If you let people be destitute, that is not much better than letting them die.
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.
Maybe, once upon a time, our ancestors were just survival machines. Today, we are much more than that.
Our raw instinct to survive is still there inside of us but we have grown other “neural modules” alongside it. We can reflect on these drives, on the things we want and those that hurt us. Rather than being driven by the last pain event, we can sum up different pain-events and persistent pains across time. We can grasp our survival in the context of multiple pleasures and multiple pains across time. While an animal instinctively cares only about survival, humans can challenge this will to survive if the pain is too great or the purpose is too small.
Imagine real poverty. Hunger gnaws at you all the hours of the day, every day. You live with the unbearable memory of the child you lost last winter because the harvest of the previous summer had been a meager one. When it is cold outside, you are cold all day and all night. When it rains, you huddle in those areas of your shack where water does not drip down on you. Spring to Fall, you work from rising till sleep, breaking your back in the fields.
Or imagine another kind of torture. You belong to a small minority with history, beliefs and practices that you are forbidden to observe. The authorities watch you day and night for any sign of relapse. As the years go by, you see that your children become ever more part of the majority culture. Their children will know nothing of your dreams or those of your ancestors.
Is a life of extreme pain better than death? Is a life where core values are frustrated, denied and given no fair hearing worth living? Is it valid for society to defend its behavior by saying “well at least we didn’t kill them”?