The Paradox of the Court
Stimulating critical thinking - a loose series on paradoxes
Gödel's is a newsletter about interweaving ideas and making decisions under uncertain conditions. I discuss knowledge management, mental models, and supporting Tools for Thought.
The paradox of the court, often referred to as Protagoras's paradox, presents a fascinating conundrum that intertwines the realms of logic, ethics, and legal theory. This paradox arises from a lawsuit between the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras and his student Euathlus. Protagoras, known for his contributions to sophistry and rhetoric, agreed to teach Euathlus the art of rhetoric on the condition that Euathlus would pay him after winning his first court case. Euathlus, eager to learn but cautious about the commitment, accepted the terms.
However, after completing his studies, Euathlus refrained from practicing law and thus did not win any cases. In response, Protagoras sued Euathlus for the fees, creating a paradox. Protagoras argued that if he won the case, he would be paid his fee per the court's decision. Conversely, if Euathlus won, according to the original agreement, he would still need to pay Protagoras since he would have won his first court case. From Protagoras's perspective, regardless of the case's outcome, he should rightfully be paid.
Euathlus, on the other hand, presented a counterargument. He posited that if he lost the case, per the original agreement, he would not have to pay Protagoras since he would not have won his first case. Similarly, if he won the case, the court's decision would override the agreement, absolving him of the need to pay. Therefore, from Euathlus's standpoint, regardless of the outcome, he should not be required to pay Protagoras.
Both arguments seem logically sound, yet they lead to contradictory conclusions.