I find myself caught on the horns of a dilemma as I try to determine whether conservatives or liberals make most sense when they talk of human freedom. On the one hand, conservatives insist that increasing social programs will deprive humans of their freedom while on the other hand liberals insist that human beings cannot be said to be free if they have no food on the table or homes to live in. I find the latter position more appealing, but the former one is not without strength.

When I speak of conservatives I speak not of reactionary conservatives such as our fractious leader who takes great delight in spreading hatred among his mindless minions. Nor do I speak of the “dollar conservatives” whose only love is of filthy lucre and who think freedom is all about free enterprise. Rather, I speak of those intellectual conservatives such as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who thought that socialism, for example, would deprive humans of any real freedom in the name of making them feel more safe and secure. Dostoevsky knew whereof he spoke as he had been condemned to a firing squad as a young man for having radical political ideas and then, after a reprieve, was sent to Siberia for five years to live among convicts in clothing that stank and crawled with lice while he picked cockroaches out of his thin soup. He was convinced that in order to be really free humans needed to suffer and he hated the Church because he was convinced that they took upon their own shoulders the burden of human freedom thereby reducing humans to “denizens of an ant heap.” Socialism, in his view, was nothing more than the stepchild of the Church.

How does one argue against a man who went through what Dostoevsky went through? How does one living in modern day America possibly understand how much we take the easy life for granted when so many in this crowded world struggle to survive? As Dostoevsky would see it, our freedom has been reduced to determining which loaf of bread we will select from the huge variety on the shelves at the grocery store or which car we will lease this year. We fear the risks and responsibilities of true freedom. And Heaven knows we don’t want to suffer in any way. (Where’s the aspirin?) At the same time, however, even in this wealthy country there are those who must scrounge in dumpsters for their meals and live on the streets, it is hard to agree that such people are free in any real sense of the term. There’s the dilemma.

Thus, one turns to politicians such as Bernie Sanders who embraces socialism in the name of human compassion and a genuine concern for others. I take him at his word; I believe he is sincere. He does want to help others. In wishing to do so, however, does he threaten to make us all “denizens of an ant heap”? I would prefer not to give up my freedom in order to dance to the tunes played by the corporations or in order not to have to make moral choices for myself. It is true as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky say that living in a state in which people are taken care of by a powerful political machine does not seem to allow room for any true human freedom.

But what about those who suffer? There’s the dilemma. And the care for others coupled with the compassion we ought surely to feel for our fellow human beings who do suffer — even though we do not do so ourselves (or, rather, because we do not do so ourselves!) would seem to be a demand we make of our moral selves. Must we trade genuine human freedom in order to make sure there are none who suffer to the extent that freedom becomes an empty word?  I think we must. I acknowledge the strength of the position taken by Dostoevsky who suffered immeasurably and grew in the process from a shallow human being with a few tattered radical ideas to a genius who knew that what really mattered in human lives was the love we have for once another and who cared about others while he was convinced that they must suffer, as he did perhaps, in order to become fully human.

But I finally come down on the side of those whose care for others would take some of their freedom away in the hope that in doing so they could live meaningful lives and achieve some semblance of meaningful freedom that is denied to them as they seek to keep body and soul together on the streets of our cities. We risk becoming “denizens of an ant heap” in opting for a political system that focuses on the needs of our fellow human beings. But the conservative view of freedom that was held by thinkers such as Dostoevsky has been reduced in our day, as I noted above, to a preoccupation with free enterprise in which the only thing that truly matters is the increase of creature comforts among the few at the cost of misery for so many others. In the end, the escape between the horns of the dilemma seems clear: err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.



