Teaching Ethics With Zootopia: One Year Later

Educating Undergraduates about 2016’s Best Film
It’s been just over a year since Andy shared a draft of “Moral Psychology and Prejudice in Disney’s Zootopia” and wrote about how I was using Zootopia in one of my applied ethics courses. If that doesn’t found familiar to you, let me offer a short recap. 

Back then, I was teaching philosophy at the University of Tennessee while finishing my PhD there, and I used Zootopia in two applied ethics courses to introduce the moral and psychological aspects of bias to my students. In the time that has passed, I’ve finished that degree and jumped to a different institution (I’m at the University of South Florida as a postdoctoral researcher right now). 

I’ve also learned a few things from the feedback I received on the old draft and from my presentations of the material in different venues. In light of those developments, it seems appropriate to provide a little more material on Zootopia for your perusal. 

Check it out after the break.

Before proceeding, I should add that I am not currently looking to make any revisions to these items. You’re still welcome to send me feedback – comment below or send me an email at [email protected] – but there are no immediate plans for making large alterations to this material. With that in mind, here are a few things I have used in the classroom to teach about Zootopia:
  • Moral Psychology and Prejudice in Disney’s Zootopia” (2018 Version)
    This is the updated version of the paper that was shared through this site last year. I wasn’t able to incorporate every edit because I wanted to keep the paper to a manageable length. If I’m going to assign it as a reading in my courses, then it can’t be too long or overly technical. Even so, the refinements and extra content ensure that this version is more polished than its predecessor.
  • Psychological Obstacles to Acting Ethically
    This is an overview of the course unit in which I have used Zootopia. It has been hosted on The Deviant Philosopher – a site that hosts teaching resources for philosophy content that deviates from mainstream western philosophy – since it passed editorial review in during the fall. If you want to get some insight into how Zootopia fits into the broader course content I teach, then give this a look.
  • Zootopia PowerPoint (2018 Version)
    This is an updated version of the PowerPoint that I used when I presented the main material in my classes. If the paper seems a little too dense for your tastes, then you can view this to get the main highlights along with some iconic screenshots from the film. Additionally, I spend some considerable time examining one important scene in the film. My attempts to integrate the clip into the PowerPoint directly were not entirely successful, so here is a direct link to the relevant video clip.
  • Zootopia PowerPoint as a Narrated VideoThis PowerPoint is similar to the one above but with one crucial difference: it includes audio narration of each slide. I tried to simulate what it would be like to be in the classroom when I presented the material, although obviously you won’t be able to raise your hand and ask questions. Even so, short of recording an actual class session, this is about as good a simulation of the classroom experience as I can offer. Be forewarned: this video version of the PowerPoint lasts for 62 minutes. So if you’re going to endure the whole thing, I’d advise getting a sandwich first. Or at least a pawpsicle.

Now before I sign off, I should address something important. Having discussed Zootopia with plenty of other people over the last year and gained some perspective from subsequent viewings of the film, I have a lot more to say about its subject matter than what’s presented in these materials. For instance, I took some heat from readers of the original paper (including from some of my students) because I criticized Nick’s moral character, but I haven’t been persuaded to change my view about him. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem appropriate to go on a lengthy tangent about that subject in the paper itself, so readers have to settle for a footnote.

The good news is that since I now have a staff position here at ZNN, I can explore some of these ideas at greater length than I have in the past. And what better place to start than subjecting Nick Wilde’s actions and character to a little philosophical scrutiny? Is it fair to say that he’s morally good at the end of the film, despite his shady past? I’ll tackle that question next month. See you then.


  1. I was one of those people who engaged you over your criticisms of Nick's character.

    Towards the end of our discussion, I drew a comparison between the moral dubiousness of Nick's character/actions and that of Han Solo who in the "Han shot first" debate meant that an entire section of the fandom were essentially ok with Han murdering Gredo in the original cut of Star Wars.

    Our discussion left me with the feeling that you were a big fan of the character and that story-wise Han is given a pass because in fiction we value coolness over moral goodness.

    If you are going to give deeper philosophical scrutiny into Nick's character and actions, I think it would be interesting if you applied the same philosophical criteria to Han Solo and see how those two characters emerge from the evaluation.

  2. Yes, I remember that. Perhaps appropriately, I am in the "Han Shot First" crowd. That particular scene is really important to establishing who he is — is he someone who only kills in self-defense or someone who preemptively eliminates threats? The former would be morally virtuous, but the latter seems more befitting a roguish smuggler. It's also more consistent with his generally selfish attitude and reluctance to help the rebellion at the end of A New Hope: such a person would seem more than willing to eliminate rival smugglers or bounty hunters that got in his way.

    I suspect that if we were limiting assessment to Han Solo as portrayed in A New Hope, then many of the same considerations that count against Nick would count against him as well, although they are probably more severe in Han's case. Deceptive business practices are a little less severe than murder, after all. (I suggest limiting Han's portrayal to one film because Nick is likewise only in one film, and I'm sure his character will be developed significantly in sequels just like Han's was.) In any case, I'll give this suggestion some consideration.

    • Thanks for the reply to my comments. I had one other suggestion with regards to how you approach evaluating Nick's character. It would help if you establish up front the scope in which the evaluation occurs. Namely….

      1) At the beginning of the movie Nick says "I make $200 bucks a day, fluff. 365 days a year since I was 12". This statement can be taken as literal or as embellished bravado in response to Judy's provocative "$10 worth of popsicles" statement. This has an impact on how long Nick has likely been a true "surviving on his gains" hustler.

      2) The movie only identifies two hustles that Nick was involved in… the pawpsicle hustle and the skunk-butt rug incident. These can be taken as a guide for the type of hustles Nick is regularly involved with or you could say he'd be open to any and all activities available to a hustler/con-fox. This has an impact on the "shades of gray" of his moral spectrum when conning other mammals. (e.g. Given the types of hustles portrayed, it doesn't suggest that Nick's the type of con-fox who would swindle a retiree out of their life-savings but I could see him scamming an arrogant business-mammal into buying an over-priced fur rug.)

      3) During the past two years, the creative team for Zootopia has been actively communicating with the fans through social media. In answering their questions, an "extended canon" has arisen that fleshes out aspects of story that the movie didn't have time to cover or were unclear. In terms of Nick, you should make it clear if you will take into account the revelations that have been made about his back-story or limit it to only what's portrayed in the movie.

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