Thursday, August 30, 2012


In the dusty recesses of my mind, in a rarely visited file entitled, “The Talmudic Teachings I Recall Being Forced Upon Me In Hebrew School” – the Talmud being a compilation of commentaries and interpretations of Biblical Law – there were numerous issues involving an ox wandering away and turning up on someone else’s property, posing the question, “Who exactly does the ox now belong to?”  I believe there was another situation involving a stack of oranges that fell over causing some renegade oranges to roll down the street, making a similar point, but this time with citrus.

During such discussions, I would find my young mind beginning to wander, though not before asking – internally, because if I asked it out loud, I would most definitely have been whacked with a ruler – “Neither I or my family owns an ox, and eating oranges gives me a stomachache.  What has any of this to do with me?”

What I’m talking about is evaluating issues on the basis of self-interest.  Or “selfishness”, as it is called when you’re resistant to sharing your goodies, generally by a person who thinks you should because you have more goodies than they have, making their position suspiciously self-interested as well.    

Being an arena of ethical exploration, The Talmud dealt with the “selfishness” issue as well.  This one stuck with me, as it involved the question of life and death, rather than meandering oxen or oranges taking a troublemaking roll.

The life-and-death question the Talmud posed was the following:  If two men are stranded in the desert, and one man’s goatskin pouch holds enough water to keep only one of them alive, should the man drink the water himself, or should he sacrifice his life to save his companion’s?  

The Talmud’s direction on this matter is clear:

You are instructed to drink the water yourself.

In other words:  Be selfish. 

This is a quasi-religious collection we’re talking about.  And they’re telling you unequivocally to go for yourself.

So there.

And yet… (Making “So there” a short-lived vindication.)

The “limited water in the desert” example pushes the selfishness issue to a “Me or him” extreme.  In a way, that’s easy – not watching the other guy die from dehydration; that’s probably a little rough – but the situation itself is simple. 

There is not enough water for two people.  The Talmud requires the selfish response.

But in regular life, which, excluding confused nomads – if nomads still exist – the vast majority of us are unlikely to be stranded in the desert with a goatskin pouch of water whose dwindling contents can keep one person alive but no more.  The situation is therefore unlikely to come up.  Nor is anything equally “It’s me or him.”

Where, however, do you come down on the question of self-interest when it’s not a life-or-death situation but simply a question of, “This stuff is mine; why should I give any of it to you?”

What does “mine” mean?  I earned it.  It inherited it.  I found it, and no one else came forward claiming it was theirs.  (Wherein we veer unexpectedly close to “ox-and orange” territory.)  Let us stipulate, as they say on Law & Order, that we agree on the understanding of the meaning of “mine.”

With this understanding behind us, what is wrong with doing whatever you can, within the bounds of the law, to insure that what is “mine” remains mine?

I am reading a history book called Empire of Liberty (by Gordon S. Wood), which covers the early post-Revolutionary era of this country’s existence. 

During those fledgling days of nationhood, Americans were trying to figure out what kind of government they wanted to have.  One notion flying around involved the idea that Congress should be populated by members who were so financially well fixed that their legislative actions would be free of any self-interested suspicions, but would instead be exclusively in the service of benefiting the nation as a whole.   

That idea lasted about twenty minutes. 

It turns out, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, there is no such thing as a “non self-interested person.”  What historically happened is that almost immediately, constituents of like interests banded together to increase their legislative muscle, and the political party system was born.  (Though hardly to universal enthusiasm.  Thomas Jefferson said that if there were parties in heaven, he didn’t want to go.)

Self-interest appears to be natural.  And, at least in this country, perfectly acceptable.  When Republicans, to gain their votes, assure Seniors that their current Medicare benefits will remain untouched, what they’re tellin them is, “Your interests are totally protected.  It’s your children that we’re screwing.”  Which, according to the argument, is not the Seniors’ problem, so it’s okay.

Congresspeople who will not be reelected if they ignore their “Tea Party” constituents’ demands that they not compromise on anything, wanting to be reelected, they refuse to compromise on anything.

“Can you believe that!”

“It’s just simple self-interest.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot.”

And it’s not just extreme “interest groups.”  Nobody, even the most compassionate of us, wants to pay any more income taxes than they are legally required to. 

Including billionaires.

Why should that surprise us?  Considering their financial position, they behavior appears greedy.  But on closer scrutiny, it stems from the same impulse we all have – to keep as much of our stuff as we can.  

Why should be draw the line at billionaires?

“Because they have too much!”

Perhaps, Italics Man.  But can you not imagine people lower in the economic scale who believe you have too much? 

I am not supporting the idea that nobody owes anything to anybody else.  I am just, as an opening salvo in an ongoing exploration, suggesting that in a country which honors – almost above all else – individualism, we should not be surprised when those individuals fight like the dickens to retain as much as possible of what they rightfully feel to be theirs.

Who knows, he suggests, searching for uplift at the end.  Maybe if we stopped calling them names all the time, they might loosen up, and realize that, in ways other than financial, it is also in their interests to be a teensy bit more generous.

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