Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Philosophy of Seuss

It was Dr. Seuss' 100th birthday a little while ago, so to celebrate here is the first of several posts on the philosophy of Seuss.

The Cat in the Hat ends with a great question. Remember what happens in the book: on a cold, rainy day, a brother and sister sit bored in the house when the Cat in the Hat comes in and engages in the sorts of behavior that are unacceptable for a middle-class 1950's household. The house is completely trashed as a result of his playing...remember that the brother and sister did not partake in the activities and were shocked and appalled by them. Then as the mother is about to come home, the Cat in the Hat sweeps in and makes the house look exactly as it did before he came. The punchline of the story is that the mother walks in to find the siblings sitting at the window and asks, "What did you do?" The brother, who has been narrating, asks the reader, "What would you do if your mother asked you?"

So what should he do? If he tells the truth, the mother will either think he is lying or be angry at what happened in the house. If he lies, there will be no negative consequences...but it is a lie of convenience. He and his sister had nothing to do with the inappropriate behavior, so they should not be held responsible, yet there is good reason to think they would be. (This is what ethicists call moral luck.) Is it ok to lie to avoid being blamed for something you didn't do, but know you would be blamed for?

In a different direction, knowing what they know at the end of the book -- that the Cat could make all negative consequences dissapear -- would it have been ok to have played along and do things that were against the rules? "You shouldn't fly kites in a house, you should not." Why? Because of "the things they will bump, oh, the things they will hit." But given the Cat's ability, it wouldn't matter what they would bump or hit. The reason for the rule is the likely consequences of the act, but those consequences are no longer a worry. "No harm, no foul? or "A rule is a rule"?