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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.

 

Celestial Influence & You: Or The Unintended Consequences of Other People’s Choices

The 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.

This post was originally posted on the author’s blog, Life: A One Way Ticket.

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Many people make decisions based on horoscopes, and the consequences of those choices are often far reaching. Celestial movements affect everyone via astrology, even if they do not believe in the validity of it in the slightest.

 

Moonrise Over Mountain

Moonrise Over Mountain

 

The forces of the blood moon began working on your life in April. This blood moon eclipse was a big deal. It kicked off a rare celestial situation called a tetrad of lunar eclipses where four lunar eclipses will occur spaced six months apart from each other. Mars was in opposition on April 8th, and we had a spectacular solar flare on April 2nd. Later in April, a partial eclipse of the sun produced a ring-of-fire phenomenon around the moon as it traveled in front of the sun. To top everything off, the Lyrid Meteor Shower added extra strength to these celestial events. Astrologers, obviously, made a big deal about these events.

The celestial movements for April were exciting! Awareness of their potential influence on you is only a fraction of the pie. Personal life, relationships, politics, finances, all of these can be influenced by the movement in the heavens. What type of energy you put into action in response to them is where the impact resides. These things that circle around earth and seemingly decide our fate—stars, moons, planets, the sun (all masses of rock, gases, or both)—how much can they influence our fates? Directly? Unless an asteroid the size of a house hits earth, which is very unlikely, then the celestial movements probably have little direct control over your existence. Indirectly? Maybe more than you can know.

Choices made, whether bad or good, follow you forever and affect everyone in their path one way or another. ― J.E.B. Spredemann

So, you don’t believe in those signs-and-zodiac star stuff? There are plenty of reasons to disbelieve the pseudoscience of astrology. One of the biggest cases for why you should ignore your horoscope is the fact that horoscopes are written to the population that shares your birthday. Check out the nifty article and chart based on a Harvard study. Astrologers use our own minds against us. They have to write a list of vague generalizations that we can then convince ourselves are true. Frankly, a well written horoscope simply encapsulates a few things that could be predictive for just about anyone. If something happens during your life that reminds you in any way of “your” horoscope, then congratulations; pat yourself on the back: you’ve just reinforced astrology by making its generalizations relevant for yourself. It is subjective-validation and often called the Barnum effect. We believe something is true because it sounds convincing enough. Many people believe in astrology and their daily horoscopes due to subjective-validation.

 

Common Astrological Symbols

Common Astrological Symbols

 

To err on the side of Susan could be considered a modern astrological maxim. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Susan Miller, the most popular modern astrologer, was so freaked out by April’s celestial activity that she taught classes on it. You can even read Susan Miller’s Guide To Surviving An Eclipse. It is a sign-based guide to dealing with the effects caused by the eclipse. In a different interview with Business Insider, Susan defends the science of astrology, her greatest prediction, and how much work she puts in each day. Either for entertainment or in seriousness, millions of people check their Susan-Miller-crafted horoscopes every day.

Before you make a decision, ask yourself this question: will you regret the results or rejoice in them? ― Rob Liano

Well, while you may believe that there are no occult forces acting upon your life, there are people who believe that the heavenly bodies do influence mundane life—people who not only believe in the influence of celestial movement but practice that belief every day. They are walking out their faith making decisions in response to their horoscopes. This is about choices and the experience of their consequences. If your boss double checks financial moves against his or her horoscope, then in a trickle-down effect you will indirectly experience astrological forces working on your life.

Every choice has consequences. Choices can have unintended consequences. Often choices unknowingly affect others. We participate in the consequences of other people’s choices. Thus whether or not you believe in astrology, you do experience its indirect effect via the consequences of the choices others make—the butterfly effect so to speak.

Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results. ― Herman Melville

Many people make decisions based on horoscopes, and the consequences of those choices are often far reaching. Celestial movements affect everyone via astrology, even if they do not believe in the validity of it in the slightest.

 

Catherine the Great and Absolute Power

Catherine the Great was the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. During her reign she exercised nearly complete control over all aspects of Russian government. She epitomized absolute power in a way that many other monarchs of the period could only dream of. There was no legislature to check her will. She was the final arbiter of appointments and advancements within the government and military. She worked tirelessly to direct both domestic and foreign policy involving herself in many levels of decision making. Furthermore, she was nearly immune to revolts, attempted coups, and uprisings within her borders. Given the level of power and control she exercised, the question arises as to why she was so successful.

