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Doctor De Soto

By William Steig

Summary

Doctor De Soto and his wife are mice dentists who treat all sorts of animals, except those that hurt mice. One day, Doctor De Soto and his wife see a fox with a bandaged jaw waiting outside their office. Doctor De Soto and his wife decide to treat him at the risk of being eaten. Everything goes well until the Fox is gassed, at which point he dreams about eating the mice. The next day, the Fox returns for follow-up treatment with the intention of eating Dr. and Mrs. De Soto, but the De Sotos have a plan in mind to outfox the fox.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Ezra Frankel and Kharmen Bharucha

Self-Interest and Morality

Doctor De Soto and his wife are faced with making a difficult decision early in the story. Do they do what they are capable of as dentists and help the fox? Or do they consider their own self-interest and well-being before helping the fox? “Supererogation” is the term for actions that exceed the requirements of duty. Most children would argue that it is (morally) good that the De Sotos help the Fox by relieving him of his pain. However, does this mean that it would be immoral for the De Sotos to refuse to treat the Fox in order to protect their own lives? When, if ever, is acting in such a way to preserve self-interest, at the cost of morality, justified? Children may believe that moral actions are always justified and justifiable, and immoral actions are never justified and not justifiable. Ideally, discussion on this book will challenge these beliefs. Furthermore, children may realize that many aspects are involved in making a moral decision (i.e., self-interest, the well-being of others, and obligations associated with one’s role).

Freedom of Conscience

More generally, it is important to consider whether the De Sotos get to choose who they want to treat (i.e., whether the De Sotos have freedom of conscience). The “argument from ineffectiveness or hypocrisy” supports the belief that the De Sotos have the right to act in accordance with their moral beliefs (i.e., freedom of conscience). In essence, this argument is based on the premise that it is not possible to compel people to believe X (e.g., that treating dangerous animals is morally good), but only to compel people to act as if they believed X (e.g., that treating dangerous animals is morally good). In fact, it would be hypocritical for the De Sotos to treat the Fox if they believed that doing so was morally wrong. Since forcing the De Sotos to treat the Fox would not change their beliefs about the morality of treating the fox and would limit freedom of expression, the De Sotos should have freedom of conscience to act in a way that is consistent with their morals.

However, philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke use the same line of reasoning to argue that forcing people to act against their conscience does not violate freedom of conscience. Hobbes and Locke think that beliefs, and not actions, constitute conscience. Since, according to the argument from ineffectiveness, compelling people to act against their conscience does not compel them to change their beliefs (i.e., conscience), Hobbes and Locke argue that compelling people to act against their conscience does not violate freedom of conscience. Therefore, the De Sotos can be forced to act against their conscience, because acting against one’s conscience does not violate one’s conscience. Children are not expected to grasp the various arguments regarding freedom of conscious. They should, however, think about what it means to have a conscience, and whether they can be forced to act against their conscience. Depending on the maturity of the students, it may be interesting to draw the parallel between the De Sotos’ freedom to treat whom they want to with bakeries’ disputed freedom to refuse to sell wedding cakes to LGBTQ couples.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Self-Interest and Morality

  1. Why did the De Sotos treat the fox?
  2. Were the De Sotos obligated to treat the fox? Why or why not?
  3. Are there jobs where you can be paid to do things you might not agree with? Why?
  4. Would the De Sotos be justified in not treating the fox? Why or why not?
  5. Would the De Sotos be morally justified in not treating the fox? Why or why not?
  6. Should you ever put yourself at risk to help other people?
  7. Is acting morally always obligatory?
  8. When does self-interest trump morality?
  9. How much self-sacrifice does morality demand?

Freedom of Conscience

  1. Why did the De Sotos treat the fox?
  2. Were the De Sotos obligated to treat the fox? Why or why not?
  3. Suppose the De Sotos were the only dentists in town. Are they still obligated to treat the fox? Why or why not?
  4. Suppose the De Sotos do not want to treat hamsters because they do not like hamsters. Are they still obligated to treat hamsters? Why or why not?
  5. Suppose the De Sotos practice a religion according to which hamster teeth should never be adjusted, and now a hamster asks for treatment. Are the De Sotos still obligated to treat the hamster? Why or why not?
  6. What does it mean to have a conscience?
  7. Can you ever be required to act against your conscience?
  8. What if you have a job that requires you to treat someone against your conscience?

This book module deals with ethics, specifically rights and responsibility.

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