Aesop is often outdated. The morals of his stories don’t always make sense anymore. For sure, some of them are timeless. No-one’s going to argue that the lion should have eaten the mouse. But many of them teach children the wrong lesson. Yet Aesop has retained his status as a purveyor of sound morals.
For a case study of the way the world has left Aesop behind, look at The Peacock and the Crane. In this story, the peacock is vain and thinks he is better than the crane because he looks nice, while the crane is grey and dull. The crane gets the last laugh, however, because he can fly while the peacock’s tail is useless. There is so much wrong with this. It’s terrible on diversity. It gives status to practical value while denying it to aesthetic value. And it encourages ad hominem criticism. My kids disliked it on all of these grounds.
Worst of all, it’s a bad case of zero sum thinking: the idea that for one person to succeed, someone else must fail. We live in a world of growth. We can all benefit from this growth together. When one person does well, it can create the conditions for others to do well, too. We all ought to be able to rise in status.
The inability to think in a positive-sum way has been hugely damaging in the global response to the pandemic. When the UK was an early approver of the vaccine, and had robust agreements for production with suppliers, they were criticised for taking up large amounts of vaccine supply. That missed the point that by being so proactive the UK was contributing to conditions where more vaccine could be made.
You find zero-sum thinking applied selectively all over the place. Immigration is believed to take away jobs from existing citizens, as if adding people to the labour force wasn’t a way of growing the economy overall. Imagine believing that allowing school-leavers and graduates to join the work force every year took away jobs from existing employees. When women joined the labour force in large number in the 1980s employment grew.
The Peacock and the Crane is also pre-Darwinian. We know now that the peacock’s tail has a very important function: it attracts mates. It looks fancy and showy, but really it performs much the same function as many other signals all creatures send to each other. It’s an extreme, impractical, version of something the crane also does. Seemingly pointless (but actually important) signalling is fundamental to the way all sorts of important things work like markets, flirting, and using English degrees to get jobs in consulting firms.
Some of the tales are timeless and useful like The Crow and the Jug. But should the dog in the manger be thrown out into the cold, where there’s the whole rest of the barn available? Are we so sure that leaving children to get eaten by wolves teaches anyone anything?
The Tortoise and the Hare is valid some of the time (did I mention late bloomers?) — but it takes no account of the fact that sometimes the race is to the swift. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Singapore sure did get rich fast. Hares have been saving lives during the pandemic. Speed seems to be a key component of some forms of success. Where is the fable teaching that?
Where are the lessons of economics, probability, growth, scarcity, and signalling? What about the value of making public predictions, updating your level of certainty rather than holding binary opinions, and the benefit of diversity and diversification? Shouldn’t we be teaching them about thinking at the margin? Look around. The world is badly lacking in these areas.
Aesop’s morals need updating to take account of modern ways of thinking. He is presumably still loved because while these ideas are well-known to niche groups like social scientists they remain obscure to most people most of the time. Just watch the news.
Someone must be able to come up with decent stories that don’t rely on the same old folk wisdom. Perhaps the rationalists are the best people to do this. I doubt most fiction writers (the glorious Helen DeWitt aside) are up to date enough, or would believe the morals they’d have to produce. We’d end up with fables that discredited the idea of making a profit from producing life-saving vaccines.
If I want more Bayesian morals, perhaps I need to update my expectations. It might be as naive as taking Aesop at face value. In the meantime, I’m going to start telling my children stories from Bastiat.