In hell, people sit around a pot of food. They are chained in place. They sit three feet from the pot, but their spoons are six feet long and they are unable to get the food in their mouths, so they are all starving and miserable.
In heaven, people sit around a pot of food. They are chained in place. They sit three feet from the pot, and their spoons are six feet long. Each person is feeding the person next to him and all are content.
There is nothing selfless about the heaven scenario. Each person gets an immediate benefit from his actions. The allegory relies on the goodness of reciprocity as a moral assumption. No one has no spoon. In that world, the rule would seem to be “feed he who has a spoon and though shalt be fed.” It is true that there can be a benefit from helping those who cannot help you in return; but the allegory emphasizes mutuality and cooperation.
The parable highlights a key misguided aspect of the liberal mindset. Namely, a total neglect of self-sustaining independence. In real life, this would be coupled with an emphasis on extractive state policies providing all needs to which everyone has a “right.” The liberal is likely to look askance at charity. Being voluntary, charity does not provide full-fledged security and a guarantee of food and housing. The government can remedy the vagaries of this, and forcibly take money and property from the successful and give it to others, regardless of how those others ended up in a state of total dependence. Never mind the fact that this diminishes the incentive to be successful in the first place and provides no penalty for sheer laziness.
Aristotle identified four aspects of eudaimonia – the flourishing, happy, person. There are the virtues or social excellences: moderation, courage, generosity, and justice. These are primarily exhibited in relation to other people and are part of our communal existence. Excellence of mind, is wisdom. Excellence of body means gymnastic training. Lastly, is economic excellence. Acquiring a skill that is useful to other people. Aristotle gives tent-making and poetry as examples. In order to help other people, it is necessary to be able to first help yourself. It seems likely that many young people who volunteer for the Peace Corp will actually be pretty useless once they arrive in the designated third world country. How many of them are actually highly skilled electricians, plumbers, or house-builders? Neither are they likely to be accountants, or bankers, or economists, knowledgeable about arranging mortgages, interest rates, and the like.
Without economic excellence, someone will simply be a net weight and drain on his environment. It seems likely that when the average twenty-year-old turns up in Guatemala, for instance, his room and board will exceed his ability to contribute. There will be plenty of unskilled laborers already living in Guatemala and their wages will be low.
My eldest sister, Charlotte, provides dental work for free, in addition to her regular appointments, for charitable reasons. She had floated the idea of picking up garbage or working in a soup kitchen. I suggested that her skills a dentist are much rarer and more valuable. Nearly anyone can do menial work. And nearly no one can do advanced dentistry. This made sense to her. It can be a thankless task, however. Few long spoons for her! But, she very definitely has something to offer.
In one interpretation of the allegory, the spoons represent “what we have been given.” What have we been given? Talents? Talents are worthless unless they are developed through hard work and discipline. Inherited wealth? It can be squandered and lost. The phrase “what we have been given” continues the passivity, and total dependence on others, depicted in the allegory. Human capacity is far reaching. Developing that capacity to high levels is rare. Maybe it would be better to describe the spoons as skills we have assiduously developed through hard work and discipline.
There is a phenomenon where someone with mental illness studies psychology precisely for that reason. Such a person seems unlikely to make a good therapist. To the extent a therapist is a guide and a teacher he should be modeling mental health. How can he help to confer what he does not possess himself? A physical coach is different. He might be past his prime, but nonetheless knows how to achieve physical excellence in the young. Likewise, I know of a woman who had such mental health problems that she was incapable of living by herself. She chose to become a social worker to help those having trouble looking after themselves. It seems extremely unlikely that she will be any good at doing this.
The picture of heaven in the parable is an impossible one and a terrible message to all who hear it. It is a situation where each person is radically incapable of looking after himself. He is utterly dependent on the charitable good will of his neighbor. And yet, miraculously, he is in a position to help his neighbor and meet all his needs. The parable neglects who is cooking and providing all that food too. There is no emphasis on food production, or by inference, wealth creation. Just on its distribution. That also seems typical of the liberal mindset.
Tautologically, someone must first have something to contribute before he can help anyone. In order to bring a cooked meal to one’s neighbor in a charitable fashion, one must have the means to procure the ingredients, actually go and purchase them or get them from the garden, have a functioning and clean kitchen, a residence in which the kitchen exists, and then be a cook capable of creating palatable and healthy meals. Having provided all of those things for oneself, including the skills, one can then share them with others. Being useful to oneself is a prerequisite for being useful to others. In order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must love yourself. And loving yourself will require all of Aristotle’s excellences, if possible.
None of this means abandoning the sick and elderly, of course. It is just that the sick and elderly rely on the young, healthy, and vigorous, some with advanced nursing skills acquired through training of some kind. It is perfectly okay, and even inevitable, thanks to old age and extreme youth, that each of us will be in a situation of dependence at some point. But, we cannot all be in such a position and still have a functioning society.
It is also true that we help each other out in various ways. My contractor drywalls my living room. I pay my contractor. Win-win. He helps me. I help him. But, before either of us can help the other, we must have the ability take care of our own needs to a large extent. We exercise, eat right, work, and have a modicum of the four moral virtues. We shower, get enough sleep, dress ourselves, cook our own meals, and clean the house. We get up in the morning and have some self-discipline. Neither of us is simply incapacitated. We can help each other only because we are each moderately self-sufficient and independent first.
The real liberal hell would be everyone waiting for someone to cook the food and then grabbing it. And if they cook their own food, they will look with resentment at the better cooking abilities of someone else and claim that it is not fair that he is eating nicer meals than him. “Studies” show that inequality makes people unhappy due to resentment and envy. The liberal solution is to bring everyone down to the same low level. Socializing the cooking process will make sure everyone eats the same crappy food in the name of happiness, and no one need fear that someone else is happier than he. The Christian solution is not to desire your neighbor’s wife, or anything else belonging to the neighbor. In other words, realize the evils of resentment and blame oneself for giving in to it.