The Little Engine That Could
By Arnold Munk
A train breaks down and the toys it is carrying will not get over the mountain to the boys and girls by the morning. Every train engine, big and small, passes it by until the littlest engine agrees to help. “I think I can, I think I can,” says the Little Blue Engine as it starts up the mountain, a seemingly impossible task.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Have you ever heard the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do?” Has anyone ever said that what was right for you wasn’t right for them? We live in a world where people have a wide multitude of opinions, political, social,and moral. What makes them have these opinions, and are they always entitled to them? In The Little Engine That Could a train carrying toys and treats for good boys and girls breaks down. Three train engines decide to not help, each for their own reasons. Finally a little blue engine comes along and helps. This story is a helpful reminder on the importance of perspective and optimism.
The philosophical ideas brought up are moral relativism and moral absolutism. Relativism comes in many flavours, but the one that fits best with The Little Engine That Could is cultural relativism. The world is full of people with different ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and what culture they grew up in changes how they think about things. In other words, they think like those around them, and as such, their values may be different from yours. The trains each believe they are doing the right thing based on their own values, and these stem from the kind of work they do.
In The Little Engine That Could, each train gives different reasons for why it won’t, or can’t, help the toys. Despite the fact that they each feel that they are doing right, they may be doing the wrong thing by failing to help. The idea that there is a right and a wrong thing despite circumstances is moral absolutism. This means that you should do the right thing, no matter what, and that people who are mistaken about what is right and wrong can still do the wrong thing.
The conflict between these two moral systems takes a back seat towards the end of the book when the iconic train goes up the hill saying, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” This is contrasted by when the older train says, “I can not. I can not. I can not.” The idea that how we perceive things changes the way we interact with them is under the philosophical heading of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of existence. In layman’s terms it asks questions like “What is there?” and “What is it like?”
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
The train is carrying toys and food for good girls and boys. What makes a good toy or good food change from person to person.
The trains each give different reasons for why they won’t, or will, carry the train. What makes a moral action change between these characters.
I am a very important engine. I won’t pull the likes of you
Rusty Old Engine
I can not, I can not, I can not.
I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
What makes morals different from opinions? Is there such a thing as subjective morality?