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Be Nice to Spiders

by Margaret Bloy Graham

Summary

Helen the spider keeps the animals fly-free, but zookeepers don’t realize how helpful she is until her web is removed.

Helen the spider visits the Bronx Zoo and builds a web to catch some flies. She built webs in all of the animal cages one by one, eating flies to her heart’s content while also relieving the animals of the pesky flies that filled their cages. One day, the zoo’s cleaners decided to remove the spider webs in an effort to beautify the animals’ cages. Flies again filled every cage, and the animals became very unhappy. The zookeepers realized that Helen filled a vital role ridding the zoo of bothersome flies, and Helen soon becomes a zoo celebrity.

Read aloud video by Miss Anna

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The most important question in Be Nice to Spiders is: why is it important to be nice to creepy, crawly, spiders?

It could be that the zookeepers spared the webs of Helen simply because Helen benefited the animals, which made the zoo-goers happy and translated into greater profit. It could be that they felt it was wrong to disrupt the natural environment of the spider.

Both this question and its answers approach a key distinction in the philosophy of environmental ethics between the ​instrumental value​ and ​intrinsic value​ of nature. In other words, should aspects of nature be viewed as a means to an end or as an end in and of themselves?

The first question set begins the discussion by recounting important aspects of the story and discussing the value, if any, the students place on nature or the state of being natural. If the students do believe that Helen is valuable, as most who followed the plot surely will, the discussion that follows should tease out why Helen is valuable and where such value is derived.

A thought experiment is a good place to start with such a broad discussion. As shown in the first question set, the leaders should identify a number of different “things” found in nature and ask the kids if they would be comfortable displacing or killing, if applicable, each thing. This activity will hopefully allow the kids to reflect on primary reasons why they may value something, enough to pause in displacing or killing that thing, such as “it can feel” or it “it looks like a human” or “it is kind” or “it gives us something.” This activity is especially effective when the “things,” living or not, are ordered in a way to demonstrate a theme in environmental ethics. In the case below, the “things” are ordered by increasing relative sentience. Sentience is a commonly valued trait by humans in the philosophy of environmental ethics.

It is at this point that the group leaders can call attention to the fact that much of the discussion has revolved around what humans value. Why do we get to choose? This question grasps at the complex concept of anthropocentrism, or more simply put, a human-centered view of the earth. The second question set covers this concept and asks some direct questions regarding a human’s positionality on earth and whether humans get to claim the moral high ground. With multiple possible directions, this part of the discussion should lead to interesting paths regarding a human’s moral duty to care for the environment or to place environmental interests above all.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Why be nice to spiders?

  1. Why did the zookeepers want to get rid of Helen the spider?
  2. Who benefited from Helen being gone?
  3. Why did the zookeepers want Helen to come back?
  4. Who benefited from Helen being allowed to stay?
  5. Who benefited the most from Helen being allowed to stay?
  6. Can you think of a reason why having Helen back would be important regardless of the benefits she offers to the zookeepers and the zoo in general?
  7. Activity: Here are six things that you have no connection to and which do nothing to benefit or hurt you. Raise your hand if you are okay with this thing/animal being moved from its environment or hurt: A rock, a tree, a spider, a cow, a chimpanzee, a dog, a human
  8. What is the theme of this list? In other words, what is the difference between each as the list progresses from rock to human?
  9. Even though you may rather kill a cow than a human, do all things have equal value? What would make one thing more valuable than another?
  10. Can you think of a time when it would ever be more important to save a tree or a cow than to save a human?
  11. Why do we have national parks? They are not sentient, but it seems like there is importance in something being natural or untouched by humans.
  12. What does it mean to call something “natural”?

Anthropocentrism

  1. Are humans more important than the rest of nature? Are we allowed to choose who or what lives or dies or can be misplaced?
  2. Are human beings equal in value to non-human natural beings?
  3. Why are the animals in the book in cages instead of allowed to be free in nature?
  4. Who do zoos serve? Who benefits from the existence of zoos?
  5. What would be a way to honor an animal’s intrinsic value?
  6. Are there ways we can honor nature’s instrumental value without harming it?
  7. Do you love nature? Do you love nature like you love a friend? What is different about your love for nature versus your love for a friend?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Christian Purnell and Leah Meltzer. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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