Wednesday, August 9, 2006


Problem 79 The Turtle

There once was a very fair-minded man. One day, he was out in the fields when he came across a large and beautiful turtle. Now the fair-minded man was very hungry, and he liked turtle soup.

He put the turtle in his sack, ignoring its pleas, and took it back to his home and boiled a large pan of water over a fire. But, being true to his nature, instead of throwing the turtle straight into the pan, he carefully placed a bamboo rod across the boiling water, saying: ' Mr Turtle, if you can walk across the pan along the stick without falling in - I shall set you free!'

Turtles are old and very wise, and this one had little faith in humans, but it was clear that the alternative was to be turned immediately into soup. So, it summoned up all its will and somehow, inch by terrible inch, made it to the side of the pan.

The fair-minded man clapped his hands in wonder. 'Well done!' he said, with genuine pleasure.

'But please now try it again!'

Where had the turtle gone wrong?

The turtle hasn't gone wrong at all, of course, except in as much as it allowed itself to be controlled by the man.

For the 'fair-minded' man is expecting to get this turtle soup without having to take moral responsibility. If the turtle falls in whilst trying to do acrobatics most unsuited to its breed, he will be able to say that the turtle chose to do them. If the turtle refuses, then he will simply knock it in the water and claim that the turtle chose death rather than try to save itself.

So, what's the moral of the story, for us? Perhaps it is that it is better to refuse to obey a dictator than to try to please them, in the hope that they will somehow respect 'the rules'.

~101 Philosophy Problems (2nd edition), Martin Cohen