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The Ends Justify the Means

I’ve been getting a daily dose of Calvin and Hobbes in my inbox for some time now (via Gocomics), and figured this classic was worth sharing:

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. touche!

    May 24, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Calvin’s ethic is the way humanist ethics, including Christian and atheist versions, appear from an ecological perspective. This is reflected, intentionally or not, in the symbolism in this strip: the human saying that he matters more than the cat. The overpowering and humiliation of the human by “nature” is pleasant from an ecological perspective.

    May 26, 2010
    • Aside from echoing JC’s concern below, I would say that this is a pretty imaginative interpretation of the comic strip. The strip seems to have a lot more to do with radical individualism than any kind of ecological themes.

      May 26, 2010
      • Ken #

        I was not offering an interpretation. It was only an observation. (I agree with your interpretation of the comic strip.)

        You may not agree with the ecological perspective on Christian and humanist ethics, but it does offer a critique of such ethics analogous to your interpretation of the critique offered in the comic strip. What you consider good, others consider bad.

        JC’s remark is offensive and condemning. I don’t think he grasps the ecological ethic. I am surprised that you would echo such a remark, even if you embrace the humanist ethic.

        Perhaps the humanist ethic is inevitably condemning of other ethics, just as the ecological one is condemning of the humanist ethic.

        May 26, 2010
      • I don’t think JC’s comment is offensive or condemning. I think he is using irony to push the misanthropy of some (not all) ecological ethics to their logical conclusion. If nature is good and human beings are bad, then… then what? I don’t think he was seriously suggesting that anyone would derive pleasure from people being killed by an earthquake. I think he was questioning the consistency of such views and wondering why the “overpowering and humiliation of the human by nature” is deemed “good” in some cases and “bad” in others. It is in that sense that I was echoing his comment.

        May 26, 2010
      • Ken #

        There is something like misanthropy in ecological ethics, although misanthropy does not seem to quite match the sentiment. It is similar to the sense that many Protestants have that humanity is depraved or sinful. There is a sense that humanity is like Calvin (in the comic strip) in its attitude towards nature and that this attitude is foolish and dangerous and unfair, just like Hobbes taught Calvin. At the same time, most people who have an ecological ethic do not want to harm other people. And, of course, most people who have an ecological ethic are not pure – when threatened, they save themselves, they go Calvin’s way. The same is true of humanists. If Hegel is at all right, then perhaps Calvin’s way has some purpose in a good world, something that has some indirect role even in the humor of this comic strip.

        May 26, 2010
      • I think there remains a qualitative difference between even the most rigidly Calvinistic conceptions of original sin/total depravity and the misanthropy of the extreme environmentalist movement. However depraved human beings might be conceived to be, they are still seen as having a destiny and purpose that other creatures in creation do not. This is obviously a sentiment not shared by those embracing an ecological ethic.

        One side is “anti-human” because it expects us to be better than we are (we have “fallen” from grace), the other because it expects to think of ourselves as lower than we are (we are just a part of nature, no more important than a toad or a squirrel). Both sides are missing something important, in my view.

        May 26, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “However depraved human beings might be conceived to be, they are still seen as having a destiny and purpose that other creatures in creation do not. This is obviously a sentiment not shared by those embracing an ecological ethic.”

        Certainly that is true. Otherwise an ecological ethic would be another form of humanism or anthropocentric ethic.

        Re: “no more important than a toad or a squirrel.”

        Yes. Also true. We are not more important from an ecological perspective.

        Without question, these are different ethics. From the humanist perspective an ecological ethic may be “anti-human” but that is not the way it seems within the ecological ethic. An ecological ethic cannot justify itself to a humanist, and from an ecological perspective humanists look as selfish and self-centered as Calvin does in the comic strip (for thinking they have a higher destiny and purpose.)

        Only time will tell which is the sickness unto death.