12 thoughts on “Dilemma

  1. I agree with your stance Hugh.

    Humanity, to be healthy and happy, needs to share, cooperate and work toward common goals. There does need to be a reward system, but that should never be at the expense of other lives, nor should it be the profits of exploitation (slavery or near to). The problem with the current political systems is that none have pure intent. Each system has a punitive approach toward others (taxes) rather than a reward system (sharing profits). Some of the greatest philanthropic company chaimen (I. E. Cadbury) knew that if they provided housing, parks, holidays and profit sharing schemes for their workers, it would build community, loyalty, high skill and great output of product. Sadly, this sort of enterprise, so prevalent in Victoria society, has evolved into the greedy shareholder idea that rewards only the people who buy shares in a company. They do not work, they do not contribute, but they do take profits on a grand scale. This is what has broken down society. It creates discontent in workers, it also creates a sense of hopelessness in the poor who never feel their contributions will lead to a better, happier, more healthy life. They see their life stretch out in endless toil just to survive. It is a life of mental anguish, and very often poor health. It fosters crime, violence and hatred. This is where we are. We need a change in the Corporate climate as much as the political one Hugh, because right now all parties are dancing to the tune of shareholders with greedy intentions.

  2. My gods! I quit reading after the first sentence. When you start like that, it’s easy to guess the resolution: NONE. Is this a math trick, like some cat in a box? Pth* I got cows to milk. Don’t waste my precious time. Chuckle*

  3. Hugh, I am going to cite the work a charity I used to be a part of that builds off the book “Toxic Charity,” written by a minister who lived with the disenfranchised people he sought to help. His name is Robert Lupton. His thesis is simple: true charity should focus on emergency or short term needs. What he argued for to help others long term and we did (and still do) is help people climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. That should be the goal.

    We cannot push them up the ladder. A social worker used to say we walk side by side with our clients. The folks we helped are homeless working families. We had two keys – they received a subsidy for rent based on their ability to pay, but they had to plan, budget, get financial educated working with a social worker. The had to be responsible for rent and utilities up to 30% of their income. Another key is we measured success. Success to us is being housed on their own without help after one, two or three years depending on the severity of the issues.

    So, we need to better identify what we mean by success in our help for people in need. Also, are things like healthcare a right? Food on the table a right? What we need is better measurement of what we spend and how it helps. My former party likes to argue off the extreme anecdotes – the significant majority of people do not cheat the system, but the perceived thinking of such is much higher in Republican ranks.

    What people like David Brooks, a conservative pundit touts is a dialogue on what kind of country do we wish to be? Our economy is a fettered capitalist model, with socialist underpinnings to help people in need. What is the right balance? Is it better to pay a much higher minimum wage or have a higher earned income tax credit, e.g.

    At the end of the day, Gandhi said it best – a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. With so great disparity in the haves/ have nots in our country, I can tell we are out of whack. Ironically, even in the age of Trump promises, we have many people who do not realize they are voting against their economic interests.

    So, I agree with Gandhi, Lupton, and Brooks that we need to help people, but decide what is the best way. We should measure things and adjust them when they get out of whack. And, what we need most is for politicians to check their tribal egos at the door when they enter the room. Both parties have some good ideas, but have some bad ones too. Keih

    • Great comment, Keith. You speak from personal experience. I have also heard that those who are receiving aid and cannot work are eager to get back to work as soon as possible. In this country it is a matter of pride with a great many people.

  4. I can speak only for myself, but my ‘freedom’ is worth little if, when I go to bed at night, I know that there are children sick or hungry that I might have helped. People dying an ocean away from a disease that has a cure, only one that they couldn’t afford. That there are some who go to bed with billions in their investment portfolios, while others sleep on the streets, indicates to me that this nation has largely lost its values, its compassion, its humanity. But then … I am, as they call me, a “bleeding heart liberal”, a “snowflake”. ‘Tis okay … I live with my own conscience.

    • P.S. I forgot to mention that this was, as yours usually are, very thought-provoking. I actually found myself considering both sides of the equation, but … not for long, as I know who I am and, as Popeye used to say, “I yam what I yam …”

      • I side with you on the issue of helping those who require help. No matter what. Freedom means little if it is the freedom to starve or freeze to death.

  5. Hugh – You’ve nicely put our ‘dilemma’ down on paper. It’s always a balancing act, and I think we definitely need some re-calibration. Thanks for the thoughtful piece. -Susan

  6. “moral choices” often conflict with being a cog in Social Machinery, driving people to desperation on every hand. It’s what a dog-eat-dog morality makes of ‘self-will’, indulgence in Me First notions of interest, and a disregard for anything not contemporary to a wasted inspiration. Where there is no Vision…the People perish. Amon*

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