Locks, Technology, and Freedom

by Penrod

It is good to be sitting here in the Music Cove using pen and ink rather that typing standard characters on a keyboard. I can make the letters as I like, and I enjoy the flexibility.

This triggers some important questions. What serves personal and social freedom? How is freedom affected by changes in technology? Organization? Procedure? How does a specific change impact our lives?

These are ethical questions because they deal with matters that have an impact on our freedom. That people value freedom as a good or an aim is an ethical judgment. There are two major branches of ethics. One is judgments of value regarding what is the good. The other is judgments of obligation. In the first we consider what we conclude to be the good—for example, truth, love, freedom, and beauty. In the second, we construct codes of action that we think are necessary to serve the good—such things as the various codes of professional ethics.

Here is an ethical question: Does locking our house when I leave enhance or lessen my freedom? Many lock their houses to keep things safe from robbers and, thus, to free themselves from the anxiety that someone may break in when they are away. Others, fewer, I suspect, think it a loss of freedom. Locking means that I must take the time to lock, carry keys with me to get back in, keep track of those keys so that I don’t lose them, spend time unlocking when I return, and, perhaps, worry about people breaking windows, doors, and the like to get in.

Of course, the decision to lock or not is made in a context. To lock in rural Minnesota involves different considerations than in Manhattan. In both cases it is an ethical decision in relation to freedom—an ethical decision, not a moral one. This is not a question of right or wrong, but of the impact of the decision on freedom.

Most new media are presented as extensions of freedom. A mobile phone allows contact at most any time and place. It also means that one is never out of reach and never free of obligations to take and, perhaps, make calls. What does a mobile phone do to the freedom of solitude? What does a laptop computer do for the ability to get away from work?

Three stories come to mind regarding ethical considerations of freedom.

One is the story of Ryokan, a Zen master, who lived in a hut at the foot of a mountain. Returning one night, he caught a robber who had just learned that there was nothing to steal. "You may have come a long way to visit me and you should not return empty-handed," said Ryokan. "Please take my clothes as a gift." Bewildered, the thief took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon." (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, p. 27.)

Another is the story about the Mullah Nasrudin who has a some-what different angle. "There is a burglar downstairs," said Nasrudin’s wife one night. "Not a sound," whispered the Mulla. "If he finds anything here, he will have to bring it into the house himself first. He may even leave something behind." (The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah, p. 144.)

Last, consider the story of the disciples who were instructed by Jesus to go on journeys without supplies or extra clothes, or, of course, keys. The orders freed them for their mission, and they could abandon themselves to the present. The reports are that their missions were big successes. (For example, Luke 9:1ff.)

These ethical stories are not moral judgments on the acts of locking and protecting. But they reveal the freedom of living in a different direction. This world is under the powerful grip of possessions, which require extensive protection, and the stories are a vital counterpoint to conventional wisdom in such matters.

Penrod says that, in thinking about him, one should think first of Booth Tarkington's Penrod, the boy writer, and then of the mighty pen of Martin Luther with its power like unto the rod of Aaron.

See all articles by Penrod