Ethics for Three-Year-Olds

So we checked out a retelling of The Little Red Hen from the library. For those of you not up on your kiddie lit, the aforementioned hen asks her friends to help with every step of the process of breadmaking (planting the seeds, tending the wheat, cutting and grinding the wheat, and baking the bread) but they always refuse to help. At the end, she refuses to share the bread with them.

The moral seemed obvious to me: something about the idler not eating the bread of the laborer.

But my recently-turned-three-year-old argued very eloquently (well, for a three year old) that the hen was in the wrong because she wouldn’t share.

This perspective had never occured to me. This, by the way, is why I like kids. In a separate incident, the six year old suggested to me that we name the new baby after him. I asked him if he thought that might be confusing. He admitted that it would, but that that would be outweighed by the fact that everytime I called, I would have two kids come to help me. That never would have occured to me. But I digress. I am still trying to figure out if the hen was wrong not to share the bread.

43 comments for “Ethics for Three-Year-Olds

  1. Julie in Austin
    August 6, 2004 at 12:44 am


  2. August 6, 2004 at 1:00 am

    Wouldn’t King Benjamin have said that she was?

  3. August 6, 2004 at 1:01 am

    The idea, for me at least, is that the hen offered to share the bread with everyone… all she asked was that they help out — they refused to help out, so were not entitled to the bread.

  4. Randy
    August 6, 2004 at 1:11 am

    Seems to me that the question posed by Julie’s three-year old is not whether the hen’s friends were “entitled” to the bread. Rather, the issue is whether the hen should have shared. That is a very different question. As Jim notes, doesn’t King Benjamin answer this question for us?

  5. john fowles
    August 6, 2004 at 2:13 am

    Or would King Benjamin have thought that she was right in not sharing her bread? After all, he made a specific point of the fact that he worked for his own bread. . . .

  6. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 2:26 am

    I think it was Nibley who pointed out that for most of history “the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer” meant the idle rich shall not eat the bread of the working poor.

    King Benjamin seems to have been making the same point. He doesn’t seem to have any reservation about sharing the bread he worked for.

  7. Randy
    August 6, 2004 at 2:27 am

    But did he create a general exemption to our obligation to share based on that point of fact? Or, instead, are we required to do both: be self-sufficient and share?

  8. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 2:32 am

    I think King Benjamin’s point is that we are never self-sufficient — we are always dependent on the Lord, and it’s the height self-deception to give ourselves airs and act as if we somehow “earned” what we have.

    That’s why we share. It’s not ours anyway. The Little Red Hen doesn’t seem to get this.

  9. August 6, 2004 at 2:33 am

    Would it make any difference if there were five wise red hens who made bread, and five foolish red hens who didn’t? The five wise hens would be scripturally justified in not sharing their bread.

  10. Randy
    August 6, 2004 at 2:35 am

    (I hope it is obvious, but in case not, my questions are directed to John and not Diogenes–we seem to have posted at the same time.)

  11. August 6, 2004 at 2:38 am

    D&C 42:42 seems directly on point:

    Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.

  12. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 2:39 am

    No, they wouldn’t. According to President Kimball, they only reason they don’t share because they can’t — in other words, if it’s the bread of life, and you have to get it from the Lord yourself.

  13. August 6, 2004 at 2:45 am

    > I think it was Nibley who pointed out that for
    > most of history “the idler shall not eat the
    > bread of the laborer” meant the idle rich shall
    > not eat the bread of the working poor.

    Ah, so poor idle people are justified in demanding the bread of the working poor? I don’t think that makes much sense.

    If for most of history the phrase referred to the idle rich, it’s probably because the idle poor didn’t last very long. There wasn’t much of a welfare system back then.

  14. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 2:45 am

    You’re prooftexting. Read verse 42 in context, especially together with verse 40 and verses 30-34.

  15. August 6, 2004 at 2:50 am

    OK, and now you can read verse 54: “Thou shalt not take thy brother’s garment; thou shalt pay for that which thou shalt receive of thy brother.”

    I don’t recall anyone offering to pay the little red hen.

  16. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 2:53 am

    “If for most of history the phrase referred to the idle rich, it’s probably because the idle poor didn’t last very long. There wasn’t much of a welfare system back then.”

