A Sick Day for Amos McGee
By Philip & Erin Stead
Module by Vianne Gao & Ian Mercer
Amos McGee is a zookeeper at the City Zoo. Every morning, Amos gets out of bed, puts on his uniform, and goes to work. Despite being very busy, he always makes time to play chess with the elephant, run races with the tortoise, sit quietly with the penguin, blow the rhinoceros’ runny nose, and tell stories to the owl. One day Amos wakes up sick and cannot go to work. Worried about their friend, the animals take the bus to Amos’ house in order to help him and keep him company. The story closes with the owl reading a story to the whole group as they all fall asleep.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
A Sick Day for Amos McGee is a cute story about a group of kindly animals that come to the aid of their sick zookeeper. It is a great base for philosophical discussion because it touches upon the complexity of moral duty and the structure of healthy friendships. These two subjects can serve as the foundations of deeper discussions about morality in the context of close friendship, the moral worth of intentions, and even the rights of animals.
Amos, the zookeeper, arrives early at the zoo every single morning so that he has time to give each animal in-depth personal care. When he falls ill, these animals return the favor by traveling to his house in order to help him become well again (through preparing food, keeping his feet warm, and providing medical care). These interactions inspire questions about why Amos helps the animals and vice versa. The book does not imply that Amos is helping the animals for any ulterior motives or that the animals are helping Amos for their own personal gain, but it is still useful to ask questions about the intentions of each agent in order to better comprehend when helping others is good or praiseworthy. The discussion leader can take these questions even deeper by placing them in the context of personal friendships and observing how the morality of an agent’s action might change when it is perpetrated in the name of friendship. Finally, Amos’ relationship with the animals can serve as the subject matter for a discussion concerning the human treatment of animals and the ways in which our human-to-human moral interactions might change when they are applied to non-human agents.
Most of the first half of the story is dedicated to describing how Amos always makes time to take care of the animals at the zoo, despite having a lot of work to do. Seemingly altruistic, Amos never explains why he takes care of the animals. Here is a chance for the students to fill in the blanks and guess what is motivating Amos to care for the animals. This can lead to deeper philosophical discussions concerning the moral worth of Amos’ actions. For instance, one could imagine a scenario where Amos only takes care of the animals because he is motivated by money. Does this reduce the moral value of Amos’ actions compared to when he genuinely volunteers to do what he is doing? The philosopher Kant believes that actions are only morally worthy if the reason you do them is because it is your duty to do so, and not simply because you want to or like doing it. On the other hand, consequentialists hold that, as long as the consequences of an action are good, the action has moral worth (regardless of intention). A possible way of getting kids to think about this is to ask them to think about times where they have done the right thing, even if it was not fun for them.
For the friendship portion of the discussion, it might be useful to research Aristotle’s three foundational types of friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. In short, utility friendships are based upon each agent deriving some sort of benefit from one another; pleasure friends are drawn to one another’s wits, good looks, or other pleasant qualities; virtuous friends admire each other’s goodness and help each other strive for goodness (this final type of friendship is the only “good” type in the eyes of Aristotle). It is not necessary, nor advisable, to frame your discussion with the children within this hierarchy, but it may prove useful for coming up with some of the different reasons that people become friends with one another. You might consider asking the children whether Amos is a good friend to the animals (and vice versa). You can also ask them to think about what qualities make their friendship a good one. The discussion group should be able to come up with some of the essential qualities of friendship (ex. mutual caring).
Moral Standards and Friendship
After exploring these first two topics individually, the discussion can move to an evaluation about moral standards in the context of friendship. Within a personal connection, does a morally incorrect action become justified? Can the bonds of friendship sometimes override moral duty? In order to get the children to think about these ideas, ask questions about if its ever right to lie for a friend or hide something from a friend. Also, it may be interesting to link the discussion to sickness and ask whether it is right to help a sick friend rather than a sicker stranger who really needs your help?
Finally, the discussion can touch upon morality and animal treatment. So far, we have been discussing the animals as if they were truly close friends with Amos, but it is obvious that we do not treat all animals in these personal and friendly ways. You can explore this topic by asking questions like, “can animals feel the same emotions as people?” or “can you be friends with an animals” or “why do you treat animals differently than people?”
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Moral Worth Despite having a lot of things to do at the zoo, Amos always makes time to visit his good friends.
The Nature of Friendship Amos and the animals are friends. Amos takes care of the animals every single day and the animals only take care of Amos when he becomes sick.
Morality vs. Friendship Amos gets sick and does not go to work. The animals become worried about Amos so they decide to visit him.
Morality with Animals Amos always makes time to play chess with the elephant, run races with the tortoise, sit quietly with the penguin, blow the rhinoceros’ runny nose, and tell stories to the owl who is afraid of the dark.