Hoping to encourage thoughtful reflection in America on the larger questions surrounding technology and human nature, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington has founded The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. The premiere issue, published in the spring of 2003, featured articles by such heavyweights in the world of bioethics as Leon R. Kass and Gilbert Meilaender. For information about subscribing to the quarterly Journal, its mission and editorial board, or to browse the available issues, visit The New Atlantis's web pages. [Posted February 2004, ALG]
Gilbert Meilaender, a guest on multiple volumes of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, was invited to present a paper on bioethics for the Ethics and Public Policy Center's semi-annual conference on religion and public life in December 2004. A transcript of his talk, complete with a reply from a journalist attending the conference, is available on-line.
In "Bioethics and Human Nature: Exploring Some Background Issues," Meilaender emphasizes the need for morally serious thinking about bioethics grounded in an understanding of human nature. Before one can wisely recommend implementation of bioethical practices, one ought to have a firm grasp on what it means to be human. Meilaender points out that bioethics offers four ways of unpacking that very question, and he attends to each way in turn, devoting the bulk of his paper to setting the stage for further reflection about bioethical issues. The four themes Meilaender examines are: the unity and integrity of the human being; human finitude and freedom; the relation between the generations; and suffering and vulnerability. He closes his discussion with the tale of Prometheus, and he advocates not only the caution advised therein, but also the ability and willingness to stop "progress" if necessary. He writes, "Now, quite often, of course, proceeding with caution is perfectly sound advice. . . . But if we really want to be morally serious, the ability to stop, to decline to go forward, may also sometimes be needed . . . ."
"The Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) was established in 1976 to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues. Its program includes research, writing, publication, and conferences." (Quote taken from the web pages of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.) [Posted February 2005, ALG]
A sampling of sources . . .
Financing the American Dream: Debt, Credit, and the Making of the American Consumer Culture was published by Princeton. Robert Bocock provides a sociological survey of the topic in his 1993 book, Consumption (Key Ideas) (Routledge). Writing that "Consumerism has become the practical ideology of capitalism," he traces the shift in the basis of social identity from production to consumption. Although no longer in print, T. J. Jackson Lears's The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 (Pantheon, 1983) provides a historical understanding of credit and consumption in a period of great change. In Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (Columbia, 1999), James Twitchell sets forth the provocative thesis that consumption is an outgrowth of our need for self-identity—a need for which the culture no longer provides. Countering the idea that consumers are the hapless victims of marketers, Twitchell believes we have quite willingly become a consumer culture—indeed, "consumerism is our better judgement." [Posted October 2001, ALG]
For further resources, see Gary Cross's An All-Consuming Century, published by Columbia University. An earlier work by Cross, Kids Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Harvard, 1999), examines in detail the effects of consumerism on children. Michael Sandel examines the emergence of "the newest commercial frontier—the public schools" in his essay "Ad Nauseum" in the September 1, 1997, issue of The New Republic. [Posted November 2001, ALG]
Jill Peláez Baumgaertner's Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring is published by Cornerstone Press. One of the most recent anthologies about O'Connor's work was published in 1997 as Volume 17 of the biannual journal, Literature and Belief, a project of the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature at Brigham Young University. Among the essays included are Ralph C. Wood's "Flannery O'Connor's Strange Alliance with Southern Fundamentalists," Robert Donahoo's "O'Connor's Catholics: A Historical-Cultural Context," and Jae-Nam Han's "O'Connor's Thomism and the 'Death of God' in Wise Blood." Ralph C. Wood devotes a large section to O'Connor in his book The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame, 1988). Other books to note: Robert H. Brinkman, The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor (LSU Press, 1989); Robert Coles, Flannery O'Connor's South (LSU Press, 1980); John E. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History (University of Georgia Press, 1987); Anthony DiRenzo, American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque (Southern Illinois University Press, 1993); David Eggenschwiler, The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor (Wayne State University Press, 1982); Kathleen Feeley, Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock (Rutgers, 1972); Conversations with Flannery O'Connor, ed. by Rosemary M. Magee (University Press of Mississippi, 1987); Flannery O'Connor and the Christian Mystery, ed. by Sua Prasad Rath and Mary Neff Shaw (University of Georgia, 1996); Marion Montgomery, Why Flannery O'Connor Stayed Home (Sherwood Sugden, 1981); and Brian Abel Ragen, A Wreck on the Road to Damascus: Innocence, Guilt, and Conversion in Flannery O'Connor (Loyola, 1989). [Posted October 2001, ALG]
The modern elevation of individual autonomy leads to postmodern suspicion of all authority, and eventually to postculturalism. Insights from Christopher Clausen and Philip Rieff . . .
In the summer of 1996, The American Scholar published an essay by Christopher Clausen. It was called "Welcome to Post-culturalism" and in it, Clausen (a professor of English at Penn State University) reflected on how the word "culture" has come to mean something very different from its historical meaning in anthropology. In that context, it "refers to the total way of life of a discrete society, its traditions, habits, belief, and art." This way of life was transmitted from one generation to the next and thereby served as a system of moral instruction and ethical restraint.
But "culture" in this deep sense has always been something of a problem for Americans. "The American political tradition places individual liberty ahead of nearly every other goal, thereby (among many other benefits) reducing occasions for intergroup conflict." The liberation of individuals from restraining forces "is one of the permanent trends in American life and comes closer to realization with every advance in communications. But the freedom that lies beyond culture may be a mixed blessing—in some respects a liberty that not even John Stuart Mill could love. The escape from restraint that the Internet represents derives not from an ideal of human fulfillment but from the narcissistic experience of one's own personality, strengthened by its reflection in the computer screen, as the only significant reality. The major constituents of real cultures—family, religion, ethics, manners—have shrunk almost to the vanishing point as authorities over individual behavior. This inflation of personality at the expense of exteral reality did not begin with the computer age; Christopher Lasch chronicles its rise in a book entitled, naturally, The Culture of Narcissism (1978). Computers and their sibling, cable television, have, however, greatly accelerated the process." [p. 387]
"The old liberal distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct has little significance if one inhabits a world made up primarily of bytes and images. Like television itself, which exists only to reach the largest possible audience, such a world has no fixed norms; like the Internet, it welcomes virtually any content from any source. Every expression, however violent, pornographic, or merely shallow, is equivalent to all other expressions. 'The First Amendment,' proclaims Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company, 'gives you the right to be plastic.'"[p. 387]
Clausen's observations resonate with earlier concerns expressed by Philip Rieff in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. In that book, Rieff describes a culture as an "inherited organization of permissions and restraints upon action." [p. 3] But the 20th century was witness to a widespread suspicion about any inherited assumptions about good and evil, and so encouraged social institutions and personalities that were committed to liberation rather than restraint. This marked a transition from culture towhat Rieff terms anti-culture: "The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized. . . . Our cultural revolution does not aim, like its predecessors, at victory for some rival commitment, but rather at a way of using all commitments, which amounts to loyalty toward none.
Rieff's diagnosis is similar to Clausen's, but more pessimistic. [Posted October 2001, KAM]