Academic Experts Discuss the Talking Pineapple Test Question

New Yorkers this week are increasingly perplexed by a reading passage appearing in a standardized state exam for eighth-graders that at first glance appears to be an Aesop’s fable haphazardly rewritten by a 12-year old with ADHD. Yet despite the best efforts of Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings to answer the questions, his analysis was woefully limited in scope and failed to consider the far-reaching ramifications of the answer choices in the context of all available knowledge. Thus, we asked our fictitious team of self-proclaimed legal and economic experts to address the questions in greater depth, let’s call them Bill and Ted. The following discussion did not ensue:

Bill: Obviously the hare is the wisest; there is no other reasonable response. Although it is correct to say that the animals ate the pineapple because they wanted to, the more precise answer is that the animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed. They were pathologically afraid of being tricked, and the pineapple’s bizarre gambit caused them to trick themselves.

Ted: Some have suggested that in fact, the owl is the wisest, as it was able to avoid the entire pointless and confusing situation, perhaps returning to prey on the crow or hare after they had gorged themselves on the pineapple and entered a state of post-prandial somnolence.

Bill: The response to this line of argument is that we are given actual evidence of the hare’s wisdom: he participated in a race that he was almost certain to win, and the prize was a lifetime supply of toothpaste (!) and a ninja. Although there is some indication that leporine teeth do not require regular cleaning (see e.g., here), some animals do need toothpaste, and sentient animals invariably would develop a system of exchange; thus, the toothpaste would provide the rabbit with a material economic advantage. I have not even mentioned the ninja. The owl could have been a compulsive gambler and a child molester; we just don’t know.

Ted: You are right to note that you have not mentioned the ninja, and this poses a problem. Any possible economic advantage derived from bartering the toothpaste would likely be negated by the enormous costs required for the proper maintenance and upkeep of a shinobi, not to mention compliance with any local ordinances governing the ownership of a sentient being that has been trained in the deadly arts.

Bill: The mention of ninja, as well as the introduction’s specification of ‘olden times’ sets this story within the Warring States era, or earlier. While it is true that slavery was banned under the Toyotomi shogunate, it persisted well into the Edo period. Furthermore, as we have been given no indication of the existence of animal ninjas, we must assume this ninja is human and therefore his (or her) situation would be more akin to that of a pet than a slave. It is very unlikely that a pre-industrial forest-dwelling society would have developed extensive laws or restrictions regarding pet ownership. In fact, one may argue that the very fact of ninja ownership (assuming loyalty was assured) would render any such restrictions moot, as it would enable the hare to rule over the rest of the animals through assassination, intimidation, and blackmail.

It occurs to me that much of this discussion overlooks the fact that we have seen no evidence that the hare will ever actually obtain his winnings. The prize of a lifetime supply of toothpaste and a ninja is not proffered by a neutral third party, but by the pineapple itself. There is no attempt made by the hare or any of the other animals to verify that the pineapple actually possesses the means to deliver the reward or how it plans to do so, and in any case, they eat it before they can ever find out. In fact, when keeping this important fact in mind, the story becomes much clearer. The rather unlikely rewards for winning the race were made up by the pineapple on the spot as an inducement for the hare to accept its challenge. And the purpose of this entire gambit was to enrage the animals so much that they proceed to eat the pineapple, which they did. In short, the pineapple, being unable to move or act in any way, passively manipulated the animals into granting its death wish. Because it was able to control the actions of others without lifting a leaf and ultimately obtain release from the futility of its immobile existence, the pineapple was the wisest after all.

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