A Sick Day for Amos McGee
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A Sick Day for Amos McGee considers questions about moral worth, friendship, and the treatment of animals.
Amos McGee is a zookeeper at the City Zoo. Despite being a very busy zookeeper, he always makes time to play chess with the elephant, run races with the tortoise, sit quietly with the penguin, blow the rhinoceros’ runny nose, and tell stories to the owl. One day Amos wakes up sick and cannot go to work. Worried about their friend, the animals take the bus to Amos’ house in order to help him and keep him company. The story closes with the owl reading a story to the whole group as they all fall asleep.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
A Sick Day for Amos McGee is a cute story about a group of kindly animals that come to the aid of their sick zookeeper. It is a great base for philosophical discussion because it touches upon the complexity of moral duty and the structure of healthy friendships. These two subjects can serve as the foundations of deeper discussions about morality in the context of close friendship, the moral worth of intentions, and even the rights of animals.
Amos, the zookeeper, arrives early at the zoo every single morning so that he has time to give each animal in-depth personal care. When he falls ill, these animals return the favor by traveling to his house in order to help him become well again (through preparing food, keeping his feet warm, and providing medical care). These interactions inspire questions about why Amos helps the animals and vice versa. The book does not imply that Amos is helping the animals for any ulterior motives or that the animals are helping Amos for their own personal gain, but it is still useful to ask questions about the intentions of each agent in order to better comprehend when helping others is good or praiseworthy. The discussion leader can take these questions even deeper by placing them in the context of personal friendships and observing how the morality of an agent’s action might change when it is perpetrated in the name of friendship. Finally, Amos’ relationship with the animals can serve as the subject matter for a discussion concerning the humane treatment of animals and the ways in which our human-to-human moral interactions might change when they are applied to non-human agents.
Most of the first half of the story is dedicated to describing how Amos always makes time to take care of the animals at the zoo, despite having a lot of work to do. Amos never explains why he takes care of the animals. Here is a chance for the students to fill in the blanks and guess what is motivating Amos to care for the animals. This can lead to deeper philosophical discussions concerning the moral worth of Amos’ actions. For instance, one could imagine a scenario where Amos only takes care of the animals because he is motivated by money. Does this reduce the moral value of Amos’ actions compared to when he genuinely volunteers to do what he is doing? The philosopher Kant believes that actions are only morally worthy if the reason you do them is because it is your duty to do so, and not simply because you want to or like doing it. On the other hand, consequentialists hold that, as long as the consequences of an action are good, the action has moral worth (regardless of intention). A possible way of getting kids to think about this is to ask them to think about times where they have done the right thing, even if it was not fun for them.
For the friendship portion of the discussion, it might be useful to research Aristotle’s three foundational types of friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. In short, utility friendships are based upon each agent deriving some sort of benefit from one another; pleasure friends are drawn to one another’s wits, good looks, or other pleasant qualities; virtuous friends admire each other’s goodness and help each other strive for goodness (this final type of friendship is the only “good” type in the eyes of Aristotle). It is not necessary, nor advisable, to frame your discussion with the children within this hierarchy, but it may prove useful for coming up with some of the different reasons that people become friends with one another. You might consider asking the children whether Amos is a good friend to the animals (and vice versa). You can also ask them to think about what qualities make their friendship a good one. The discussion group should be able to come up with some of the essential qualities of friendship (ex. mutual caring).
Moral Standards and Friendship
After exploring these first two topics individually, the discussion can move to an evaluation about moral standards in the context of friendship. Within a personal connection, does a morally incorrect action become justified? Can the bonds of friendship sometimes override moral duty? In order to get the children to think about these ideas, ask questions about if its ever right to lie for a friend or hide something from a friend. Also, it may be interesting to link the discussion to sickness and ask whether it is right to help a sick friend rather than a sicker stranger who really needs your help?
Finally, the discussion can touch upon morality and animal treatment. So far, we have been discussing the animals as if they were truly close friends with Amos, but it is obvious that we do not treat all animals in these personal and friendly ways. You can explore this topic by asking questions like, “can animals feel the same emotions as people?” or “can you be friends with an animal” or “why do you treat animals differently than people?”
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Despite having a lot of things to do at the zoo, Amos always makes time to visit his good friends.
- Why does Amos go to the zoo each day?
- Why do the animals visit Amos? Would they be bad if they did not visit him?
- Does Amos like doing what he does at the zoo? If he does not like what he is doing, is he still doing a good thing by taking care of the animals?
- Imagine that Amos only does what he does because he feels like it (and NOT because he cares about the animals personally). Is he still doing something good by taking care of them?
- Have you ever done something that you did not want to do, but did it because it was the right thing to do?
- Would Amos’ actions be better if he were a volunteer, meaning that he does not get money for taking care of the animals?
- What do you think makes your actions good or bad?
The Nature of Friendship
Amos and the animals are friends. Amos takes care of the animals every single day and the animals only take care of Amos when he becomes sick.
- Is Amos friends with the animals? Are the animals friends with Amos? Why or why not?
- If they are friends, what is Amos getting out of the friendship? What are the animals getting out of the friendship?
- Why does Amos take care of the animals? Why do the animals take care of Amos?
- Should we expect things from our friends? What kinds of things?
- When someone does something nice for you, do you feel like you need to do something nice for that person in return? If you do something nice for someone, do you expect something in return?
- Are you happier when you do a nice thing for someone else or when someone else does a nice thing for you?
- Would you be a bad friend if you were not always making your friend happy?
- What makes someone a good friend?
Morality vs. Friendship
Amos gets sick and does not go to work. The animals become worried about Amos, so they decide to visit him.
- Have you done something for a friend that you did not want to do? Why?
- Have you done something that was bad because a friend asked you to? Why?
- Is it ever right to do something bad because a friend asked you to? Why?
- Is it okay to help a friend if there is a stranger who needs your help even more?
Morality with Animals
Amos always makes time to play chess with the elephant, run races with the tortoise, sit quietly with the penguin, blow the rhinoceros’ runny nose, and tell stories to the owl who is afraid of the dark.
- We have been pretending that animals are the same as humans – do you think your answers from before would change if we started treating Amos’ friends like animals? How?
- Can animals feel the same emotions as people?
- Can you be friends with an animal? Is it different than being friends with a person? How?
- Why do we treat animals differently than people?
- Many people treat animals or pets as if they were humans, but those same people are often mean to other kinds of animals like bugs or worms. What is the difference between the animals that we keep as pets and the animals that we eat? Why do we not treat all animals like they are humans?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Vianne Gao & Ian Mercer. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.