Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover?
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Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover?

Julian Baggini

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Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover?

Julian Baggini

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A philosopher takes a second look at sayings, proverbs, and bits of homespun wisdom: "Every society needs its guardian of good sense: Baggini is ours." — The Financial Times These short, stimulating, and entertaining capsules of philosophy delve into the familiar words that live in our consciousness yet are rarely examined. Should you really do as the Romans do when in Rome and practice what you preach? Is the grass always in fact greener on the other side of the fence, and is there ever smoke without fire? Is beauty always in the eye of the beholder and is it actually better to be safe than sorry? From the popular author of The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, cofounder of The Philosophers' Magazine, and academic director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, this is a witty, deeply thought-provoking reminder that we should never stop asking questions.

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A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Mid 15th century
Experiments show that a bird in the hand is actually perceived to be worth 2.48 in the bush. To be precise, the ‘birds’ were in fact coffee cups, but since the animals are merely proverbial, the general point still holds.
Experimenters divided a group randomly and gave half of them a coffee mug each. These were deemed ‘sellers’ while the others were cast in the role of buyers. Sellers were then asked how much they would be willing to part with the mug for, while buyers were asked how much they would pay for one. On average, buyers valued the mugs at no more than $2.87, while sellers valued them at $7.12. The mere fact that the sellers already had the mugs led them to perceive them as being much more valuable than they otherwise would.
This phenomenon, called loss-aversion, has been observed in countless other situations. However, it is completely irrational. This is made even clearer by another experiment which demonstrated the ‘endowment effect’. This time, half a group received one item and half a group received a different one. Because the goods were distributed randomly, you would expect half the group to have received the item which was of less value to them personally. But when asked if they would be willing to trade, only between 10 and 30 per cent said they would do so. Again, ownership led people to over-value.
Of course, it is often better to keep what you have than risk it all for more, which is the proper moral of the proverb. But when there is no risk involved, we still tend to stick with what we have, even if it is in our interests to give it up. Two birds in a bush which are hard to catch may not be worth hunting if you already have one. But when they’re just sitting there waiting to be picked up, it would be foolish to prefer the beast you already have. Yet experiments show such foolishness is a natural inclination we have to struggle to avoid.1

Compare and contrast

An egg today is better than a chicken tomorrow. Italian proverb
Better a sparrow in hand than a crane in flight. French proverb
A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the roof. German proverb
1 See ‘The Boundaries of Loss Aversion’ by Nathan Novemsky and Daniel Kahneman, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol XLII (May 2005) 119–28; and ‘Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem’ by Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard H. Thaler, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98 (December 1990), 1325–48.

Manners maketh man

Bishop William Wykeham of Winchester (1324–1404)
‘Manners maketh man’ was the personal motto of Bishop Wykeham, the founder of Winchester College, one of England’s oldest public schools. The idea of a church leader placing such high importance on so trivial a notion as manners can strike us today as absurd. Manners are not morals, and even a little distance in time or space can show them to be arbitrary and petty.
Take, for instance, some of the advice in G. R. M. Devereaux’s Etiquette for Men: A Book of Modern Manners and Customs, published in 1929. ‘It is not necessary for you to raise your hat if you see a lady of your acquaintance in a public vehicle in which you are also a passenger,’ he writes. ‘Otherwise, you should always raise your hat when meeting a lady you know,’ although ‘you should avoid offering a lady your gloved hand’. He also describes a strict formula for who should be introduced to whom in social gatherings: gentlemen to men, single girls to married women, and young to older men. The most dated advice of all is, ‘After a stay at a friend’s house you should tip the servants.’ Or perhaps I just have the wrong friends.
The idea that following customs such as these is the making of a man, or woman, seems quite preposterous. However, one should not confuse changing customs with the enduring principles which underpin them. As Devereaux put it, ‘Consideration for others at all times is the keynote of etiquette.’
Manners are indeed trivial if they are identified solely with local and changing practices. But if they are thought of in a broader sense, as a concern to treat others well, then they evidently are central to the ethics of everyday life.
If you think manners are of no interest to someone wishing to be a better person, consider the final sentence of Devereaux’s etiquette guide: ‘The finest way in which children can be trained to grow up into thoughtful, courteous and considerate men and women is by surrounding them with those qualities throughout their younger days.’ A concern with manners can lead you to much more important matters than how to hold your fork.

