Hegel’s assertion that one cannot find true freedom or fulfillment outside of the life of the community is one with which I agree for several reasons. Our fundamental notions of freedom and fulfillment are shaped by the community. Moreover, the community shapes our efforts to achieve freedom and fulfillment, as well as senses us signals when we have achieved it. Further, the community continues to influence our concepts of freedom and fulfillment long after we have achieved them.
Our very understanding of freedom and fulfillment stem from our interactions with the community. We learn the definitions of the words and school, and we experience them as we navigate the world. Inherently, these concepts are born of a shared understanding, whether a collective societal understanding or a more local one, shared by an individual and their immediate peer group. Even for individuals for whom society is oppressive, the effective resistance is a collective action: in this case, a small group shapes an individual’s notion of the ideal, while the greater community influences the individual’s sense of the intolerable, within the context of freedom and fulfillment.
The community presents the individual with obstacles and challenges to overcome that lead to freedom and fulfillment. Consider the concept of the American Dream, as defined by homeownership and a secure retirement. The average American will face some level of financial crisis at some point during their lives that will threaten to prevent them from freeing themselves from the constraints of the proverbial rat race. Components of this Dream are also less correlated with freedom than with fulfillment, such as marriage and children. Again, societal challenges will present themselves that threaten an individual’s efforts to achieve both.
Moreover, fulfillment (as well as freedom) is less a single defining moment than a continuum of experiences after a certain self-defined event. One may find freedom or fulfillment long before retirement, with the achievement of a certain raise, or the birth of a child. However, maintaining that freedom and fulfillment require continued interactions with the community to some extent. A financial crisis could wipe out even the affluent individual, while untreated mental illness can erode a person’s sense of fulfillment. Even for individuals who assert that both of these concepts are strictly internal, possessing control over one’s emotions does not mean that an individual is immune to the setbacks life presents.
As our notions of freedom and fulfillment are shaped by the community throughout our lives, it is impossible for us to achieve freedom and fulfillment outside of it. Moreover, those who try to do so are doomed to failure.
When James says that truth is expedient in our way of thinking and acting, James offers a profound insight into the ideal methods of personal interactions, group and societal dynamics, and governance. Separating truth from moral frameworks, the truth is a powerful adhesive that can facilitate smooth navigation through a variety of supposedly challenging situations by providing each party in a relationship with a common reference point upon which to base their behavior and interactions.
When two strangers interact for the first time, they have the opportunity (usually multiple opportunities) to lie. When one individual, let’s say individual A, lies and individual B does not, individual A may convince individual B of their lie. However, when individual B learns of the lie, then individual B’s behavior towards individual A will likely change. Individual B may cut off contact with individual A, all at once or gradually. This slows the rate at which social or other interactions take place between the two. Or individual B may begin lying to individual A, which also likely reduces the facility of their transactions. Consider the example of a woman who finds her boyfriend has been lying. She may leave him believing she has wasted her time during her pursuit of a long-term relationship. Or consider two individuals in a business relationship who do not trust each other. They may spend an inordinate amount of time devising scenarios based on what they suspect the other individual may do. In this way, truth is more expedient than lying.
This assertion is not only true for individual relationships but also for groups. There are many natural examples of this in society, from nations to businesses. Indeed, private industry has often supported laws that ensure that all actors are operating within a certain spectrum of truth. The economy is based on the supposition that dollars are stores of certain levels of (ever-fluctuating) value and that when one financial institution, say, loans another publicly traded firm money that they will be paid back. Banking laws exist to ensure this. If firms were free to conceal their existing financial condition and avoid repayment without consequence then indigent firms could take longer to go out of business. This inefficiency would not only be bad for the original lender, but also the indigent firm’s stakeholders. Banking laws and regulations compel corporate actors to act in a manner which is transparent and truthful, and this helps the market ensure that it is operating in a more optimal fashion than it otherwise would.
Regulatory governance can be the province of institutions who opt to self-regulate. However, it is most often the domain of government agencies and bodies, for whom truth is also the most expedient fashion in which to operate. While much ink has been spilled on lying and the use of selective truths in politics, dissembling is, in the long-run, an ineffective method of governing. Many politicians make promises on the campaign trail they will not be able to keep, and, even in some cases, have no intentions of keeping, when they arrive in office. Once there, some politicians lie or selectively message to the public about what a bill or a measure may say to gain support for their position. However, in an era in which transparency in government has never been higher, this approach creates a significant risk of public backlash against the elected official, potentially resulting in them risking losing their seat. Moreover, it facilitates partisan polarization, which diminishes the quantity and quality of laws being passed.
James’ assertion that truth is the expedient in thinking and acting has wide implications, though all too often its inherent wisdom goes unheeded.
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