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This classic Dr. Seuss story is about the irrationality of prejudice and discrimination in the face of difference.
Some Sneetches have green stars on their bellies while others do not. However small the stars might have been, they nevertheless served as a source of discrimination until Sylvester McMonkey McBean came to town with a machine to add and remove stars, forcing the Sneetches to question their differences.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss is excellent for discussing issues of prejudice and discrimination with children. When the Star-Bellied Sneetches and the Plain-Bellied Sneetches treat one another disrespectfully because of simple stars on their bellies, one is forced to question the absurdity of such prejudice. Though most people would agree that discriminating based on stars on a creature’s belly is silly, we can come to a better understanding of the nature of prejudice and discrimination through discussing questions of metaphysics.
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to discern the nature of the world. One particular subset, ontology, looks to determine what types of things there are in the world, and what makes a particular thing distinctive. Some metaphysicians have suggested that objects have essential properties, meaning that every object has a distinct essence. What makes a spoon a spoon is that it has the essence of “spoonhood,” whatever that might be. Others suggest that we should focus more on particular attributes or functions. In this view, the most important thing about this philosophical introduction, for example, is that it helps you understand the philosophical issues in the story.
At first, this seems far removed from the world of the Sneetches. However, understanding metaphysics aids in our understanding of the Sneetches’ situation, and actually helps clarify the issues underlying prejudice and discrimination. For example, metaphysics prompts us to ask what makes a Star-Bellied Sneetch distinct from a Plain-Bellied Sneetch. Is there an essential difference between them, or are they ultimately the same, with the simple exception that they have some different properties? Two yellow Labradors may look different from one another, but that doesn’t necessarily make them different types of dogs. However, if they have different personalities or quirks, you might suggest that makes them distinct, and that’s what gives each of them their own “self.”
This raises another interesting metaphysical question – which distinctions are useful in determinations of worth? We might agree that having a star on your belly does not make you superior, but what about intellect? Historically, the linking of physical attributes to internal attributes has perpetuated prejudice. An important question that The Sneetches raises is whether or not the Sneetches are fundamentally different, and if so, what of their internal characteristics are different, and to what extent does that justify discrimination. If we say the Sneetches are not that different from one another, can we think of instances in which two creatures would be different enough from one another that we are justified in treating them differently? What qualifies something as “different enough”? Certainly job recruiters have no problem choosing certain candidates over others based on particular merits – to what degree is that justified? How is that different than what took place with the Sneetches?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
- What makes the Sneetches different from one another?
- How do the Sneetches treat those who are different from them?
- Do you think it is all right to treat those who look different than you differently? What about those who act differently?
- What makes a Sneetch a Sneetch – what makes it different from other animals or things?
- How do you know one thing is different from another thing? Is it based on things you can see, things you cannot see, or both?
- Based on the qualities we chose for deciding what makes something different, are the Star-Bellied Sneetches and the Plain-Bellied Sneetches the same or different?
- Are there things that make people different from one another? Do any of these things make certain people better than others? (Think about physical differences and personality/characteristic differences.)
- Are there any situations in which it is okay to treat two things differently because they are different? Imagine that one person in class is really smart. Should they be treated differently? If not, are there any examples you can think of where you would treat someone differently?
After the Plain-Bellied Sneetches go through the machine the first time and come out with stars, the Star-Bellied Sneetches say, “We’re still he best Sneetches and they are the worst.”
- What makes the Star-Bellied Sneetches think that there is still something different about the Plain-Bellied Sneetches since they now have stars on their bellies?
- If there was something that made the Sneetches different, other than their appearance, would it be okay for them to treat each other differently? Are there any qualities that would make that okay?
- Is there a rule we can apply to determine when it is okay to treat others differently and when it is not? How does this rule apply to the Sneetches? Based on the rule you develop, is it okay for the Star-Bellied Sneetches to treat the Plain-Bellied Sneetches differently?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Lena Harwood. Edited April 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.