        In August, when the monsoon storms come to the desert near Tucson with great thunder and lightning, I am planning to go there to be with the toads. They make beautiful music in the rain. A heavenly choir for sure.

        May 27, 2010
      • “Humanists” undoubtedly do look selfish and self-centred from some ecological perspectives. While this view is undoubtedly justified in many cases, there are many cases where it is not as well. Not surprisingly, I think it is entirely possible (obligatory, actually!) to live with an attitude of respect and care for the created world while at the same time holding to the view that human beings really are unique. I don’t think I have to believe that I am on the same level as a toad or a squirrel in order to understand and live in creation in ways that are unselfish and responsible and honouring of the beauty and diversity of our world.

        (Or perhaps the mere thought that human beings are unique—regardless of how they behave toward creation—is deemed to be selfish on some conceptions of ecological ethics? If that is the case, then I suppose I am guilty as charged….)

        May 27, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think the human distinctiveness, whatever that may be, only matters ethically (from an ecological perspective) when humans are placed ahead of the rest of nature.

        From an ecological perspective its seems implausible that humans are different from or occupy a different “level” from the rest of nature.

        May 27, 2010
      • And for me, it seems equally implausible that humans do not occupy a different “level.” There is too much about us that seems to go way beyond one more organism adapting to its environment. Squirrels and toads aren’t manipulating complicated machinery to transmit intelligible language and engage in rational discourse via wireless networks about the meaning of their lives and the scope and justification of their ethical obligations, after all :). That’s probably a bit of silly way to put the matter, but to me it seems like a giant exercise in false humility to pretend that there are not significant and existentially meaningful differences between human beings and everything else.

        I think the ecological perspective is a valuable one that draws our attention to many important truths. I just don’t think it tells enough of the story.

        May 27, 2010
      • Ken #

        re: “it seems like a giant exercise in false humility to pretend that there are not significant and existentially meaningful differences between human beings and everything else.”

        The ecological perspective is not grounded in humility. It is grounded in a belief that natural selection accounts for the origin of the species. And rather than focusing on differences, it focuses on interconnectedness.

        I don’t expect you to embrace this perspective or the related ethic. It is different from the a widely held Christian perspective. It is important, I think, in a pluralistic world, that a Christian understand why the Christian ethic and worldview is wrong intellectually and harmful ethically from an ecological perspective, even if one does not embrace that perspective. I think you have articulated well the reason the ecological perspective is wrong and harmful from the Christian perspective, although I think it is possible for a Christian to fully embrace the ecological perspective. I don’t think it is essential theologically to hold that humans are above the rest nature.

        As I wrote above, I think time will tell which, if either and not both, is the sickness unto death.

        As for me, the toads and squirrels are angels.

        May 27, 2010
  3. JC #

    “The overpowering and humiliation of the human by “nature” is pleasant from an ecological perspective.”

    I can imagine the recent earthquake in Hatai must have given the people who share this perspective a lot of pleasure.

    May 26, 2010
    • James #

      Indeed! It seems that those with an ecological perspective share a love for natural and manmade catastrophes with a brand of apocalyptic Christianity. Each new volcano, earthquake, war or oil spill piques the interest of these Christians.
      Interesting bedfellows. I suspect that they have more in common than meets the eye but at the very least it is a shared anti-humanism.

      May 26, 2010
  4. I love Calvin & Hobbes! I popped over to the gocomics link and the strip that was featured showed Calvin outside with an umbrella as it starts to rain. He opens the umbrella, flips it upside down, and is seen in the last panel sitting inside the umbrella splashing in the pool that formed.

    That childlike view of the world is a delight … I really have enjoyed those playful stories that Watterson told so well.

    May 26, 2010
    • Me too, Ann!

      May 26, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        Me, three!

        September 26, 2012
  5. Ah, Calvin and Hobbes. It was a sad day when Bill Watterson stopped writing. Those two never fail to make me laugh.

    April 15, 2014

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