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On honesty – Aesop versus Sesame Street



On Fairness - Aesop vs Sesame Street

The YouTube algorithm is something of a mystery. It’s supposed to recommend videos you might like based on videos you’ve previously watched and rated, but as far as I know the recommendations are randomly generated by a half-asleep chimpanzee. But just as broken clocks are still right twice a day, random suggestions can highlight things worth seeing. A while ago, the YouTube algorithm posted a clip Sesame Street in my recommended videos. This episode featured a guest appearance by Brett Goldstein, best known for his role in Ted Lasso as the short-tempered and extremely foul-mouthed professional athlete Roy Kent. Curiosity got the better of me, so I went to check it out.

(As an aside, the writers of this episode seemed to add a metaphorical nod to any adults in the audience who are familiar with the Roy Kent character – when Goldstein is told that the letter of the day is F, he responds by say how much he likes to use the letter F.)

In the clampGoldstein and a Sesame Street character named Tamir have just finished baking cookies and announce that they will reveal the word of the day. Tamir tells us that the word of the day is ‘honesty’. Goldstein responds by telling the audience that “fairness means that each of us gets what we need.” This immediately causes Cookie Monster to appear and declare that he needs one of the cookies that Goldstein and Tamir just made. Goldstein agrees that Cookie Monster should get one of the cookies because that would be fair. Shortly afterwards, they decide to play football, but first they have to clean up the mess created by baking the cookies. At that point, they tell Cookie Monster that honesty requires him to help them clean up the mess they made.

Note that Cookie Monster gets a cookie and helps clean up the mess, not presented as an example of a fair exchange. It’s not like Cookie Monster offers to help them clean up the mess in exchange for one of the cookies and both parties agree that that would be fair. Each action is treated as independent and separate from the others. If Cookie Monster had happened to appear after the mess had been cleaned up, fairness would still have demanded that he be given a cookie in which he had played no role whatsoever, and if Cookie Monster had arrived after the cookies had disappeared, fairness would still have demanded him to use his labor in cleaning up a mess in which he had no part.

What immediately came to mind was a story from my own childhood, which also had the ambition to teach a lesson about honesty, albeit with a very different understanding of what that means. I refer to Aesop’s fable The ant and the grasshopper. If you’ve never heard this fable, it can be briefly summarized as follows:

In the summer months an ant and a grasshopper lived together in a field. The ant spent its days toiling, gathering food and storing it underground in its nest. The grasshopper spent his days relaxing, playing music and living in the moment, without worrying about the future. When winter arrived, the grasshopper was left cold and starving, unable to find food, while the ant remained safe in its nest, feeding itself on the food it had stored as a result of its hard work.

Now, according to the definition of “honesty” given by Sesame Street, we must conclude that this is a story about the unfairness faced by the locust. After all, fairness means that each of us gets what we need, and in the winter months the locust needed food and shelter, but did not get it. Ergo, for the grasshopper to go hungry while the ant remained fed was inherently unfair. But that was not the moral of the story. Instead, it was taken for granted that the locust’s fate was entirely fair, because fairness was not understood as “each of us gets what we need,” but rather as “each of us gets what we deserve.” Even if you needed something, you couldn’t just take it from someone under the guise of ‘honesty’. Honesty did not give you the right to insist that others should be worse off in your favor without owing them anything.

Of course, none of this is meant to speak out against helping those in need. Offering to help someone clean up in the kitchen, or offering to share some cookies you just made, is a really nice thing to do, and I would do the same myself. But it goes a bit too far ask that others give you their cookies or help you clean up your mess because that’s the way it is not fair. That turns virtue into vice, and kindness into self-centered entitlement.