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Mortimer raises questions about what defines an authority figure, how one is to judge merit, and the nature of disagreement.
As bedtime approaches, the young Mortimer is put into bed. However, Mortimer resists going to sleep by singing loudly and waiting expectantly for somebody to come up to his bedroom to tell him to “be quiet.” His mother, father, siblings, and the police all take turns trying to quiet Mortimer. Eventually, the frustration from the failed efforts to get Mortimer to sleep builds up and develops into a large argument, enveloping all the characters except for Mortimer. Mortimer finally falls asleep, waiting for the characters to finish arguing.
Read aloud video by Ms. CeCe
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Mortimer, a children’s book by the popular Robert Munsch, tells the tale of a young boy who resists the attempts of his parents, siblings, and even the police to put him to bed. Although on a superficial level, the book is just a retelling of a common scenario for children and their parents, it is also reminiscent of philosophical and even political issues. The book raises questions including what defines an authority figure, how one is to judge merit, and the nature of disagreement.
Throughout the story, several characters are introduced as they attempt to make Mortimer be quiet. The distinction of these characters as authority figures in our society, as opposed to Mortimer, is an important aspect of this story. It has been a long-established norm in most cultures, particularly North America, for parents to be both decision-makers and disciplinarians in the family structure. Even in regards to Mortimer’s siblings, their seniority puts them in an assumed position of power over Mortimer. It becomes apparent that the question of who authority figures may be and what characteristics make these individuals authority figures need to be defined. The discussion participants should determine for themselves if possessing certain traits and characteristics provide enough a sound basis to respect and obey the authority figures. The relationship between age and authority may be a relevant component to answering these questions, as the discussion participants may identify personal authority figures like parents and teachers with seniority. If the participants identify older age as a characteristic of authority, then it may be important for another argument to be presented so that the audience may distinguish between whether it is age or the experience and wisdom, which may come with older age, that contributes to being an authority figure.
The set of questions on merit provides a basis for a discussion on an underlying issue of what it means to deserve something and the difference between wants and needs. The discussion should seek to answer the question of whether striving for one’s goal is an appropriate marker of merit, which challenges the value of work and labor as being the only basis for deserving something; this allows us to particularly differentiate between wants and needs. In an era where economic inequity is a growing issue, the subject of merit is easily applicable. There are questions formed around whether basic needs should be universally met. In Mortimer’s case, both Mortimer and the other characters in the story both strive to achieve opposite goals. Thus the participants can discuss and provide reasons as to how one is to judge which side “deserves” to win.
The difference in interests between Mortimer and the other characters in the story presents a situation that all participants can relate to: at some point, everyone disagrees. An important discussion may arise out of whether one of the opposing perspectives is proven to be the right, correct, and true perspective if they “win” in the disagreement. Just because one side of an argument may prove to be stronger than the other does not necessarily mean that the other perspectives are rendered invalid, and this concept must be identified. Also, the morality of violence in the ending of a disagreement comes into question.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
- Who do you listen to?
- Are you expected to obey your parents? What about teachers?
- What makes you respect and obey them?
- When you listen to people, do you think it has something to do with the authority figure being older than you?
- If so, why does them being older make you obey and respect them?
- What does it mean to be right?
- Are the people you listen to always right?
- If someone like your parents, teachers, or the police aren’t always right, should you still listen to them?
- What are wants and needs? What is the difference between the two?
- Does Mortimer need to stay up, or does he want to stay up?
- Did Mortimer work towards his goals by persistently singing?
- Does this mean that he earned his right to stay up?
- If so, Mortimer’s parents and siblings and the police also worked to put Mortimer to bed. Does this mean they earned what they want, too?
- What does it mean to “deserve” something?
- Is working towards one’s goal the only way to prove that someone deserves something?
- Are there certain things that everyone deserves?
- Does everyone deserve his or her needs?
- Does everyone deserve his or her wants?
- Can one judge whether someone deserves something or not?
- Can you always disagree with someone else? Even someone like your parents or the police?
- The parents in the story don’t spank Mortimer. Is it possible that they would have put Mortimer to bed if they physically punished him?
- Is physically punishing someone, like parents spanking their children wrong? Can it be right?
- Can violence help one side of an argument? Should violence be used to settle disagreements?
- Is using physical violence ever be morally right? What about the use of physical force by the police? Why or why not?
- If one side of the argument wins, does it mean that they are right? Is the other side of the argument then automatically wrong?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Bryan Li. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
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