The Parable of the Canoe 🛶

Suppose you and I are out having a canoe trip. We’re spending the day out, and won’t be back for hours. Suppose there’s a surprise wave or gust of wind and… you drop your sandwich in the water. Now we only have one sandwich between us, and no other food.

If we were in this situation, I’d want you to have half of my sandwich.

an AI-generated painting depicting the scene just described

That wouldn’t be a favour to you, or an obligation, or a compromise. I’d be happy to give you half my sandwich. It would be what I want. It would be what I want, under the circumstances. Neither of us wanted the circumstances of you having dropped your sandwich, but given that that happened, we’d want you to have half of mine.

Yes—this is more accurate: we would want you to have half of my sandwich.

However, this requires us having a We that’s capable of wanting things.

To explore this, let’s flip the roles—suppose it’s me who dropped my sandwich. I’m assuming that you feel the sense in which of course you’d want me to have some of yours. If you need to tweak the story in order to make that true, go for it. Eg maybe you wouldn’t if “I” dropped my sandwich but you would if say an animal ran off with it—not a version though where you lost my sandwich and you’re trying to make it up to me! That’s a very different thing.

So suppose my sandwich has been lost and your initial response is like “of course I’d want you to have half of mine”.

However… suppose that in response to this event, I’m kind of aggressive & entitled about the whole thing and I’m demanding some of your sandwich (or all of it, for that matter). My guess is that this would dramatically reduce the sense in which you would want to give some to me. You might anyway, from fear or obligation or conflict-avoidance or “wanting to be a good friend” or whatever, but it would no longer directly feel like “oh yeah of course I’d want that.” Part of why, is the breakdown of the sense of We that is implied by my demand—my demand enacts a world where what you want and what I want are at odds, which didn’t seem to be the case back when you felt that sharing the sandwich would be what you wanted. I seem to only care about my needs, not yours, thus I’m not caring about our needs, so it seems like you might get exploited or overdrawn if you try to open yourself towards my needs. (And by “seems”, I don’t at all mean to imply that this isn’t what’s happening—maybe it is! “If you give them an inch they’ll take a mile” is a real interpersonal pattern.)

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