Long Spoons: a Misguided Allegory

7In 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.

8Aristotle 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.

4 thoughts on “Long Spoons: a Misguided Allegory

  1. Amen, amen.

    That said, a datum: my son at 17, and partially paralyzed, raised a lot of money by selling poinsettias and grapefruit (!) door to door around Berkeley to fund a 3 month sojourn in the hinterlands of Paraguay – far from any electronic contact with the outside world – where he was with another teenage boy to have helped the local villagers to build latrines. He raised the money, he went – what were we thinking, my wife and I? – and it was a huge success. With the other boy, whom he did not much like, he succeeded – despite not much fluency in Spanish at his departure – in organizing the villagers to build their first latrines ever, plus a school and a community center. In three months.

    Those two terrified boys from America *revolutionized* life in that remote village. In 3 months.

    My son returned to us totally fluent in Spanish and rhapsodizing about how the Paraguayans he had lived with knew much more about how to live than we Westerners. They would sit around and talk for hours, and enjoy life, and enjoy each other. They were not worried about tomorrow! So beautiful!

    A natural reaction, and not of course wrong altogether.

    Still. After almost *500 years* of constant contact with European civilization, so consistent that they spoke only Spanish, the Paraguayans he loved *still did not know that a latrine was a good idea.* So they subjected themselves to dysentery, cholera, on and on. It took two American boys who knew nothing of the building arts to organize them in respect to basic notions that have been familiar and ordinary among Europeans for 3,000 years, or more.

    These missions to the 3rd World from the 1st have done a lot of good. But not permanently, I feel sure. The reversion to the mean is no good at all when the mean is poverty and cluelessness. The latrines my son and his colleague built fifteen years ago are probably already full of soil, and never used. They are a curiosity of the village, that nobody there quite understands.

    Perhaps it would be better and nobler if we were to just leave the Paraguayans and their ilk to their own devices. That would seem to be the right course under the paradigm of the current Western Establishment Narrative (which being Western is itself just so parochial, and evil!). On that paradigm it is quite wrong for us to want or try to help the people of other cultures; such help being under the current Narrative entirely imperialist and so (on Western notions only) unjust.

    Physician, heal thyself, no? Surely there is plenty of work to do, in that. Who could finish that project, pray?

    The Left is founded upon terror of that fearsome costly prospect of relentless, pitiless introspection. It wants to blame some other. So it searches for some outward scapegoat whose immolation can seem for a moment or two to substitute for that sacrifice of the self which is the forecondition of all sanity, all rest, all health.

    • Hi, Kristor: I guess in that case, your son and the other boy really did have something useful and novel to offer; the requirement for helping anyone. It would indeed be interesting to know if the latrines were still being used or not. There is a current hatred for the concept of “a white savior.” That puts the cherry on the top of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

  2. The wealth of a community grows through the principle of reciprocity, as Marcel Mauss explains in his treatise — which ought to be on every college “must read” list — The Gift. Another way of saying what Mauss says is that an initial gift stimulates at once morally and competitively many other gifts stretching away into the future and thereby increasing the welfare of the community almost by magic. Mauss is a better economist than Adam Smith, but no one perceives this.

    • Reciprocity is a great good and boon. Of course, in order for me to reciprocate something of worth given to me, I need to be able to contribute something of worth back – whether goods or labor, or both, unless we mimic the Tobriand Islanders who simply pass the same goods back and forth.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.