Ethics Alarms Encore: “Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: The North Wind and the Sun”


[ I vowed that the next time I got a comment on this post, I would publish it again. It hails from four years ago, when  Ethics Alarms got a quarter of the traffic it gets now. I confess that I wrote it on a whim, having been talking with my wife about how Aesop’s Fables were joining Mother Goose stories,  Edward Lear limericks and American folks song in the Discarded Bin of our culture and then stumbling upon a fable I had either never read before or forgotten about.  To my surprise the post attracted intense criticism from fans of the story—I even had to ban a commenter who got hysterical about it—and the post joined a very eclectic group of early essays here that get considerable and consistent readership every week. Apparently there are a lot of Sun-worshipers out there. Anyway, since you probably missed it the first time, here it is.]

Today, by happenstance, I heard an Aesop’s Fable that I had never encountered before recited on the radio. Like all Aesop’s Fables, at least in its modern re-telling, this one had a moral attached , and is also a statement of ethical values. Unlike most of the fables, however, it doesn’t make its case. It is, in fact, an intellectually dishonest, indeed an unethical, fable.

It is called “The North Wind and the Sun,” and in most sources reads like this:

“The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.”

The moral of the fable is variously stated as “Persuasion is better than Force” , or “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

The fable proves neither. In reality, it is a vivid example of dishonest argument, using euphemisms and false characterizations to “prove” a proposition that an advocate is biased toward from the outset.

The first of the morals is vague and presumptuous. Why is persuasion “better” than force? Because it works? If the North Wind was successful in blowing off the man’s coat, would that then mean that persuasion and force were equally “good”? The fable with such a moral isn’t even making an ethical judgment; it is, instead, registering a vote for consequentialism: “If it works, it’s good; the end justifies the means.”

All the contest really proves is that the North Wind is an air-head, and the Sun rigged the competition by tricking the North Wind into an unfair test. What if the competition had been to determine who would be able to get the man to put on his coat? I don’t know about you, but I’m betting on the Wind. Windy wouldn’t have to blast, either: “The North Wind gently puffed, and the man shivered in the suddenly cool breeze. The Wind puffed colder and gustier, and soon the man hurried to don his coat.” Is that persuasion, or force? “Meanwhile, the Sun beat down ever harder with his withering rays, but the more sweat that appeared on the sweltering man’s brow, the less inclined he was to wear his heavy coat.” The fable decides from the outset that the Sun’s power is gentle and persuasive, and the Wind is, by definition, “Force.” If that is the assumption in my new, equally plausible adaptation, then the moral must be “Force is better than Persuasion.”

The alternate  version of the fable’s moral, “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail,” is worse. It arbitrarily assigns benign motives and virtues where none are in evidence. To begin with, the whole contest is unethical, violating basic principles of fairness, respect, autonomy, empathy, and caring, as well as the Categorical Imperative. A man is walking along the road, minding his own business, and these two bullies decide to use him as a prop to settle their argument, to torment him for their own amusement. [ 2015 Observation by JM: In this it is reminiscent of the contest between Satan and God in the Bible regarding Satan’s ability to make Job turn from God.] Neither the Sun nor the Wind are ethical; their objective is wrongful, and their treatment of the man irresponsible. The fact that one of them may harass the victim more gently than the other is hardly reason for praise.

Even that characterization is false. The Sun’s heat is “gentle” and “kind” only because Aesop calls it so. If the man stubbornly refused to take off his coat (fearing, perhaps, that the North Wind would start gusting again), and the Sun burned ever hotter until the man dropped dead of heat stroke, would the Sun still be called “gentle” and “kind”? Was the man killed by “persuasion”? In truth, both the Wind’s gusts and the Sun’s heat are varieties of Force; the fable, like the Bush Administration calling waterboarding “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture, is a lesson in obfuscating reality and manipulating perceptions by using deceptive language.

If one is going to propose a fable to pass along wisdom to children and others, there is an obligation to actually be wise, and above all, to tell the truth. Here, Aesop (or, more fairly, those who write his “morals”) is expressing a personal abstract preference as a universal truth, when it is no such thing. Sometimes persuasion is more effective than force, in which case persuasion is preferable, since it allows the one persuaded to exert free will without coercion. If both persuasion and force will have the same effect, force should yield to persuasion. But if persuasion is ineffective, and having a party do something or not do something will prevent great harm to others, force may be required, justifiable, and right. In such a case, persuasion is not “better;” in fact, it is useless.

Nor is gentle and kind persuasion necessarily superior to firm and relentless persuasion. It all depends on the circumstances; deciding whether to use force, which is sometimes necessary and unavoidable, is a complex issue, ill-served by disingenuous and bias-laden fables.

Well, they can’t all be winners, Aesop, but this fable really needs to be pulled from the collection. It’s nothing but hot air.

