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Reflections on Ethics 79
What do long-handled spoons have to do with morality?

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There’s a parable that was related to my class in school well over 50 years ago which I found ridiculous then, and still find ridiculous now. But, I keep running across it either by accident, or someone sends it to me in the forlorn hope it will somehow influence me to believe in their god.

Googling the tale in an attempt to identify the original author showed it appears, or is referenced, in some 370,000 web sites. It seems to have universal popularity; I found it on Christian sites of all flavours, Jewish sites, Muslim sites, and even a Hindu site. I found it on university web sites, church web sites, and on rank amateur sites. I even found it on one site complaining of it as an annoying chain letter. But, none I looked at gave an author.

Still it makes no sense, no sense literally, and no sense for whatever moral message it is trying to communicate.

Here’s one version (and there are several variations of the tale.) I like this one because, if you think about it, it is clear that the “holy man” is destined for hell. (Presumably not the author’s intention.)

A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, “Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. The Lord said, “You have seen Hell”.

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well-nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The holy man said, “I don't understand.”

“It is simple,” said the Lord, “it requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves.”

Now, come one! Has no-one who promulgates this tale ever seen a child hold an oversized spoon - down near the bowl to exert better control? Has no-one who promulgates this tale ever considered what would happen trying to feed someone across the table by holding on to the end of a long-handled spoon? Would even one-tenth of the stew find its way into the other person’s mouth? Most would be on the nose, chin, flowing down the chest, and pooling on the floor.

What we have are two groups of people, each incapable of finding a way to feed themselves, with one of the groups managing an unnecessarily complex and ineffective way around the problem.[1]

It is nonsensical.

But a believer could respond “it’s a fable, it does not have to make perfect literal sense, what is important is the message. Just accept that the people cannot feed themselves, but can find a way to feed each other. Then you will see the validity of the message.”

But what is the message? That good people - those who get to go to heaven - can figure out how to cooperate? That bad people - those going to hell - cannot cooperate?

Again - that’s nonsense. Both bad people and good people do know how to cooperate. You have to cooperate to live in society, even if you are going to be a parasite and not offer as much cooperation as you receive. Perhaps bad individuals are more likely to ask “What’s in it for me?” but if there is something in it for them, they will cooperate. And even for selfless reasons they will cooperate in an evil act if they think it good.[2] Cooperation is a means to an end and is not necessarily good in itself.

There’s an old saying: “You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.” I’ve never seen that as a moral statement. Rather, it is an amoral one. That’s what’s going on behind the door marked “Heaven” - mutual back scratching, nothing more.

So, let’s ignore the literal details of the story and ask “What is the message?” The message is that those who think this parable says something about morality have no clue what morality really is.

Footnotes:

  1. Perhaps there's a parable about religious belief there; unnecessarily complex and ineffective.
  2. 9/11 is an example.