This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
Opinions about concentrations of power can be broadly divided into three camps, each illustrated here by an extreme example.
Some believe that the root of all societal evils lies in the concentration of power among a select few. They argue that if power were distributed equally among all individuals, much suffering would be eliminated.
Others argue that concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a capable elite is necessary. They justify this by asserting that intervening in market forces is misguided or that humans are inherently irrational and incapable of rational decision-making. They believe that those who understand what is best for society should retain control.
The third view is that the focus power dynamics is misleading, and alternative ways of thinking about the well-being of individuals are needed.
Regardless of which viewpoint one adopts, it is undeniable that throughout history, people have encountered individuals with the power to either help or harm them. Whether it is a king, a foreign ruler, a boss, or a local policeman, when faced with someone wielding power, individuals often hesitate to speak the truth or take direct action. This phenomenon could be called appeasement.
By appeasing those in power and fulfilling at least some of their desires, individuals hope to minimize potential losses that might outweigh the gains resulting from their direct words or actions. Short-term interests and emotional needs of the powerful must be taken into account.
Appeasement strategies can often be rationalized, since multiple conflicting values are at play. Balancing the costs and benefits of probable outcomes in relation to various goals is required. While appeasement may involve compromising on the value of speaking the unvarnished truth, personal well-being is also an important goal.
However, even if appeasement is logically justified, it can be soul destroying. What we do ultimately determines what we become. Each time we suppress the truth, a part of us experiences internal pain. With repeated dishonesty, this internal conflict may fade away entirely.
A group of people always pull in different directions, at least to some extent. However, even a single individual is driven by different values and desires. It may be correct to listen to the logical and rational voice around the table, but there is almost always a price for doing so.
For leaders who feel compelled to resort to dishonesty or compromise values that some group members perceive as surrender, it is worth considering the message their actions convey to their followers.
The outcomes of our actions are not always unpredictable, as there may be unforeseen secondary and tertiary impacts. Compromises made in the short term may lead to further losses in the long run. Conversely, succumbing to immediate moral impulses could be disastrous.
If it is not possible to predict the outcome, it may be better to never allow significant violations of ethical principles. On the other hand, if the consequences of sticking stubbornly to the ethical high ground are pretty clear, appeasement should be swallowed. The great challenge is to figure out which applies when.