26 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Encore: “Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: The North Wind and the Sun”

  1. Good for both of them! They arrived just in time, one to softly blow away and the other to shed some gentle light on your erstwhile dark and brooding thoughts.

  2. I don’t think this fable is useless at all, but it is far from unlikely that people in the past and present would misinterpret it. The moral I get from it is that if you want a person to do something, it is more effective to present them with a situation in which doing it makes them feel better rather than to use physical (or emotional) force, i.e. to create a threatening situation that you will subject them to if they do not comply. This tale is a valuable lesson in the skill of empathy: in order to obtain the cooperation of others, it is usually a good idea to at least understand their feelings, so you can obtain their voluntary cooperation by offering them what they want.

    The Wind was relying on the power to forcibly affect a person, the use of which is usually unethical and unpleasant for all involved. The threat of force is also usually unethical and unpleasant, and generally far less effective if the force is not overwhelming. Creating a mediocre threat and then expecting a person to comply by voluntarily putting themselves in an even weaker position against the threat is foolish, unless one knows the person is a coward. That doesn’t change the approach’s unethical nature, and betting on being able to assault a random stranger is definitely unethical.

    The Sun was relying on the power to create the conditions in which the person would want to cooperate with the win condition of the bet. The latter power is ethically neutral. As far as I can tell, demonstrating it for a bet is also ethically neutral, contingent on the nature and stakes of the bet (“I’ll bet a dollar I can sell lemonade to the next person who walks by”). The empathy approach is almost always the more harmonious and effective option if it is available, as supported by the fact that not merely did the Sun win the bet, but he won because the person chose to act in accordance with the Sun’s desires and was happier for it.

    One could easily undermine the harmony aspect of this fable by changing it from the Sun creating pleasant conditions where the person would feel more comfortable taking off the coat to the Sun creating sweltering conditions that force the person to take off the coat just to reduce the level of discomfort below unbearable. That’s still coercion and unethical, but the fable still illustrates the valuable and ethically neutral skill of understanding what people want and creating conditions in which they will cooperate with your own desires.

    It helps to be able to see what in the story is an illustration of an important cause-and-effect relationship, and what in the story is just the dumb luck of the characters. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy: many myths involve a bad thing happening to a bad person purely by chance, and imply that it happened because the person was bad. However, it is useful to illustrate that by engaging in certain conduct, one becomes vulnerable to misfortune that could not have happened if one had instead practiced virtue. The old fable with the moral of not counting one’s chickens before they hatch does not prove that disaster strikes those who anticipate future rewards, but rather points out the possibility that dwelling on future rewards may distract from the important tasks in the present that will lead to those rewards. There are some useless fables (especially the ones about “knowing one’s place”) but most teach useful principles, even if the identity and relevance of those principles is misinterpreted by the reader or even by the author.

    • It’s still manipulation. How do we know that this person’s not perfectly happy dressed for his present environment? The sun is still making him uncomfortable in his present state of dress for his own ends; the sun offers nothing to improve this man’s condition as it currently stands, or at least that’s the only ethical assumption to make. There is no mutually beneficial trade going on here, and it’s not consensual. Politicians do these sorts of things in real life, and I have no doubt that most convince themselves that it’s for the victims’ own good too. I understand your point about empathy, but this would be a predatory representation of it.

      • I concur. Influencing a person through knowledge of them can be done ethically, but when the person’s own well being is not one of the top priorities, the practice is unethical. This story is about how empathy is useful, but demonstrates an unethical use of it. In this respect, it is akin to the adage, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Knowing what the flies want is applied effectively to influence their behavior, but the purpose is to kill them.

        Further commentary on the relative personhood of flies versus humans can be directed to the thread from a few days ago regarding abortion ethics and “The Fly.”

  3. This one bothered me since I was a little kid. I guess my reading has always been that the Sun was a bit of a jerk and the Wind a fool for taking the wager. I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one who feels it’s only a silly story.

  4. [2015 Observation by JM: In this it is reminiscent of the contest between Satan and God in the Bible regarding Satan’s ability to make Job turn from God.]

    JM’s 2015 observation is kinda uninformed. Satan and God do not make a “bet” or arrange a “contest,” except in the unique interpretations of the kind of people who read Dawkins. Satan’s regular function in scripture is to test and accuse EVERYONE as he does Job (his name means “Accuser”) and in context, he is informing God of his intentions to do particularly harsh testing of Job. He is allowed to do so in that case because Job had, up to that point in his life, not suffered in any way at all. That’s the whole dialogue. There is no special arrangement, wager, or contest. A commonly passed-around lazy falsehood is this idea that God and Satan saw Job and decided to strike up a friendly wager over him. If you have no context whatsoever, you could be primed (by someone disingenuous) to see it that way. But what is being portrayed is God and Satan going about their regular courses, with Satan accusing and God advocating. (There is a ton of legal verbiage, God Himself is on trial later on, sort of.) Suffering is a part of everyone’s life (and is particularly directed and purposeful in a godly person’s, in Christian and Jewish thought), and therefore anyone could be a potential Job (on a much smaller scale; that story swings to such extremes that I suspect one of the book’s points is “someone’s had it worse than you.”)