Compare and contrast

Civility costs nothing. Early 18th century
He was born without pants and is ashamed to be dressed. Greek proverb
Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person. Mark Twain (1835–1910)

‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92)
In a spin-off book to the comedy TV series Not The Nine O’clock News, Tennyson’s sage words are rendered anew as ‘It’s better to have loved and lost than it is to spend your whole life wanking.’
The deliberate variation, apart from being very funny, transforms the original in two ways common misunderstanding can. First, of course, is the equation of love and sex. To have loved and lost is not the same as to have shagged and lost, though that too may be better than never to have shagged at all.
Second, and more significantly, it has the effect of transforming a consolation into an exhortation. Whether we remain life-long singletons or have even brief sexual relationships with others is something that we can, to a certain degree, control. If we think that even bad sex is preferable to masturbatory solitude, that can provide the spur to seek out some of the numerous others who feel the same way and would gladly take our companionship.
But although a sexual liaison can be a mutually convenient deal between consenting adults, love cannot be so easily arranged. We cannot just choose to fall in love. Believing it is better to have loved and lost does not make us any more likely to find love. Rather, the best time to hear such words is when love has gone, to help us come to terms with our loss.
There is, nevertheless, one sense in which heeding Tennyson’s line from ‘In Memoriam A. H. H.’ can help prepare us for love, should it call. The message is not that any relationship is better than none at all. If we want to keep ourselves open to the possibility of a love worth losing, we need to retain at least a spark of romanticism. To truly believe we can love and lose requires belief that we can truly love.

Compare and contrast

Opportunity never knocks twice at any man’s door. Mid 16th century
The world belongs to the bold. Spanish proverb
Not having shot is always to have missed. Dutch proverb

No smoke without fire

Late Middle Ages
Although people still frequently say that there is no smoke without fire, few believe this in their hearts to be a general truth. We know, for example, that much of the smoke that chokes the pages of the tabloid papers and celebrity gossip magazines comes from fires that burn only in the bellies of ambitious journalists. When someone says sincerely that there is no smoke without fire, it is usually because they are already convinced of the presence of flames, not because they really believe the refrain lends support to their suspicions.
Nevertheless, in a way, this tired old saying is cannier than at first may appear. It is, of course, patently false if we take it to mean that there is some truth in every rumour or scandal. But if we take its imagery a little more literally, another possibility suggests itself. You can indeed always infer the presence of fire from the appearance of smoke; what you may not know is the kind of fire it is, or whether it is already dying out.
So it is with gossip. It never emerges from a vacuum. If what started people’s ears burning wasn’t an accident or a natural spark, we know someone must have been making mischief with matches. The question is, who and why?
Take any story of celebrity rivalry. How much of the smoke this generates is the result of their actual disagreements and how much is being generated by genuine rivals and allies with vested interests in exaggerating the rift? No smoke without fire, to be sure. But where are the real fires blazing and who is fanning the flames?
We should not lazily assume that the connection between hearsay and truth is a straightforward one of cause and effect. Reading the smoke signals accurately requires us to look more closely at where they are really coming from. Look carefully and you might just find fires in unexpected places.

Compare and contrast

Throw dirt enough, and some will stick. Mid 17th century
Where wood is being chopped, shavings fly. Polish proverb
If the wind comes from an empty cave, it’s not without a reason. Chinese proverb

Nothing in excess

Inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, 6th century bce
An adviser can always be right yet not much use. For example, I am no agony uncle, yet I can offer guidance that I guarantee to be sound: when shopping, never buy anything that is too expensive. In love, do not marry the wrong person. And war is such a terrible thing that you must never, ever wage one unless not doing so is even worse.
The problem is that all these counsels are mere tautologies: they are true by definition. It takes no more than a basic grasp of the English language to realize that the wrong person, a war that is not right or a product that is ‘too expensive’ are all to be avoided. ...