I believe her success was due to her recognition that she ruled alongside the people rather than against them. Even though her power was absolute, it was never independent of the people. This is clearly shown in her attempt to bring about “enlightenment” reforms early in her reign. In her youth, she was enthralled by the ideas of equality and liberty that were popular in Europe at the time. She wanted to reform the unjust treatment of the serfs in Russia. She wanted to create a new, modern code of laws that was more coherent and just. However, when she assembled an enormous commission made up of representatives from all the parts of the Russian social order, no consensus could be adopted. The various social groups were unwilling to compromise or give up what they had. At that juncture, Catherine could have tried to force implementation of the reforms that she thought would be “good” for her country. Instead, she decided that she must give up on many of her goals and ideals and rule in accordance with what is possible, rather than what is ideal.

Not every Russian monarch was as wise. Her immediate predecessor was her husband Peter III, and her immediate successor was her son Paul I. Both of these men attempted to institute drastic changes in many areas of the political and social order. Peter III was deposed after six months, and Paul I was assassinated after five years.

Catherine’s decision to rule alongside the wishes of her advisors and people was carried on throughout her reign. It is perhaps best shown in a quote from the biography Catherine the Great by R. Massie. After her death, one of her former administrators was explaining this to her grandson, Emperor Alexander I.

The subject was the unlimited power with which the great Catherine ruled her empire. … I spoke of the surprise I felt at the blind obedience with which her will was fulfilled everywhere, of the eagerness and zeal with which all tried to please her.

“It is not as easy as you think,” she replied. “In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence and circumspection I act in the promulgation of my laws. I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders, and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. That is the foundation of unlimited power. But, believe me, they will not obey blindly when orders are not adapted to the opinion of the people.”

Catherine’s understanding and use of power is illustrative of all governmental power. There is a relationship between the people and the government, no matter what type of government exists. We may think that a monarchy is not subject to the will of the people in the way that a democracy is. This is partially true, but not completely. No ruler or party or aristocracy can rule contrary to the people’s will for long. Even brutal despots cannot maintain power without some level of acquiescence.

In our day, we may lament that our own government goes against the will of the people. Perhaps there is some truth to that. But I think it is more to the point that our government reflects only too accurately exactly what the people really want.

 

Knowledge for the Sake of Living

Every couple of years Gutenberg students spend time reading a series of authors that consider the issue of knowledge. These authors raise questions about the certainty of our knowledge, the reliability of our senses and our reasoning. They take and debate a variety of different approaches, and the consequences of those debates continue to profoundly impact our way of thinking today.

This year while rereading these authors, an old thought struck me in a new way. It seems to me as if a large part of the debate about knowledge hangs on whether “living is for the sake of good knowledge” or “knowledge is for the sake of good living.”

Those philosophers for whom living was for the sake of good knowledge came up with all sorts of strange claims and systems. Their careers and self concepts were tied up in their philosophical musings on knowledge. Not surprisingly, they were led to doubt. Perhaps the most familiar example of this kind of thinking is the old question, “If the tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We can all see that this strange academic question raises doubts and questions about knowledge and perception. We typically do not take the question very seriously except as a subject for repartee. More significantly, philosophers who subjugate living to knowledge have introduced into our cultural thinking the idea that there is a qualitative distinction between what I know to be true and what I believe to be true. For example, many will say that they can know mathematical and scientific knowledge but only believe philosophical and spiritual knowledge.

Philosophers for whom knowledge exists for the sake of good living take a very different view. What is important is making decisions and whether those decisions are bad or good. Knowledge is indeed important for these decisions, but in the end, a decision must be made. In this way of thinking, knowledge and belief coalesce in action. What I believe to be true, I act on; and what I know to be true I believe. I cannot afford to demand that all of my action be supported by some unattainable ideal of certainty. To do so would paralyze me. With the view that knowledge exists for the sake of good living, academic skepticism has no value other than to be used as an excuse to act badly and believe poorly because of a lack of certain “evidence.”

I still find reading these authors stimulating and interesting. They have paved the road to the twenty-first century, and it is worthwhile to see the streets they laid. Nevertheless, I continue to find it useful to remind myself that knowledge is for the sake of good living and not the other way around.

 

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