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An Almanac on Dehumanization: The Trend in Ethics

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold discusses the ethical relationship between man and nature. He likens it to the relationship of a master over property. Leopold wants that ethical relationship to change from a master over property to a relationship between equal citizens. Although the book has many insights, Leopold’s ethics are both enlightening and frightening.

Larissa Weisse's Nature ShotThe origins of the naturalist, or “green,” movement can be traced back to Leopold, whose love and respect for nature flows through the tradition of the movement. But while the naturalists took the torch of ecological awareness from Leopold, they deviated significantly from his ethics. Two terms describe the difference: citizenship and pestilence. Leopold makes man an equal to nature, while the naturalists view man as a blight on nature. The naturalists went further than Leopold originally intended, but their evolution from Leopold makes sense. They morphed Leopold’s ethics, in which man is no longer a conqueror of nature but an equal citizen, into radial extremism.

The naturalist movement diverted from Leopold’s line of succession, which passed instead to bio-ethical philosopher Peter Singer. Singer fleshed out Leopold’s ethics and followed it to its logical conclusion. Arguing for a change of ethics similar to Leopold’s, Singer proposes to end “speciesism”—that is, not to favor one living being over another purely based on its species. In a FAQ page from the Princeton University website, Singer wrote that, under the right conditions, it would be morally right to save a mouse instead of a human being if both were in a burning building and only one could be saved.

Now, some would argue that both the naturalists and Singer went further than Leopold intended. True, the naturalist’s ethics are more dehumanizing than Leopold’s. Singer’s ethics, on the other hand, are similar to Leopold’s—only more clearly articulated. So then, two views confront us: the radial naturalist’s view that man is a blight on nature and Leopold’s and Singer’s view that man is an equal citizen with nature. Which do we follow? Either way, both ethical systems are willing to sacrifice not only man’s position in nature but human lives if need be.

The two options, if followed consistently, will protect nature—but at the price of risking endangering human life. Is protecting nature so important that it justifies dehumanizing man and risking his place in the world? If the answer is yes, then society has lost sight of what’s truly important.

 

[Thanks to Gutenberg student Larissa Weisse for the nature photo.]

 

The Trivial Role Model: A Prime Example of A Broken Generation

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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Excited kids tug their parents’ hands, pleading their parents to hurry; the parents can barely contain their children as they dash into the movie theater. The young kids finally sit in the shadowy room with their large popcorn and soda, twitching with eagerness. About fifteen minutes later, the kids are ensnared; minutes later, they are shocked and some start crying. Some kids leave the theater before the movie ends. Angry mothers write letters to producers for what they did in that movie. One dismayed kid locks himself in his room for two weeks. You may be thinking, “Why am I talking about the reaction to Bambi?” But this is the way people reacted to 1986’s The Transformers: the Movie.

The reaction to Transformers: the Movie was surprising to say the least. What happened that elicited such extreme reactions from the audiences? In a shocking death scene, shocking especially for a kids’ movie, the Autobots’ (the good Transformers’) leader, Optimus Prime, died.

I sympathize with the belief that this reaction was ridiculous. However, I have read several articles that explain why this dramatic event so affected the children who witnessed it. They did not just react to a movie character dying but to the demise of a beloved substitute-father role model. Most of the writers agreed that the movie affected their generation, the latchkey kids.

The latchkey kids were a generation from broken homes. A writer of this generation claims that all generations have a defining question; her generation’s question is “When did your parents get divorced?” Since their parents were absent, particularly the fathers, kids lacked a role model to imitate and learn from. A parent-shaped vacuum developed in these children. They searched for other role-models, and since they were home alone most of the time, this source was cartoons. Kids scrutinized Saturday morning cartoons for more stable and heroic examples to follow instead of their parents. For those who watched Transformers, Optimus was a prime choice for a role model.

