The Man and the Goose – a fable – when are we justified to do wrong?

I first read this fable by Ambrose Bierce years ago in Mark Twain’s Library of Humor. Even as a child it impressed me, though my thoughts have changed about its meaning.

A man was plucking a living goose, when his victim addressed him thus:

“Suppose you were a goose; do you think you would relish this sort of thing?”

“Well, suppose I were,” answered the man; “do you think you would like to pluck me?”

“Indeed I would!” was the emphatic, natural, but injudicious reply.

“Just so,” concluded her tormentor; “that’s the way I feel about the matter.”

As a child I thought it was funny that the goose gave the man a reason to keep on plucking.

As an adult I see how this fable can apply to real life situations. The goose starts out by appealing to the man’s empathy, asking how he would feel if he were the victim. Instead of answering her question, the man pursues the other side of her hypothetical role reversal and asks if the goose would enjoy being the tormentor. The goose affirms strongly that she would.

With that reply the goose, unfortunately, puts herself on equal ground with the man. She isn’t any better than he. She just happens to be unable to execute her will. Knowing that she would do the same to him if roles were reversed, the man could proceed with a clearer conscience.

On the other hand, if she had replied that she had no desire to harm him, her original appeal to empathy might have had great effect. He might have seen the injustice of the situation and granted her pardon.

Some people will complain about the injustices dealt by others, but on closer examination they don’t really mind injustice as long as they get a turn at dealing it out.

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