Ethics and Morality: the islands of Inopia and Plenty
It was late when our conversation abruptly turned from the mundane to the challenging, from breezy, passing fancies to intriguing, absorbing discussions of ethics and morality. My friend nervously glanced around and leaned forward, and began. I listened, full of amazement. His tale was fantastic and unreal. I tried to make sense of it all, as best I could.
I took him at his word, for he had always been honest before. And, oh, how his words struck me that night. As I was without pen, my recollection must rely on a memory of the evening that is jumbled at best, with sequence and specifics confounded in the mix of visions that his words etched on my mind.
So I'll repeat his story in my own words, full of the unanswered questions and unaddressed contradictions I never pushed him to explain. And I’ll let you be the judge of whether his tale was worth retelling.
The sailor awoke to the froth of the sea, his face gently licked by the warmth of the incoming tide. Slowly he moved. The pain he felt eased as his gained, first a knee, and then a foot. He rose and rubbed his face. The scene was wondrous, but not what he expected to see.
The flotsam and jetsam that were once his rig explained it all. The storm from the night before had ended his solo journey and deposited him on shore. But where?
The sailor picked through the wreckage and salvaged what little he could. He wrapped it all in a tattered shirt and began walking along the shore. Before long he noticed smoke from a not too distant fire. Turning inland he headed in its general direction.
My friend told of the sailor’s introduction to the inhabitants of the island. He told of their bitterness and sorry, of darkness in a tropical paradise. But what caught the eye of the sailor, a friend of a friend of my friend, were the signs that contrasted with demeanor of the islanders.
“Work for the state brings happiness,” read one such sign. Yet there was no happiness to be seen. Only the sight of the haggard sailor added any emotion to dower faces. Or so it seemed at first.
In the midst of despair was the occasional sparkling eye. Our sailor soon noticed that there were two classes of islanders; there were those who were forced to labor in order to find the guaranteed happiness, and there were those who exhorted the laborers with slogans and chants, wearing clothes with the same color scheme as the ubiquitous signs. And it was the latter that seemed happy in this land – the island of Inopia.
The sailor received help from the islanders. In spite of their poverty, the laborers did what they could. And once the sailor obtained some strength, he was forced to work as well.
But it wasn’t the sailor’s experiences that really drew me into the story. It was what the sailor discovered as the reason for the condition of the islanders that make this tale worth retelling.
The sailor was able to find someone who would talk, someone who could explain it all. This gentleman, advanced in age, knew the cause from its beginning.
Years ago, the island was doing fine. Sure there were hardships, but life improved by the generation. Folks worked and owned what they produced. And they owned their tools, or rented tools, as the situation warranted. It was capitalism, a burgeoning capitalistic society.
And they used their excess to help those in need. Not by force, but by their own choice. Those who were helped appreciated the assistance since they knew the sacrifice it entailed. Not everyone lived well. Some made decisions that showed they did not care to be relatively comfortable. But no one starved nor suffered from true needs.
Of course, not everyone was happy with this situation. There were those who didn’t like to labor, and there were those who envied the wealth of others. But the fabric of the society was strong enough to hold fast against threats to property and prosperity.
Oh, the malcontents schemed and envisioned a better structure of things. They saw themselves as the overseers, living off of the efforts of others. They knew that they could not simply create this dream world over the objections of those others. So they worked to slowly undermine the current way of life.
One evening some of these folks met to discuss their plans and progress. As they connived and plotted, a particularly odd one of the group rose to speak, “Let’s say that I write a tale of an island similar to ours, an island full of plenty. And let’s say that I claim this island never suffers from want. And furthermore, let’s say that I claim our island would also be a land of plenty if we only adopted the ethics and morals of such a land?”
A murmur took to the air. And it grew. Everyone liked the idea and they sent this man home to begin writing his tale.
The oddball writer succeeded and his book became widely read. His book told the tale of the land of Plenty and how those islanders answered calls for help. In this land, no one ever denied anyone who asked for anything. If a stranger asked for a loaf of bread, you gave it to him since the next time you open the pantry, the loaf would have been replaced by a new one – such is life in the land of Plenty.
In his tale, the oddball noted that one day an opposing view began to take hold. Some of the residents began to question providing for all, so they began to say no. They simply would not give to everyone who asked, in spite of things never being scarce. They just plain said, “No.” And soon they gave to no one.
This idea quickly took hold. Neighbor began to fight neighbor, and folks began to hoard and take advantage of others. Soon, things became scarce and before long shortages and suffering entered a land where plenty had ruled. Leisure gave way to labor which created a new cycle of hoarding and suffering, which in turn gave way to more labor, and on and on.
The conclusion coming from the book was that the islanders of Inopia were alienated from the land of plenty because they recognized scarcity. If the islanders would give more there would be more.
The book ignited discussions. It seems that everything was backwards. Holding onto property was the way to poverty. And despite a seemingly improving economy, the islanders of Inopia were suffering by their own system of ethics and morality.
While many accepted these new ideas, many also rebelled. And in the midst of this struggle, hidden from sight, were the agitators and their oddball writer.
As more began to accept the new ideas, they looked for leaders to show the way. They wanted to force all of their neighbors to accept as well. So they needed the power of coercion and compulsion on their side – they needed a state.
Who had the personality to lead? Who wouldn’t mind wielding the club against those who questioned the new path? Why our agitators of course.
So the island’s society was reorganized. And the theft became justice, with the agents of the state always taking their cut.
But the more that justice was applied, the less there was available for all – accept the agents state, of course. The island was getting poorer. Each year brought more despair. And each year the state asked for more. The island slowly fell into poverty, as witnessed by our sailor.
And so ends my retelling of the tale told to me that evening. It is a tale of woe and caution, and a tale for the times.
You see the folks who were taken in by the book didn’t understand that in a world of scarcity the ethics and morality of a land of plenty cannot apply. When the state takes something, it steals from the margin. Taking bread from those who saved, and giving it to those who have not, simply undoes the plans that were set in motion by the act of saving.
Yes, someone gained from that loaf of bread thieved from the pantry, but a new one does not exist when the pantry is opened again. So the saver goes wanting.
Our sailor experienced the result of a system of ethics and morality based on plenty but applied to scarcity. He survived and returned home. How, I do not recall. But he returned to share his tale with those who will listen.
I am glad that the discussion that evening turned from fancies and ended up in a better understanding of things. If only others would recognize that dreams need to inhabit the night. They are not meant to guide the day. Dream on. But do not destroy your world based on a vision of plenty that can never exist in our world of scarcity.