    Quite the contrary. There was a magnificent welfare system. It was for the rich. See, e.g., Mosiah 11:3-4. That’s how you get to be idly rich.

    Pretty much like today, in fact.

  17. August 6, 2004 at 2:57 am

    Furthermore, there is nothing in the text of the story of the little red hen that says her friends were not idle rich friends. For you to issue a blanket statemnt that her failure to share was wrong without ascertaining whether her friends were rich or poor is premature.

  18. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 2:57 am

    “I don’t recall anyone offering to pay the little red hen.”

    You’re prooftexting again. And not paying attention. Several posts have already pointed out that the question is whether she should offer it, not whether they should get it.

  19. Rusty
    August 6, 2004 at 2:58 am

    I think Nibley’s point is that it’s not up to us to stand in judgement of whether we can withhold something that doesn’t belong to us anyway. We are supposed to give, no matter what the other person “deserves” or not.

  20. diogenes
    August 6, 2004 at 3:10 am

    “Furthermore, there is nothing in the text of the story of the little red hen that says her friends were not idle rich friends.”

    If, as you claim, they’re operating in the context of section 42, then they’ve all consecrated their properties to the Bishop, so they shouldn’t be rich or poor.

  21. August 6, 2004 at 3:13 am

    Well, rather than quote from it and be accused of prooftexting, let me just refer you to this talk by Elder Packer, as published in the Ensign:

  22. Randy
    August 6, 2004 at 3:24 am

    I’m not entirely sure what portion of Elder Packer’s talk you are referring to, but perhaps it bears mentioning that the little red hen was not (as far as we know) a Judge in Israel responsible for administering limited church resources.

  23. August 6, 2004 at 3:24 am

    > If, as you claim, they’re operating in the
    > context of section 42, then they’ve all
    > consecrated their properties to the Bishop, so
    > they shouldn’t be rich or poor.

    You’re prooftexting. If the context of Section 42 applies only to people who have consecrated their property to the bishop, then as you’ve just pointed out, such people shouldn’t be rich or poor. But if, as you claimed earlier, “the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer” is meant to apply to the idle rich, then it makes no sense in the context of Section 42, because there are no rich in that context. So, obviously, either the context of Section 42 extends beyond those who have consecrated their property to the bishop, or else your claim that “the idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer” is meant to refer to the rich is incorrect.

  24. August 6, 2004 at 3:29 am

    Randy, I was using the talk to illustrate that apostles and members of the First Presidency have interpreted the command not to be idle to apply to the poor.

  25. Randy
    August 6, 2004 at 3:44 am

    Eric, as has been noted several times now, that’s not really the issue.

  26. Ivan Wolfe
    August 6, 2004 at 4:06 am

    Perhaps since the Hen did not have any help in making the bread, perhaps she only made enough for herself.

    King Benjamin said those who don’t have enough to give shouldn’t give, but merely be willing to give. If the Little Red Hen was willing to share but was unable to because she onlu had enough bread to feed herself, we shouldn’t condemn her.

    If the other animals had helped her, likely she could have made enough bread for everyone.

    The question then becomes: is the Little Red Hen living a subsistence lifestyle, or the lifestyle of a hoarder?

  27. Ian R
    August 6, 2004 at 9:18 am

    There is quite a difference between need and luxury.

    King Benjamin refers to the “beggar” and those who stand in “need of succor”. These terms imply a real need to be alleviated from temporal suffering.

    My 2 year olds version of the Little Red Hen suggests that the bread was a treat, an extra, a luxury, etc. I do not think the other animals on the farm were going to go hungry because of the hen’s decision to not share.

    On a political level, this is the difference between a minimal social safety net, and full fledged socialism with more drastic redistributionary schemes.

    In a spiritual sense, even the most idle will be given some form of glory (i.e. telestial). Those who share in His work will receive a greater measure of glory (i.e. celestial).

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs at the factual level, but this is how I understand the ethical question. (And hey I have legal background so that is what I am trained to do!)

    P.S. Julie in Austin, I am in the Shoal Creek Ward.

  28. Frank McIntyre
    August 6, 2004 at 11:25 am

    There is a huge distinction between appropriate behavior for the poor and appropriate behavior for the giver. Thus it can be perfectly correct for K. Benjamin to exhort that we give to all those in need, while the Bishop and the Lord rebuke the receiver that is not earning their keep.

