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The Hermit Crab


This story is about a rather shy hermit crab that isn’t anything like a hero at all. While looking for food, he comes across a broken action figure. Thinking that the doll part is a new kind of shell, he discards his old shell and puts his new one on. Meanwhile, back where he came from, a fish gets trapped underneath a fishing trap. Wearing his new shell, the hermit crab comes across the trap. Not knowing what is going on, the hermit crab thinks that the trap is a restaurant. He shakes the trap around looking for food and in doing so inadvertently loosens the trap causing it to float away and free the fish caught underneath. The other fish see him doing this, and decide that he is a hero and give him lots of attention. Uncomfortable with all the fuss, the hermit crab sneaks away in the night.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Laura Griffin

In The Hermit Crab, the main character is celebrated as a hero for saving a fish from underneath a trap, even though he did so accidentally and unknowingly. The book raises the question of what makes an action heroic or morally praiseworthy. This is an essential question in philosophical ethics, and it has been hotly contested by philosophers for hundreds of years. This book can be used to discuss what role, if any, intention, consequences and moral character should play when deciding what makes an action or a person heroic and morally admirable.

Philosophers disagree about what role intentions and consequences plays in deciding the moral worth of an action. Utilitarian philosophers believe that whatever produces the best results is it the most moral. This idea could be extended to heroism: Heroic actions are ones with good consequences. According to this view, intention matters only if it somehow affects the results. If someone accidentally saves 100 people, that has more moral worth than someone who tries to do good but instead inadvertently fails. Other philosophers believe that intention is far more important in deciding the moral value of an action, and that it supersedes the consequences. An action is moral, or heroic, if it is done intentionally out of a conscious sense of moral duty. To be heroic, you don’t need to have good results, only instead the right intentions.

So far all the views we’ve talked about assume that actions are the important part of heroism. Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, would disagree and say that it has more to do with who a person is instead of what a person does. According to his views, moral character or virtue demonstrated over time is more important than single acts of heroism. People should aspire to become the type of person who is a hero. These people will show good moral judgment of how to be heroic, and will act on this wisdom.

In the book, the Hermit Crab saved the fish by pure luck, yet is still praised for it. This raises the interesting philosophical issue of “moral luck”. Thomas Nagel has proposed that often we decided what is moral or heroic based on circumstances. While we have some degree control over the circumstances we find ourselves in, luck also has a lot to do with things. If two men both drive cars with faulty brakes, and by bad luck one of them runs over a little girl because of it, that man would be judged harsher than the other. Conversely, if there are two women, each who tries equally hard to save a life, and by luck one of them is successful, she would be praised more than the other woman. This begs the question: is this just?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

What makes a hero?

  1. Do you think the hermit crab was a hero? Why or why not?
  2. Who do you think is a hero?
  3. What makes someone a hero?

Intention vs. consequence

  1. Did the hermit crab deserve to be praised for rescuing the flounder, even though he wasn’t trying to save him?
  2. Can you do something heroic, even if you weren’t trying to? Can you be a hero by accident?
  3. If there is a person who is trying to save her own life, but to do so must save other people’s,is she still a hero? Even if she doesn’t care much about other people’s lives?
  4. So far we’ve talked about people who didn’t mean to do something good, but did by accident. What about people who mean to do heroic things, but fail. Are those people heroes?
  5. Say a fireman runs into a burning building to rescue someone, but the building falls. He doesn’t rescuing anyone, even though he tried. Is he still a hero?
  6. Is what you mean to do more important then what you actually do, or is it the other way around?

What does a hero look like?

  1. Show the students a picture of the crab when he is in the action figure “shell”. Ask, does he look like a hero?
  2. Show the students a picture of the crab in his normal shell. Ask, does he look like a hero?
  3. Is the hermit crab any different when he is wearing the action figure shell?
  4. Does a hero have to look a certain way to be a hero?

What does a hero have to do?

  1. Can you give me some examples of things heroes do?
  2. Are there certain qualities that all heroes must have?
  3. Can you be a hero even if you aren’t very brave?
  4. To be a hero do you have to do heroic things all the time, or just can you do just one heroic thing to be a hero?
  5. Is it what people do that makes them heroes, or is it who they are that makes them heroes?

Moral Luck

  1. The crab saved the fish because he was lucky. Would the other fish have thought he was a hero had he been unlucky?
  2. Imagine that two firemen try to save a child, and one of them is lucky. Is the fireman who saved the child more of a hero than the fireman who didn’t save the child?
  3. If a person has horrible luck, and nothing they do ever goes right, is it still possible for them to be a hero?

This book module deals with ethics. It is well suited to intermediate philosophers. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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