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What is the Value of Using the Greek Fable to Teach Ethics?


How Can We Live Our Lives in Accordance with Virtue?

The Greek fable has been used to teach ethics for ages. They date back to the mid-6th century BCE. Aesop’s Fables are the world’s best known collection of morality tales. The fables, numbering 725, were originally told from person-to-person as much for entertainment purposes but largely as a means for relaying or teaching a moral or lesson.

The Greek fable is a brief and simple fictitious story with a constant structure, generally with animal protagonists, which gives a meaningful message on practical ethics that also conveys a moral message. These early stories are essentially allegorical myths often portraying animals as representing humans engaged in human-like situations.

In writing about the ethical function of a fable, Christos A. Zafiropoulos (Ethics in Aesop’s Fables: The Augustana Collection) points out that it provides an approach to understanding human behavior by taking a general message about ethics and applying it to specific examples. One such fable is the Augustana collection. It contains case studies on ethical behavior that illustrate the many sides of human experience.

One of these fables has become known as “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.” Goose and the Golden EggIt seems a countryman possessed a goose that lays golden eggs. Each day he visited the nest, took the egg to the marketplace, and soon began to get rich. Before long he grew impatient with the goose because she gave him only a single egg a day. He was not getting rich fast enough. He became greedy and wanted the profit at once, so he kills the goose expecting to discover gold inside it. But when he cuts it open, there were no golden eggs. In the end, he loses the animal he killed and its daily gift.

What is the moral of the story? According to the tale of the goose, seeking to gain through imprudent acts can lead to disastrous results. The fable’s message is the one who goes for more than he is entitled to not only fails, but even loses what he had before.

We might examine the countryman’s actions through the lens of virtue. One such virtue is moderation. It is a virtue that guides our behavior by avoiding the extremes of excess on one hand and deficiency on the other. In other words, to act moderately is to steer the ship of ethics through a middle course. Just imagine if you became angry with another person. One extreme behavior would be to act rashly – perhaps do or say something you may regret. The other extreme is to not act at all, which means you allow others to do or say whatever they want about you without defending yourself.

Going back to the fable, the man’s desire for quick and extra profit deters him from limiting himself to a steady profit over time. The man got greedy and sought to earn excessive profit. This doesn’t mean the pursuit of profit is bad. Instead, each of us has a right to profit from our labors so long as it does not harm others, such as making it excessively difficult for them to obtain a product they need. It is a reasonable profit that a virtuous person seeks – the mean between excessive profit and none at all.

The ancient fable has a modern twist in the story of Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who in 2015 increased the price to consumers for the drug Daraprim by 5,000 percent, from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill. Daraprim is used to treat toxoplasmosis, which can affect pregnant women, people with HIV and others with weakened immune systems. Shkreli rationalized the decision by arguing that by raising the price of the drug, Turing would be able to put money into developing better treatments for toxoplasmosis. The public did not agree with his logic, instead believing that greed was behind the decision. Shkreli became the poster child for capitalism run amok. It earned him the reputation for being ‘Most Hated Man in America.’

The tale of the countryman and story of Martin Shkreli illustrate the core elements of human morality (the principles of good and bad behavior; right and wrong) are universal. Ethics remains relevant to everyday life today because the fundamental issues involved in human interactions in society are the same no matter where or when people interact.

From the ancient Greek marketplace to today’s consumer market, the message is to treat others as ends in themselves, not as a means to an end. In other words, we shouldn’t use (and abuse) people to achieve our goals. We have an obligation to treat others rightly; not to take advantage of a situation. Just imagine if the goose represents a loved one. Or, imagine that a loved one needed a drug to sustain life but couldn’t afford to pay the price?

Blog posted on May 23, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage.

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