    This judgement comes from the Bishop, not us. So if the hen is concerned that the other animals are in actual need, she can offer her bread up to the Bishop. He can then make the call as to whether or not the other animals deserve to get some. The hen must show her willingness to share, but she can still respect the doctrine that the “idler shall not eat the bread of the laborer”.

  29. August 6, 2004 at 12:05 pm

    Sounds like Frank solved the problem. Julie, would you please consult the story to find out who is the hen’s bishop, so that we may contact him and see if the hen gave her bread to him?

  30. john fowles
    August 6, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    As long as people are pointing out instances of prooftexting and taking scriptures out of context, let’s put the context of the red hen story back into its proper perspective. The other animals in the story are not beggars begging for sustenance from the little red hen. They are idlers who wish to exploit the hen for that which they have not earned. She asked them repeatedly to help her and they blatantly refused. What is the Gospel position as to them? Sure, the little red hen needs to turn the other cheek, so she is culpable in not offering to share despite the treatment she received from the others. But I like Ivan Wolfe’s perspective above: as a practical matter, she simply didn’t have enough because the others didn’t help her. The picture in the book only shows one loaf of bread on the hen’s plate, not a store full of bread.

    This story might have a lesson for us all in the context of food storage, however. We have been asked repeatedly to lay away enough to sustain us in times of emergency. I suspect that many Latter-day Saints have not been willing to follow this counsel, much like the other animals in the story, they are unwilling to do their part. When the time of widespread emergency comes (assuming that such is the reason for the counsel to keep a food storage, although that might not be the point), those Latter-day Saints who have not heeded the prophets’ counsel to keep their food storage will approach the little red hens of the Church who have been working hard to get and maintain a sufficient food storage. In that scenario, I hope that the obedient Latter-day Saints will not act like the little red hen and will instead ration the food storage that they laboriously laid up for themselves out to the “idlers” as well, so that all can be nourished. Unfortunately, I can envision Latter-day Saints defending their food storages with guns instead.

  31. Frank McIntyre
    August 6, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    All we need is the hen’s address, and we can look up her ward here.

  32. August 6, 2004 at 12:30 pm


    > Eric, as has been noted several times now,
    > that’s not really the issue.

    If it’s not at least part of the issue, then why did diogenes bring up the idea that it was meant to apply to the idle rich?

    And it is part of the issue, even though some people have claimed it isn’t.

    Allow me to illustrate by telling a modified version of The Little Red Hen:

    Once upon a time there was a little red hen who had some bread. She encountered some poor animals who were in need of food. So she shared her bread with them. The End.

    That’s the situation King Benjamin was talking about. But that’s not the situation in the actual story.

    In the actual story, we have a bunch of animals who are clearly idle. It doesn’t really matter whether they are rich animals or poor animals — what matters is that they need to learn, for their own sakes, that idleness is not good. In the long run, they will be better off if they learn the lesson that they need to work in order to enjoy the fruits of labor.

    In this unambiguous situation, the little red hen is not doing them a favor if she shares her bread with them after they have pointedly refused to help in order to remain idle. If she does share it, the idle animals are rewarded for their idleness, and in fact learn the opposite of what they really need to know for their long-term benefit.

    This is not a case of the hen being greedy — she gave all the other animals a chance to share in the bread that would be made, and those animals turned down that offer because they wished to remain idle.

    The whole point of the story of the little red hen is to teach children the importance of working instead of being idle — a message that the Lord clearly endorses. That lesson is completely negated if we say that the right thing for the hen to do is share the bread. The right thing for the hen to do is teach the idle animals that their idleness has consequences, so that the next time they are offered a chance to share in the bread-making in order to share in the bread, they will take it.

    Now, if someone is starving, then of course we should share our food with them. Saving their life takes precedence over concerns about what lessons they might learn.

  33. August 6, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    In an effort to bring our fantasy world a bit more reality, lets unite the two worlds a little into a few realistic scenarios:

    Scenario 1: A beggar approaches me, obviously starving, and asks me for a piece of my bread. I tell him no. Justified?

    Scenario 2: A beggar approaches me, obviously starving, and asks me for a piece of my bread. I tell him I will give him a piece of bread if he will do a half hour’s work at my house. He declines. I refuse my bread. Justified?

