“Had to” – a linguistic conundrum?

I would suggest that it is worth being cautious about using language that suggests we don’t have a choice when we do

“We had to have an abortion because the baby had Sirenomelia”

“We had to get the train because the last bus had gone”

“We had to give a bribe because otherwise the customs people would have delayed us until our flight had gone”

I don’t see much problem with getting the train instead of the bus. But in every case it seems to me that we mean “we thought it was the sensible/right choice” rather than the “we had no choice” which the words imply, and I think that is cause for concern.

The first case is the one which drew my attention to this problem of language in the first place. I am pro-life in every situation – i.e. I don’t believe it is ever justified to try to end the life of an unborn, for a wide variety of different reasons, the simplest being that under no other circumstances does our normal understanding of human rights allow any attribute other than that of being a living human being to have an impact on someone’s moral status*. But I would distinguish between pro-choice and pro-abortion, the latter being more sinister as it tends to start reducing the positive freedom of the parents, as well as not considering the child.

Pro-choice suggests that the mother should make a more or less arbitrary decision, should act according to her preference whatever that is (I don’t agree with that type of practical reasoning, but it does follow logically from liberal anthropology). There would, in this case, be two cultural maps of how to act in all different types of circumstances, one of which involves having an abortion, and the other of which involves not doing so. “Had to” conveys a pro-abortion norm, because it is not acknowledging the possibility of the other way of acting. Choice is being eroded in this case by a way of thinking and speaking that suggests that choice does not really exist in a particular type of circumstance. “We thought it was the best thing to do,” however much I disagree, is at least a correct description of the decision.

“We had to get the train because the last bus had gone”. While in many ways inaccurate – in fact, you might be able to sit in a doorway all night, you might be able to find a hotel, you might be able to spend the night walking to the next town from which you could get a bus in the morning, this one doesn’t strike me as a particular problem. Getting the train from where you are is the logical option in the ordinary course of day-to-day necessity. This was more my control case than anything else. There isn’t, as far as I can see, any sort of moral issue inherently at stake in taking the train rather than the bus – no question of needing to think about the legitimacy of the action.

I had a long argument with various people about my third example, about “having to give a bribe”, which comes from one of my family doing work in a part of Africa, and people insisting that he “had to” give a bribe because that was how the country worked. I have in this case, no clear answer to the question of whether or not the action is moral or not. I can see why people would feel as foreigners that they shouldn’t challenge a system of that sort in a country where it was a long term tradition. I can also see the problems involved in not refusing. I feel, however, that citing “had to” and continuing “because of this consequence” is problematic.  In such circumstances there is always the choice to suffer the consequence, though it may not be the right thing to do in any particular case. Consider an escalation: “we had to murder three children because otherwise the customs people would have delayed us until our booked flight had gone.” I both think and hope that most people would refuse. Again, as with my first example, I think it is important not to erode the sense of “this is the right decision” with language that implies “I was deprived of the freedom to make a decision”.

So, I would suggest that we could do with being careful about the ways in which we use “have to”. Using it to refer to the need to change every day plans due to some unexpected happening is inaccurate, but probably unimportant. However, using it when some more serious choice is involved does matter, for in eroding our sense of choice, it makes it harder for us to see the thing in question as a real choice, choose rightly, and accept responsibility.


Cherry Foster


*What’s usually opposed to this “my body, my rights” does not seem to me to be any counter-argument because the child also has a physical body from the moment of conception.

Also, I don’t feel I should disapprove of abortion, however obliquely, without mentioning sources of support for people in the sort of situation where they can’t see another way forward, or who may need human assistance post-abortion. I’m not in a position to vouch for the practical quality of the help offered by any of the following, except that I met one of the Gospel of Life sisters (third link) at a conference and was favourably impressed.






The fourth link is also academically interesting from the point of view of what I’m saying about our understanding of “choice” in the case of abortion.