By J. Jon Muth
Traveling down a mountain road, three monks, Hok, Lok, and Siew, inquire what it means to be happy. They come upon a small famine-ridden and war-torn village in the mountains that seems to be empty. Upon closer inspection they find that everybody here is afraid of them and hiding in their homes due to suspicion. To teach these people about happiness, the three monks begin to make “stone soup,” a soup concocted of nothing more than water and three round stones. This entices the villagers out of their homes in the hopes to learn how to make soup from nothing but stones. One by one the monks convince the village people to help them make their soup by sharing with the monks their spices, vegetables, and other valuable ingredients. This act of sharing brings kindness and trust to the village, and together they make a feast for the three monks who have now discovered what it means to be happy.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The story of Stone Soup proposes some very interesting philosophical ideas about the nature of happiness and sharing. On the outset, the three monks discover a village of suspicious individuals who “worked hard but only for themselves.” Due to war, famine and flooding, these people had become highly introverted and dared not to even answer their doors when the monks come knocking. To this one monk states, “These people do not know happiness.” Here we have reached a philosophical issue of what it truly means to be happy. The monks have developed an idea of what they feel is happiness and decide that they should impart this definition of happiness upon the village people. This definition is that sharing and communitarian practices such as cooperation bring about happiness and thus should be seen as ethical. To convey their opinion, the monks set about an exercise in sharing that they refer to as “stone soup.”
The philosophical issue being raised here is if and why sharing is an ethical action. The monks see a village of individuals and determine that “these people do not know happiness.” They think that in order to bring about this happiness the village should become a community through sharing. The people of the village “work hard but only for themselves,” embodying a society without happiness. This suggests that their actions in some way are wrong, and the only way to correct this is through sharing. So what is it about sharing that makes it an ethical choice? What is the power of sharing, and why is it the right thing to do?
As the monks encourage the people of the village to share, they are supposedly giving them happiness. This seems to indicate that sharing creates happiness on one level or another. The idea that sharing brings about happiness is the basis of the monks’ actions. So is happiness what makes an action ethical? If so, why should sharing make us happy?
The basis of discussion on the grounds of ethics of this story should follow the idea of sharing. Getting children to discuss if they share, and why they share are good places to start. Some children may feel that sharing is easy and rewarding while others may feel the opposite. Differences of opinion should be encouraged as this promotes discussion. Furthermore, no opinion should be invalidated as this may alienate and discourage children from taking part in the discussion. Exploring why sharing is considered good should allow the children to enter a philosophical discussion based on actions that they may face in everyday life, and thus serves as a good stepping stone into the world of ethics and philosophy as a whole.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
When the monks entered the village, they were met with a village of suspicious folk, non-trusting and self-reliant. They decided that the villagers were not happy.
When the monks encouraged the villagers to make stone soup, the villagers gradually opened up to each other to share what they each had.
As an advanced exercise, get the children to break into small groups and task them with creating a rule for sharing: when should we share and when shouldn't we? Then after allowing them to converse on this subject, bring the groups back together and have one member from each group share their rule with the group. Allow time for the groups to ask questions about each groups's rule. This exercise should challenge the students and provide them with the opportunity to share their opinion if they fear to do so in very large groups. A wider variety of opinions should spark more meaningful discussions.