    Scenario 3: Scenario 1, and then the next day, I ask him to come help me make the bread for the day. He declines. Then asks for bread. I refuse. Justified?

    Scenarios 4-6: Same as 1-3, respectively, but the beggar is obviously NOT starving.

    It helps me think of it a little more clearly if it’s not a chicken. Maybe it’s my difficulty in imputing moral accountability to the Little Red Hen, who, though sentient, is still non-human. Or mayber her redness makes her appear to me as a socialist, putting her under a higher obligation to share. Not sure.

    Anyway, my own answers to all the above hypotheticals, based on my reading of Benjamin and Jesus, are: 1.No 2.No 3.No 4.No 5.No 6.No

  34. Frank McIntyre
    August 6, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    Scenarios 7: Obviously not starving, Ryan’s brother constantly wants Ryan to buy him food because his brother uses all his money to pay his cell phone bill. Ryan suggests he get a job, to which his brother replies “I’m too busy blogging”. Ryan starts feeding his brother cold beans, oats, water, and lard. Justified?

  35. August 6, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    Too many variables, Frank. The additional fact that he’s my brother, for whom I have a familial responsibility, changes things dramatically from the barn-yard animal scenario, where the hen is not responsible for her fellow animals. Of course, this cuts both ways…I have a responsibility for his feeding, but also for teaching him valuable life lessons. I’m not sure if you intended to give me more responsibility because of the relationship, and in which direction, but that’s how I read it.

    The operative question in your hypo, I believe, is whether it would be appropriate for me to downgrade the quality of my charitable menu so as to offer incentives to my brother to get off the dole, but without actually cutting him off entirely? My answer is yes. I think this is an eminently charitable course of action, considering both physical health and spiritual learning.

    (however, your hypo does seem to pass glibly by the important role blogging plays in society. There’s a debatable presumption that the wealthier members of a community perhaps ought to fund the lives of their more contemplative, auteuristic blogger friends, don’t you think? The problem here, of course, is that both characters are bloggers, so neither has a blogger-related claim on the other).

    By the way, the proximity of your hypo to the real state of things is nothing less than spooky. We may just swap all that ice cream we’re feeding him for some straight lard. See how much he uses his cell phone then.

  36. August 6, 2004 at 2:31 pm


    First, we need to clarify that in your scenarios, the beggar’s refusal to do any work is purely a matter of choice on his part, rather than due to any inability. Also, it should be clear that the amount of bread you would give him would be considered fair compensation for the amount of work he would do, so there is no question of exploitation.

    So, when he refuses to do any work, he is deliberately choosing to remain idle and not receive bread from you, rather than do some work and recieve bread.

    Under such circumstances, I don’t think scenarios 2 and 3 are realistic. If he truly were starving, he would be desperate for food. His deliberate choice to be idle belies that desperation, and implies that he thinks he can get sufficient food by begging from others who will support his idleness.

    However, here are my answers: 1. no, 2. probably, 3. probably, 4. probably not, 5. yes, 6. yes

    Scenario 8: Bill Gates, with wads of $100 bills overflowing from his pockets, asks you for a piece of your bread. You refuse. Justified?

  37. August 6, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    Eric, both of your assumptions about my scenarios are correct. I’d hoped they’d be implicit, but thanks for clarifying.

    I’m not sure the scenarios are that unrealistic. It seems that there are some people (not all beggars are capable of work, granted) who are capable of work but cast their lot on the gamble of getting food from others or wasting away (who knows if any or many would take it all the way to dying, but they need not actually die to fit the attitude implied by scens. 2 and 3.)

    Hard to answer number 8. It’s in a moral realm completely detached from that of the other scenarios. If you refuse, it will be no great sin on your part. IF you give it to him, you’ll probably get a few brownie points (and possibly some crips hundred dollar bills and some free software). I think if you have something to give, and someone asks you for it, it’s right to give, regardless of their means, but you’re right, it’s not a very big deal, morally, either way.

    So it seems, Eric, that your formulation of morality in giving is a balance between 1. the intensity of their need and 2. their willingness to sacrifice for it.

    As has been suggested here many times already, though, it’s not totally clear that my moral obligation is tied to their willingness to sacrifice. Seems like his choice, regardless of whether it condemns him, has little bearing on my duty to give.

