Once free, stay free.
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.
There are several values that are important to us as individuals and as a society, including the desire to be free from suffering, the pursuit of happiness, the search for truth and meaning, and the value of freedom. However, it is often difficult to prioritize these values, as they can conflict with each other and may be prioritized differently by different people in different contexts.
We like to proclaim that the value of Freedom is absolute, but that claim does not stand up well to scrutiny.
What is Freedom? It is (i) not being dominated by others and, (ii) the ability to overcome any constraints on our actions. Beyond that it gets arguable. Is seeing others with more wealth than you, a deprivation of your freedom? Do you need freedom from your passions? When you enter into situations of subservience in order to earn a living, are you unfree? If you don’t know a better alternative or if you believe that your way of life, dominated by another, is superior, are you not free?
There are societies that prioritize the values of peace, security, order or tradition so much that its members stay ignorant of alternatives and challenges to the system are dealt with brutally. Yet many individuals in these societies will defend their system at all costs. Is this just brainwashing or simply a different prioritization of values?
In modern society, we try to change the relationship of marriage to lower the level of one-sided power and domination. However, we continue to embrace many other relationships of power. Think of the employer-employee relationship with its power abuses. Is there equal footing in your interaction with a policeman? Are children not dominated by their parents and teachers, or students by their institutions? Does our need for food and consumer goods enslave us?
Perhaps in the future we will look back, appalled at the enslavement that was everywhere in the 21st century.
Does time have an arrow? Is there some rule that says that Freedom always evolves in a specific direction, or are the changes we see just the whims of fashion?
If freedom does have direction, it is that once we discover a freedom, we want to keep that freedom – we want to stay free.
This would be true on a personal level as well as on the stage of history.
Once a person sees that they need not live in a situation of dominance, it is wrong to put them back there. Perhaps it was less wrong when they did not know better, but now that they do, it is more wrong. Knowing freedom changes the prioritization levels for that person. Now they care about that more than whatever advantages they gained when their freedom was compromised. This does not rule out the option of a voluntary compromise on freedom, but coerced return to domination is seriously wrong.
Once society advanced technologically or ethically to the point where enslavement of some particular kind was seen as evil, there should be no going back. Judging previously accepted norms might be anachronistic and ignorant or it might be justified and demand atonement. Either way, there is no going back.
One last example. The recent epidemic has shown that the way we always went to work is not the only way to be productive. Employers and employees as well as consumer attitudes and the economy as a whole are grappling with new attitudes. The biggest change is that people tasted alternatives.
There must be many constraints on our freedom that we are barely aware of. At any rate we don’t seem to care enough in order to change them. One day we will probably taste a different set of values. We will never be the same again.