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The Grasshopper in Suits (3)

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

Last time, we saw the Grasshopper’s attempt to make us see his anti-work, pro-leisure way of life as at least an option. But we didn’t finish chapter 1. Now we have to tackle the Grasshopper’s real argument.

The Grasshopper’s Argument

In philosophy, an “argument” is not a fight or debate; it’s an attempt to convince another person to believe something new by giving them good reasons for believing that new thing.

So, in chapter 1, the Grasshopper — who is starving to death because he refuses to work — offers the following main argument:

[P]rudential actions (e.g., those actions we ordinarily call work) are self-defeating in principle. For prudence may be defined as the disposition 1/ to sacrifice something good (e.g., leisure) if and only if such sacrifice is necessary for obtaining something better (e.g., survival), and 2/ to reduce the number of good things requiring sacrifice – ideally, at least – to zero. The ideal of prudence, therefore, like the ideal of preventive medicine, is its own extinction.

Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, ch. 1, p. 8

Unfortunately, I don’t understand this argument. I understand the rest of the book, but not this particular chunk of it.

So, I’m going to have to work through the argument slowly, rearranging and rewording it as I go. (This sort of “argument reconstruction” is something we philosophers spend a lot of time doing, since other philosophers are rarely as good at making arguments as we are.)

The Grasshopper Interpreted

The Grasshopper bases his argument on what it means to be “prudent,” or to act prudently. And it might help here to note that philosophers usually use “prudence” to refer to practical wisdom. A prudent person is someone who knows how to live a normal human life well, and how to handle everyday human concerns.

More specifically, the Grasshopper says that at least part of prudence is being careful about when and why you give up valuable things. That is, a prudent person tries to avoid waste. (After all, waste is the loss of something valuable — when that loss was unnecessary.)

To put it another way, the Grasshopper’s idea seems to be (1) that it is prudent to treat things of value as if they actually are valuable, and (2) that to let go of, throw away, or abandon something is to treat it as if it lacked value.

Some Examples

Consider, for example, a parent who forgets a child, leaving the child behind at a rest stop on a trip.

Or consider a child who shrugs and says, “Sure,” when a friend asks if they (the friend) can have a toy the child was given for Christmas.

Or consider a person who leaves the door to the refrigerator open.

In those cases, the person is acting as if something (or someone) doesn’t matter, as if it is not worth having. But things that are good (valuable, worthwhile, important) do matter and are worth having.

Lying in Practice

In other words, to let go of, ignore, drop, forget, destroy, etc. something valuable is to act as if it weren’t valuable — even though it is. It is to act in a way that is inconsistent with the reality of the situation. (There’s a fancy philosophical sentence for you.)

It is like lying about the thing, even if you never outright say the valuable thing doesn’t matter. After all, actions speak louder than words.

So, it would seem that prudent people — in trying to act in ways that are consistent with how things really are — will try to avoid waste. That is, they will try to avoid treating things that have value as if they have none.

The Danger of Total Incoherence

The only time it would make sense to a prudent person to give up something of value is if keeping that thing meant rejecting something of even greater value.

You might worry, of course, that this can’t be right: wouldn’t rejecting anything of value — whether it be of equal, lesser, or greater value than what you already have — be a kind of “lying in action”?

Perhaps so. And perhaps that’s part of the tragic structure of our moral universe. As finite beings, we cannot give everything the attention, care, admiration, etc. that it deserves.

The prudent person, therefore, will want to minimize the contradictions their finitude imposes upon them. (Another fancy sentence! Look at me! I have a Ph.D. in philosophy!)

In giving up one thing for another, a person is treating the new thing as more valuable than the old. So, a prudent person will do this only when the new thing really is more valuable than the old.

A Caveat

One problem with the way I have rephrased the Grasshopper’s argument, is that I have made it sound like prudent people are selfish hoarders. They “keep good things,” and “refuse to give them up” unless it’s in exchange for something more valuable.

So, it would probably be wiser (more prudent) of me to phrase the Grasshopper’s argument in terms of what the prudent person seeks to preserve, rather than what they seek to keep. Similarly, it would probably be wise to talk about what the wise person is willing to replace, rather than what they are willing to give up.

After all, what is valuable to a prudent person is not going to just be physical objects, and personally having those physical objects. They will also see states of affairs as valuable or not valuable. And those states of affairs will include other people having things as well.

For example, though I think it is valuable for me to have a good job and enough to eat, I think it would be even more valuable for everyone to have a good job and enough to eat. So, it would seem prudent to me to exchange the former for the latter, if for some reason I couldn’t “have” both.

Summary

So, the Grasshopper seems (to me) to be saying: being prudent — acting in a way that is consistent with the true value of things — will require us to give up good things as little as possible.

It will require us to treat valuable things as if they had no value as infrequently as we can.

It will require us to take “acting as if all valuable things are valuable” — to take “sacrificing no good thing” — as our ultimate (even if unattainable) goal.

That goal, however, is incompatible with work, says the Grasshopper. That is, if you think prudence includes both a commitment to avoiding waste and a requirement to work, you contradict yourself.

But why that might be true is something we’ll have to consider next time.

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