  38. john fowles
    August 6, 2004 at 2:56 pm

    The key is that the other animals in the story are not beggars! They passed up their chance to share the bread when they chose to play soldier, fish, picnic, and butterfly hunt instead of helping the little red hen. The hog in the story is even portrayed as having a huge picnic, hinting that he is not King Benjamin’s starving beggar to whom we must either impart of our substance or say to ourselves that we would if we could but since we have not, we will not.

    I understand Ryan’s position and agree with you that it is the moral course of action given a beggar in the fact situation. But that is not the case here, and I must agree with Eric that what the animals in the story learn is a valuable life lesson and it is their “just deserts” for how they freely chose to spend their time. Nothing is more unpopular in today’s society than to suggest that a person is “entitled” to reap their just deserts from their chosen actions. Blame shifting and victimization are the usual course of action, rather than learning those important life lessons and improving for the future.

  39. August 6, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    But is your moral obligation tied to the intensity of their need? (Let’s focus on that aspect for now, and return later to the willingness to sacrifice.)

    I’d say that King Benjamin seems to focus on those who actually need help. I’ll risk being called a prooftexter in order to point out the following (emphasis is mine):

    Mosiah 4:16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

    Mosiah 4:22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.

    This seems to imply that King Benjamin is not talking about our moral obligation to those that do not stand in need of our succor. In fact, he seems to give special emphasis to those who are so much in need that they are close to perishing. If he meant we are morally obligated to give to anyone who asks, without regard for the intensity of their need, why does he bother to add the qualifications about perishing?

    Do we all agree that whether the beggar needs the bread is relevant to whether there is a moral obligation to give it to him? If not, do we all agree that it is a least relevant to the degree of moral obligation?

  40. August 6, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    It is indeed relevant to the degree of moral obligation. Again, in the Bill Gates example: would Jesus give him bread? Sure. And it would redound to our good to do the same. But would it be a morally grievous sin? No. So the level of need certainly plays into it. Just not sure the willingness to sacrifice has quite as much bearing.

  41. August 6, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    OK, so let’s go back to “willingness to sacrifice.” Those aren’t the words I would have chosen (“willingness to exert effort” comes closer to what I tend to think of), but that’s not crucial.

    We’ve established that your level of need is relevant to determining the level of moral obligation I am under to respond to your request.

    What information is available to me regarding your level of need? There is appearance, but appearances can be deceiving. There is what you claim about your level of need, but that is not necessarily true.

    What if I ask you to split some wood in order to get a hot meal?

    If you respond, “Yes! I’m so hungry I’d do just about anything for a meal,” that gives me one estimate of your level of need.

    If you respond, “No, thanks. I’d rather wait around here and hope someone gives me a meal I don’t have to work for,” that gives me a different estimate of your level of need.

    We can usually judge how important something is to someone by their “willingness to sacrifice” for it. A lack of “willingness to sacrifice” tends to indicate a lack of need, and therefore reduces (and in some circumstances, I would argue, may even eliminate) the moral obligation to succor.

  42. Orson Porter
    August 8, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    Often we try to apply principles to a multi-faceted problem without defining the facets resulting in confusion.

    The Lord gives the answer in D&C 56:16-18.

    There are 2 types of poor. Those in verse 17 who have the same covetess heart as the rich man in verse 16, and the poor in verse 18. Once we know which type of poor we are dealing with then we follow the spirit in how we distribute what we have. So the hen is justified in distributing the bread or withholding it depending on the hearts of the people she is dealing with.

    D&C 56:16 – 18
    16 Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation, and of judgment, and of indignation: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and my soul is not saved!
    17 Wo unto you poor men, whose hearts are not broken, whose spirits are not contrite, and whose bellies are not satisfied, and whose hands are not stayed from laying hold upon other men’s goods, whose eyes are full of greediness, and who will not labor with your own hands!
    18 But blessed are the poor who are pure in heart, whose hearts are broken, and whose spirits are contrite, for they shall see the kingdom of God coming in power and great glory unto their deliverance; for the fatness of the earth shall be theirs.

  43. Tobe Pittman
    August 10, 2004 at 2:27 am

    “It is indeed relevant to the degree of moral obligation. Again, in the Bill Gates example: would Jesus give him bread? Sure.”

    How do you know that he wouldn’t sit himself down and braid another whip?

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