What would they have done?
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.
In this post, I will argue that receiving something for free creates a sense of obligation to use it in accordance with the giver’s intentions.
The reason someone gives you something for free is because their values motivate them to do so. The most common example of this kind of giving is parents providing for their children. Although parents may be solely motivated by their desire to benefit their child, rather than any expectation of reciprocity, children often still feel a sense of obligation attached to this act of giving.
In the case of the parent-child relationship, this obligation often involves certain expectations, such as passing on the same generosity to your own children, and living your life in accordance with the values instilled by your parents – at least to some extent.
This sense of obligation can often cause tension within the human psyche, as it conflicts with the desire for autonomy, freedom, and the right to choose one’s own path in life. Children don’t choose their parents or the circumstances of their birth, so any sense of obligation can be especially challenging. To emphasize this point, even if you feel that your parents would never have sought to limit your choices in any way, imagine if you chose a way of living that went against everything your parents held dear or if your behavior was the type they struggled their whole lives to prevent. At its core, this dilemma raises a fundamental ethical issue: is it right to accept a gift, only to use it against the giver?
Here is a proposal that might ease this inevitable tension. Firstly, the previous generations did not have access to the facts that have determined your life, your challenges, struggles and decisions, and secondly, the world they lived in was different; the world is changing, and doing so ever faster. Therefore, you may not feel obligated to make the same decisions that they did. However, there is great value in asking yourself: if they had lived today and knew everything you know about your own life and context, what beliefs would they then hold? What goals would they consider valuable? What would they have done? There is no need for an internal struggle against what they did choose, as the true expression of their will can only be understood if translated into the context of your life, in today’s world, with all the knowledge that it and you have accumulated.