There are a few cliche lessons or rules that get thrown around that were either constructed exactly backward in their original formulation, or that have been misinterpreted in the many years since their first formulation. This series will examine these cliches to derive the true lesson from them.
Today’s Exactly Wrong is perhaps the oldest that I have in mind, from the Old Testament. It was written that King Solomon used logic and reason to decide a dispute over parentage, and that this proved that he, as King, could also be the Ultimate Judge for the Kingdom. But Solomon was wrong.
The story of Solomon is used as an allegory to prove that some men (namely, kings and other central powers) have a right to resolve disputes, distribute rights and to do so in whatever psychopathic way pleases them, because they ostensibly know what’s right in the end.
In the story there is a dispute over who the mother of a small child is, and the King is presented with the two possible mothers and the child to decide the parentage. As the King threatens to bisect the child and give half of the body to each mother, it is reported that one of the women objected and would allow the other woman to take the child while the other woman did no object.
The King takes this objection as evidence that the objecting woman cares more about the child than the other. From this conclusion the King gives the objecting mother the child and is revered as being a just and wise decision maker.
The Common Lesson
The traditional lessons from the story is that the king had a great method to draw out the necessary facts to make the decision and that a central authority has the best ability to settle disputes.
The Other Analysis
The first problem with the story is that the King assumed that the protesting woman’s concern for the child was an indicator of parentage. It is imaginable in the ancient world that the true mother of the child would rather have the child be killed than allow someone else to take custody of the child. This is because the true mother could possibly have more children. The other woman may have also been turned off by the prospect of her false claim being the reason another woman’s child was killed, and thus may object to the killing of the child.
So there are understandable motives for both cases: the true mother objects (and the other woman to stay silent), or the true mother stays silent (and the other woman objects). It is impossible to say if either case is certainly true, and indeed it is impossibly to objectively determine which is more likely because motives can’t be observed, only actions can be.
Thus Solomon was at least wrong in making a final determination based on the evidence of one woman protesting the killing of the child, regardless of whether he was wrong in his ruling.
The second lesson to be learned from this story is that there can be no single authority to resolve disputes, because (for one reason) there can be no absolute certainty the meaning of objective evidence. Whether Solomon was right or wrong in his ruling, there was no appeal to a higher authority or to any other independent authority.
When a central authority has taken dispute resolution into it’s monopoly, the results can not be disputed anywhere else. In this story, the office of the king has been told to be just and wise. But this is a history of the kingship written by the “winner”. One can easily imagine a similar story written by members of a society without a king where multiple dispute resolution agents come to differing decisions, and only when consensus is reached among the parties is a final ruling issued. This would then be written as a ‘proof’ that distributed justice is wise and just and any singular arbiter is insufficient for justice.
The last lesson to be briefly mentioned is that the King does not have the moral authority to threaten the life of a child. Even if the parties consent to bringing their decision to him, this does not grant him the authority to use any force on the parties or anyone else outside of making and enforcing their ruling. The king may have a legitimate claim on some of the extravagance in their area, but they do not have the legitimate moral authority to take the life or property of anyone without thier consent.
Who knows whose child was threatened by the King. It is impossible to verify the veracity of the story itself, let alone the correctness of the decision made therein. But the real lesson to be learned is that individuals should not be blinded by the pomp of a central authority in its prowess in dispute resolution or any other thing. People should take their disputes to people that they trust, and they should object to any behavior by these agents that is violent or unjust, including leaving the option open to get a second opinion about the dispute.