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Fantastic Mr. Fox

by Roald Dahl
FILTERS: ethics, grade-3-5


Fantastic Mr. Fox questions our moral intuitions as Mr. Fox must steal to provide food for his family.

When Mr. Fox needs to feed his family, he usually just raids the storehouses of one of his terribly mean neighbors. When his neighbors finally get fed up with Mr. Fox stealing their chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, they decide that Mr. Fox, and anyone who happens to be in the way, must be destroyed. But no matter what they do, how much they obsess, or how much damage they do, clever Mr. Fox seems to be able to stay one step ahead.

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Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a thrilling story of one brave father fox’s attempts to keep his family safe and fed. Unfortunately for Mr. Fox, providing both food and safety seem to run headlong into each other when Mr. Fox’s food sources–the three meanest nastiest farmers around–decide that they will literally move mountains to see Mr. Fox and his family killed. What makes this such a good story for philosophical discussion is that it creates a wonderful scenario for a thought experiment. The nature of the thought experiment is to test our ethical intuitions to see what motivates us in making moral judgments.

To lay out this thought experiment, we begin with the facts as presented in the story. The salient facts are as follows: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean each earn their living by farming. Whether it be poultry or cider, growing and producing goods is their livelihood. Another fact about them is that they are all three vile and nasty people. A fact about Mr. Fox is that he must eat and must also feed his family. Another fact is that his source of food comes from what he steals from Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. The three farmers are enraged by Mr. Fox’s theft decide to kill him at all costs. Mr. Fox manages to continue stealing from them, and even comes up with new and better ways to rob them while they are distracted by their obsession with destroying him.

Explained in this way, the story sounds like one in which Mr. Fox is a career thief, and even though Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are mean, they are being victimized nonetheless. Perhaps being constantly stolen from makes them mean! But that is not the feeling that the reader comes away with from the story whatsoever. In fact, as the story is told, Mr. Fox is a brave and clever hero who is somehow right and good for stealing from the three farmers. How can this be? The answer seems to have something to do with our moral intuitions. Our intuitions tell us that Mr. Fox should steal to feed his family. And when the three farmers are intent on killing Mr. Fox and his family, we as the reader want them to escape and want for them to be well. But our intuitions seem to betray us. They also tell us that it is wrong to steal things from others. So how can Mr. Fox be both morally right and morally wrong every time he steals from the farmers? This seems like a practical, if not logical contradiction. So how do we resolve this? We must ask ourselves two questions: Why, in general, do we seem to believe that it is wrong to steal? What about what Mr. Fox does makes it seem to us as if he is doing something right here?

This problem is alluded to in the book, in the chapter entitled “Badger has Doubts.” When Badger asks Mr. Fox how all this stealing doesn’t bother him, he expresses concern that what they are doing is wrong. Mr. Fox points out that anyone would steal food if their kids were starving to death, and that presently, the three farmers would destroy both Fox’s and Badger’s homes and threaten the lives of their children, as well as many other families’ lives. So if they were stealing, it was from murderous creeps, and for a good cause. Who wouldn’t do the same? Hence, a starting point for the discussion of our moral intuitions might begin with Mr. Fox’s own declared attempt to justify his behavior.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Mr. Fox steals food from Boggis, Bunce, and Bean to feed himself and his family.

  1. Were you taught that it is always wrong to steal? What are the reasons for thinking that it is always wrong to steal?
  2. Is it wrong for Mr. Fox to steal? Why or why not?
  3. Does the fact that he steals food so that his children will not starve somehow make it better or “less wrong?” Why or why not?
  4. Do you think that there was a better way for Mr. Fox to feed his family, one that didn’t involve stealing? If so, should Mr. Fox have done that instead?

Boggis, Bunce, and Bean vow to destroy Mr. Fox at all costs.

  1. In the process of trying to kill Mr. Fox, the farmers destroy the entire hill he lives in. How does this harm others? Did the farmers mean to hurt others?
  2. Is it wrong for the farmers to want to kill Mr. Fox? How about his family? How about all the others harmed? Was it wrong to harm them as well? Why or why not?
  3. Did the three farmers think about the consequences of their actions? What were the consequences? Make a list.
  4. Do you think the farmers will ever catch Mr. Fox? Why or why not? Do you think that it would be good if Mr. Fox never got caught? Why?

As a result of having to dig deeper into the ground, Mr. Fox and his friends dig tunnels to the food cellars of each of the farmers and steal lots and lots of things. Badger begins to have doubts about the heist.

  1. Why is Badger worried? Why does he think they might be doing something wrong by stealing all that food?
  2. What is Mr. Fox’s response to Badger? Do you agree with Mr. Fox’s response? Why or why not?
  3. Is there any other reason to think that the heist was morally justified?
  4. What are the farmers doing while the animals are stealing all of their food?

The animals have a feast.

  1. Is it right for all the animals to eat the food that was stolen from the three farmers?
  2. Was the feast a good thing? Why do you think so? Why might it not be a good thing?
  3. Did the farmers owe the animals the food for destroying their homes? Why or why not?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Jayme Johnson. 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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Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for The Fantastic Fox featuring a fox carrying a bag of poultry on his back. He's running over a patch of grass at night, leaving behind a flurry of feathers. He's dressed in a nice suit jacket. Download & Print Email Book Module

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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