions of a universe by merely uttering demands, though what does it suggest when mortal beings such as you and I express these obligations? Who is to say that our conditions should be met?
REBT practitioners encourage people to, “Stop shoulding on yourself,” others, and the world at large. If you insist on shoulding all over the place, I hope no charmageddon-like conditions prevent you from being able to clean up after yourself.
In a blog entry entitled Circle of Concern; I addressed how little control we have over ourselves, how little influence we have on others, and how we have no control over universal matters. Given this understanding, what point is there in issuing imperative commands about how others should behave?
Even many followers of G-d selectively pick and choose which of His commands they will obey. For instance, Leviticus 19:28 clearly states, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”
Yet, I’ve lost count of how many Christians I’ve observed with religious tattoos on their bodies. I’m not saying who should or shouldn’t do such a thing, because it’s their deity that prescribed people not to behave in such a manner—not me.
In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites disobeyed G-d’s commands when they were clearly aware of His presence at Mount Sinai. Why then would anyone in modern times obey the should commands you mandate?
The word “must” indicates a command, binding others to a requirement or compelling others to obey an expressed term. I’ve heard some people argue that “must” is like “should” on steroids, indicating a stronger conditional command.
If G-d declares that people must not commit a particular action, and people do so anyway, why must they obey you? Though His word is said to be absolute, people simply do as they wish.
Moreover, for those who do not believe in a high power—and who don’t adhere to biblical principles or the values you espouse—what makes you think they will do as you think they must? Who says others must follow your commands?
Ellis is noted as having stated, “There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy,” as he is further credited with having coined the term “musterbation.”
Unlike masturbation, which people may enjoy when working themselves into a frenzy, musterbating can lead to a sticky situation without much of a payoff. If you haven’t exhausted your toilet paper supply from shoulding all over the place, perhaps you will have saved some for the mess that comes with musterbation.
Similar to “should,” the word “ought” expresses an obligation or expectation, and serves as an advisement. I imagine someone saying, “Ok, Deric, why make a distinction between should and ought?”
Should, must, and ought are the most common demands I hear expressed by people. There are similar phrases that essentially relay the same message, such as:
Though I’m unaware of any specific REBT play on words regarding “ought,” from time to time, I use “WWW.ought.com” (not to be confused with the .org website) to convey the worldwide implications of the term. I’m aware, this is dad humor.
Though not as clever when spelling versus saying aloud the phrase, “The rotten ought’n,” is a term that communicates the decay of an unfulfilled command. For example, overuse of ought may lead to the rot of your social relationships.
While perhaps cheesy, these phrases help solidify a lesson in the memory of my clients. Ellis advocated a humorous approach to REBT, which I hope keeps the psychotherapeutic process interesting enough for clients to remain engaged.
Much as I’ve highlighted with use of “should” or “must,” there is no universal order that allows me to demand how others “ought” to behave. I am not deity, nor are you.
All things considered, I think it’s important to understand that when using helpful or healthy should, must, or ought statements towards oneself, flexible desires, preferences, or wishes may be useful. For example:
· When my alarm sounds, I should get out of bed, because I will not otherwise accomplish my goals for the day.
· I must not unlawfully take the life of another person, because doing so violates my moral and ethical code as well as the law.
· I ought to pay my cellphone bill on time, in view of the fact that I would like to uphold my portion of a service contract and continue use of cell services.
Additionally, I use homework with clients in order to enhance therapy outcomes. There’s only so much time in each session I can devote towards assisting clients, as the difficult work occurs outside of appointments.
Homework is not assigned. Rather, I negotiate homework with clients so that they have a buy-in to the process. Otherwise, if homework is prescribed in a should, must, or ought-type fashion, I demonstrate through my behavior that prescribing to the world is an effective strategy.
One homework assignment some clients tell me is useful to them relates to prescription discovery. The client agrees upon a set number of should, must, or ought examples to discover between sessions and address at a future appointment.
For instance, looking for five instances of prescriptive statements from social media, conversations with coworkers, or contained within advertisements. Clients are encouraged to briefly journal about the examples in order to become better acquainted with recognizing commandments.
My late stepmom, a devoutly religious woman, used to say about the Bible, “I didn’t write the book and it’s a good thing I didn’t.” Explaining this adage, she told me that if she had written a book of commandments many people wouldn’t care for her demands.
This realization reminds me of quote I’ve heard from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, stating, “Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”
While I’m not here to tell people what is good, bad, right, wrong, righteous, evil, or otherwise, I recognize a lesson from the statements of my stepmom and Solzhenitsyn. If I were given authority over the universe, exercising my commands as a perceived tyrant, many people may consider me to be of the utmost evil.
Rather than the Bible, suppose I read from the Book of Me, My Own Version, chapter 32, verse 6, “All people should obey commands I set forth or they must remain subject to swift consequences.” What might you think of my attempt to dictate a global policy?
There might be an understandable reason why the following copyright advisements are issued in the Bible:
Deuteronomy 4:2 – “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”
Revelation 22:18-19 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”
For believers, no one is to create their own commandments while playing the role of G-d. We are not deities capable of enforcing our will upon others for all eternity.
I don’t communicate from a burning bush or dense cloud with thunder and lightning, punctuated by the sound of a trumpet, with smoke rising from the mountain upon which I’m perched—overlooking the trembling masses before me. I’m not a deity.
Likewise, there are no legitimate conditions, obligations, expectations, advisements, or commands binding others to a requirement or compelling others to obey me. People are well within their rights to respond to my silly demands by saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”
If I use should, must, or ought statements towards others, and these commandments are violated—and I assure you they will be violated more often than not—others aren’t responsible or accountable for my self-disturbed reactions (i.e., emotions, body sensations, or behavior).
Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “Deric, I’m a non-believer, so what does any of this have to do with me?” The point of this entry is to highlight how use of rigid and extreme demands may not serve people well.
Even if you have no religious or spiritual affiliation, it’s likely that you understand the lesson addressed herein. Commanding the universe to abide by your rules may not be an effective strategy for using with yourself, others, or life in general.
At any rate, far be it for me—an REBT psychotherapist—to tell you what you should, must, or ought to do. If you choose to disturb yourself by shoulding all over the place or musterbating without pleasure, I hope you have enough toilet paper to clean up your mess.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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