Three attributes of Optimus’s character provided an appealing role model: stability, virtue, and humanity. In a chaotic household resulting from poor familial relationships, Optimus Prime delivered an opportunity for kids to feel secure once a day; kids knew that Optimus always overcame any obstacle or situation. Furthermore, Optimus was a simple character who embodied virtue; he protected the weak and never tolerated evil. Finally, Optimus Prime acted like a human in the series: he criticized himself when he failed; he played games with his human friends; and he expressed anger when evil won. Optimus demonstrated to kids that anyone could be a masculine hero and still display emotions.

The reaction of children to the seemingly trivial movie scene in The Transformers: the Movie revealed the non-trivial brokenness of the latchkey-kid generation. The latchkey kids had no parents to model themselves after. Optimus Prime filled that parent-shaped vacuum.

 

Objective Virtue

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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Andrew Kern, founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, wrote an article, You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You, discussing how to teach virtue to students. His method is not “scientific,” which may be hard to swallow for most modern audiences. Generations have been conditioned to believe that without a scientific method, or experts to stroll in, teaching anything—much less virtue—is next to impossible. In any case, many believe virtue is dead or relative to individuals. But virtue is not dead. People are just not taught to value virtue.

Some readers might disagree that we are not taught to value virtue. They value virtue; they would like all people not to cheat or steal from them. Most people desire their fellow man to be virtuous to them, but they value virtue only because it benefits them, not because of the inherent value of virtue.

People are also selective concerning which virtues they value. Plenty of virtues are not valued at all. Prime examples are chastity, purity, and forbearance. People will not need convincing that the first two virtues are not cherished; most would scoff at the mere idea of chastity or purity. Forbearance is simply the ability to resist instant gratification.

But people should not pick and choose virtues; to do so undercuts the whole point of what a virtue is. One hole in Kern’s article is that he did not define virtue. (In his defense, he was writing to a Christian audience and probably assumed they shared his definition of virtue.) I would define virtue as an objective human behavior or mindset that is favorable and pleasing in the sight of righteous men and God.

Most people would more or less agree with  my definition of virtue except for the part concerning objectivity. Kern claims that anyone can teach virtue, but I think teaching virtue is only possible if the concept of virtue is universally understood, or objective.

Why should the concept of virtue be objective and not subjective? Because ideas that are objective are indisputably part of reality. People cannot argue about the existence of something objective; they can only discuss the importance of that something. On the other hand, subjective ideas are passing fads. For example, “I like the color red” is a subjective statement that could change in time, whereas “The stop sign is red” is an objective claim of reality. Subjective concepts are created by man; objective concepts are discovered by man. Subjective concepts will fade with the passage of time, or else we would be still suffering from the fashion of 1970s. (If this is not proof of a merciful God, then I have no idea what is.) Objective concepts stand the test of time.

1970s fashions

Kern suggests teachers or parents can teach virtue simply by embodying it. If teachers spend time with their students while embodying virtue, then students will imitate the teachers. But how do people embody virtue? Kern looks to the Apostle Paul for support: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble… if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8-9). Everyone knows, or has at least experienced, what happens when you devote yourself to a subject, whether it be work, a hobby, or a project. You become its slave; you cannot help but embody whatever the subject is and exhibit it.

Sure, telling teachers to exhibit virtue is interesting, but why not tell the rest of us, too? Kern wrote his article with teachers and parents in mind. But while he is trying to convince parents and teachers that teaching virtue is possible, it is hard to believe that he would not apply the necessity to show virtue in one’s life to everyone. So then, I would change Kern’s original title from You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You to You Are What You Behold: And the World Is Beholding You because anyone can embody virtue.

But, again, how can we embody virtue? Doing so requires no method or system. Simply think about virtue until it shows in your actions. You do not have to do anything special; you just live life, go to work, and play sports while you live virtuously. That does not sound like it would make a big difference. However, this is when virtue being objective is important. Being virtuous in a world denying the objective existence of virtue will not go by unnoticed; it would be like trying to conceal a black dot on a white canvas. People will notice the very thing you are embodying, and they will imitate the virtue they see in you.

 

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