The Snow Leopard
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The Snow Leopard is an unorthodox children’s book that raises questions about nature’s value and our obligations to the environment.
There once lived a Snow Leopard who protected a small valley by singing enchanted songs. But as time pushed forward, the Snow Leopard needed to find a new guardian for the valley. While searching for the new guardian, she stopped singing her magical songs, and soldiers began to ravage the village. Soon, she found the girl who would be the next guardian and began to train her. Together the Snow Leopard and the girl ran the soldiers out of the valley. The girl became the new Snow Leopard, and the old Snow Leopard leapt into the stars.
Read aloud video by Jackie Morris (the author and illustrator!)
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The Snow Leopard by Jackie Morris is an unorthodox children’s book that brings up interesting questions about the value of nature and our obligations to the environment. In the book, there is a Snow Leopard who protects the valley, there are the villagers who live peacefully within the valley, and there are the soldiers who come through and ravage the valley. These different relationships between people and their environment lend themselves to a discussion about environmental ethics.
Environmental ethics is a discipline in philosophy that aims to answer not only what humans are required to do to protect the environment, but also what the basis of that obligation is. For example, many people would agree that it is wrong to destroy the rain forests, but why is it wrong? Is it wrong because it makes the world less inhabitable for future generations? Or is it wrong because the plants and animals that make the rain forests their homes are inherently worth valuing and protecting?
The former view that it is wrong because it is bad for humans is anthropocentric. Many anthropocentric views, especially those in the west, are influenced by a Judeo-Christian view of nature as something that exists solely to be used by people.
In contrast, there are biocentric theories, which claim that plants and animals themselves have intrinsic value; this means that we are obligated to save plants and animals not because they are valuable or useful to humans, but simply because they themselves are worthy of being protected.
In addition to these two views, there is a third that occupies a sort of middle ground—it doesn’t claim that both plants and animals are intrinsically valuable in the same way that humans are, it only claims that animals are. This theory is capable of cutting out plants because the only sorts of things that are intrinsically valuable are things that are capable of having desires or preferences; in other words, things that are sentient—this is a sentientic view. Through this view, we are obligated to protect animals because they are themselves worth saving, while we are only obligated to protect plants because they are useful to ourselves and to animals.
The goal of discussion with the children should be to ease them into discussing these sorts of theories. A good way to broach this subject would be to have the children consider the different relationships that are present in the book. Take the Snow Leopard: the Snow Leopard spends her entire life actively protecting the environment; the Snow Leopard seems to embody the biocentric theory. This relationship could be used to discuss why plants or animals have intrinsic value if they have any at all. The soldiers, who ruin the valley while looking for gold, clearly embody the anthropocentric theory. Talking about the soldiers’ relationship with nature could be used to help the children discuss when it’s okay to use natural resources for our own benefit, and when it’s unacceptable. The theory that the villagers embody is a little less clear— discussing whether or not they hold anthropocentric, biocentric, or sentientic views can lead to a discussion about how each theory could be used to cultivate a healthy relationship with the environment. Through these sorts of discussions, the children will touch on many of the issues at the heart of environmental ethics.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Value of Nature
“Child and Leopard called to the snow and a blizzard of white formed fresh fortress walls, hiding their world in mist and in memory.”
- What is the Snow Leopard? What is the Snow Leopard’s job? What exactly does it do to protect the valley?
- Why does the Snow Leopard protect the valley? Does it protect the valley because of the people, the plants, or the animals living there?
- Are plants valuable? Why? Are they valuable because humans use them, or are they valuable even if we don’t use them?
- Imagine, in addition to Earth, a planet consisting of only plants; do humans have an obligation to protect those plants? Why or why not?
- Are some plants more valuable than others?
- Are animals valuable? Why?
- Are some animals more valuable than others?
Exploitation of Nature
“Down in the valley soldiers came with fire and fear, in search of gold and slaves.”
- In the book, the soldiers came to the valley in search of gold and slaves. Obviously it is not right to enslave people, but is it okay for a company to mine for gold in a previously unspoiled area? What about mining for essentials like minerals, coal, or fuel?
- Should humans use animal skin to make nonessential products like handbags? How is this different from eating animals?
“The child leaves her home, takes the form of the snow leopard to protect the valley.”
- Have you ever sacrificed something for the protection of the environment?
- What are some minor compromises that everyone makes to protect the environment? What are some major compromises people make to protect the environment?
- Do we need to make these sacrifices to protect the environment?
- Is the child obligated to learn the songs and protect the valley?
- Why do we protect the environment? For future generations, plants, or animals?
- Why do we need to protect the environment for our future generation? What do we owe the future generation? Do we owe them anything at all?
- If killing a vine that grows over everything would save all the other plants, is it right to kill the vine? What if the vine is ruining human lives?
- Is it okay to kill animals that are damaging the environment and other species? Is it more acceptable to kill rats than it is to kill bunnies?
- If it’s okay to kill other plants or animals in order to maintain a certain quality of life for plants, animals, and other people, could we kill humans, who often overexploit nature?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Emily Tilton and Ziyi Wang. 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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