    • It’s a story with many versions, including the Koran and Torah. I’m not interested in wading in the muck of Job, but since its a story, used to illustrate particular theological and philosophical points, and since God and Satan are just characters in the story (like the Sun and the North Wind), a particular adaptation can’t be “wrong.” Archibald MacLeish used the contest version in “JB”—I’ve always been fond of it.

      • “It’s a story with many versions, including the Koran and Torah.”

        To be clear, the Torah version and the Christian one are the same. The Koran can count as a separate “version”, in so much as an illiterate pirate can try to incorporate stories into his invented religion that his shaky memory barely recalled the local Jewish and Christian missionaries preaching.

        • And the Torah is what is called the Old Testament in the Bible, so we’re still talking about a story with just one version so far. I have no doubt that various manuscripts don’t always match word for word, though that does not constitute “versions.” Like Hamlet, the original has been adapted a lot…I think Jack means that.

          • With the possibility of getting into a deeper sidebar, I’ll keep this brief –

            I did equate the Jewish and the Christian “versions” as being identical. It was the Muslim one I differentiated as most of the “biblical” stories found in the Koran were really shoddy remembrances of what Mohammad remembered hearing from missionaries. His pirate operating guide was half plagiarized (and not well plagiarized either), half directives on how to effectively run a caravan raiding organization, shrouded in religiosity to keep his plundering followers’ morale up.

            “I have no doubt that various manuscripts don’t always match word for word”

            There is a remarkable accuracy between the modern biblical texts and the oldest manuscripts available to study, and SO LITTLE variation between the connecting texts that it is safe to assume the lost originals are extremely close to the oldest available. (and the variations that are present do not amount to anything that affects the theology or basic tenets of either Judhaism or Christianity)

  5. It’s a complete misreading to take the “good” and “better” aspects of this fable as comments on morality at all. Rather, they are engineering comments, as in “gas chambers are good at killing”.

    By chance, I seem to recall that another recent post of yours drifted into this conflation of the engineering and ethical senses of “good” and “bad”. If I can track it down I’ll comment on it.

    • If it brings you back to the wars, PM, I’m glad I republished it. By the way, Johann Gottfried Herder’s poetic version in German (Wind und Sonne) teaches the lesson that while superior force leaves us cold, the warmth of Christ’s love dispels it. Engineer, was he? I did not know that!

  6. Anyone who thinks the sun’s rays are “warm and gentle” has obviously never been in South Texas in mid-August. We only got above 110 once last year, clear evidence of global cooling.

  7. The comparison of God and Satan in Job to the Sun and Wind is an apt comparison, because the fable relies on “divine privilege”. An exercise of divine privilege should not be taken as an example of behavior that non-divine entities should emulate. Rather, they are external parameters that set up a hypothetical environment to illustrate the lesson of the story.

    I specifically say “lesson”, because the objective of the story need not be a superficial “moral”. The “moral” that was selected here was a lazy plot device by an author who attempted to pigeon-hole the fable into his limited definition of a fable. While the particular moral in the version you share is useless, the fable perhaps might better illustrate both the use of strategic thinking and well as illustrate the role of moral luck in one’s success. A more apt “moral”, if any, might be to be clever, but acknowledge the limit of cleverness.

    Ethical behavior never takes place in a vacuum, but must balance certain principles with the current circumstances. In the fable, an arbitrary task is selected, and the two actors use the tools at their disposal to attempt to achieve the task. The wind has two tools: blow hard or soft; the sun has analogous tools: beat hard or soft. Given the task, arbitrarily set up as a competition, only one had tools that could creatively solve the task.

    The tale here thus illustrates a few important principles that are of value to a child; creative use of ones tools can lead to success, and that not everyone has a every tool available. A non-lazy author might use the fable to teach the value of cooperation, pooling a group’s tools to complete a task.

    The particular task is irrelevant, and is set up as an exercise of divine privilege. Mere mortals have no right to manipulate the weather, but the fable’s embodiment of the solar rays and moving air manipulate these elements in an ethically neutral manner. The selection of a mere mortal as a target of task, might be to lead the reader indirectly, through empathy, to the conclusion that some circumstances are arbitrary and beyond one’s control. The objective might be to teach humility, that one is never entirely responsible for one’s success, no matter how clever one might be.

    I thus agree that the particular version of the fable shared is unethical. This is, however, the result of a lazy author. The premise, if used wisely, is ethically neutral; Aesop, or some other interpreter, could use the premise of the story to teach a valuable lesson if so desired.

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