Guests on Volume 70: W. Wesley McDonald, on the significance of Russell Kirk’s themes of the “permanent things” and “the moral imagination”; C. Ben Mitchell, on law, wisdom, and the possibilities of pastoral guidance on bioethical decisions, and on why and how the Church should be more welcoming toward the elderly; Carl Elliott, on the medical industry’s move from healing to enhancing self-esteem and identity formation; Richard Weikart, on the rise of “evolutionary ethics,” the embrace toward ethical relativism, and the slide toward eugenics; Christine Rosen, on how and why early twentieth-century American religious leaders encouraged eugenics in the name of moral progress; and Dana Gioia, on the decline in literary reading in America and on the cultural loss it signifies.
Professor W. Wesley McDonald is one of the first to offer a book-length study of the philosophical themes in writer Russell Kirk’s works. In Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, McDonald introduces Kirk (1918-1994) — a writer and lecturer whose intellectual heroes included Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, and T. S. Eliot — as a conservative who was equally critical of neoconservatives, capitalism, libertarians, and liberals. Kirk’s legacy lays in part, states McDonald, in his revival and application of the ideas of the “permanent things” and the “moral imagination.” Burke, Babbitt, and Eliot all referred to the permanent things, by which they meant those fundamental moral realities in creation and human nature that are binding on all people in all times. McDonald explains that the permanent things come to be known through the exercising of the moral imagination, a faculty that aids people in navigating the moral dilemmas of life.
Professor of bioethics and contemporary culture C. Ben Mitchell discusses the Church's ability to give wise counsel regarding the bioethical issues members face regularly. Mitchell is co-editor of Aging, Death, and The Quest for Immortality, an anthology that seeks to encourage wisdom for bioethical decisions. He explains that many members of the Church at this moment in history are used to living by rules, not by wisdom or prudence. Because the Bible does not offer a set of rules about how to employ (or not employ) biotechnologies, many in the Church do not know what to do when faced with the possibility of using infertility treatments or life support systems; nor, adds Mitchell, do many pastors know how to guide the sheep in their flocks through making those choices. Mitchell suggests attending to the wisdom literature of the Scriptures for training in how to think through decisions for which there are no easy rules, and he states that studying what it means to be made in the image of God is a worthy starting point for those who wish to learn to make wise decisions about biotechnologies.
Bioethicist Carl Elliott explains that he first became interested in studying more about anti-depressants and other personality-altering drugs after reading about people who claimed that Prozac helped them to become who they wanted to be. In his book Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, he attends to how and why people use medical technologies such as anti-depressants, the American Dream, and some of the complications that arise as the former are employed along the way to achieving the latter. He tells the story of one young man, Sam Fussell, who used medicine to complete his conversion from a shy, slight, bookish fellow to a belligerent, bulky, muscle man. After transforming his physique and bearing into that of a body builder through physical discipline alone, Fussell began ingesting steroids to complete the development of his new identity. In doing so, states Elliott, he assumed the personality traits of those of whom he was originally afraid, nearly losing touch with who he was before his metamorphosis.
In his book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, professor Richard Weikart describes evolutionary ethics and examines the ties between national racism and the eugenics movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eugenics movements, he states, were promoted in order to cultivate “superior races.” He explains that the idea of “superior races” is intimately tied to the origins of the theory of evolution, as it is one of the two ideas that Darwin presented when making his case for the plausibility of evolution. He and other theorists claimed not only that there were various races among the different species, but also that some of those races were superior to others and that, in order for evolutionary progress to continue, the lower races (which were more ape-like than human-like) needed to be eliminated. These ideas, which preyed upon the nineteenth century prejudices between races, did make evolution seem possible; they also encouraged people to support the national eugenics movements established in the early twentieth century.
In her book Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, writer and editor Christine Rosen studies the connection between eugenics laws in the early 1900s and current “participatory evolution” practices. While the former were state-sponsored and the latter are consumer driven, the same disposition animates both: intoxication with science as the means that will make life better than it is. She explains that during the earlier age of eugenics, science was used to improve the population mainly through forced sterilization. Now, however, it is being used to screen embryos for genetic defects before implantation, thus enabling the disposal of those which test positive for genetic defects. Current eugenics procedures, states Rosen, have the potential to be even more harrowing than those utilized here and in Germany in the early twentieth century because — being market driven — they are regulated and restricted only by the whims of individual consumers.
National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia discusses the important role literary reading plays in society and the recent publication from the NEA about such reading. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports statistics about the reading levels of various groups of Americans from the past twenty years and presents evidence of a marked decline in literary reading across all demographics. One of its most sobering statistics reveals that young adults between the ages of 18 to 24, who were once the most likely to read plays, poems, or fiction, are now the least likely to read. Electronic devices are partly to blame for the decrease in reading, says Gioia. He laments the decline while applauding rich narratives and the effect they can have on a people and a society; stories teach people, he explains, while simultaneously exciting their minds, hearts, memories, and senses.
Professor C. Ben Mitchell, co-editor of Aging, Death, and the Quest for Immortality, discusses the benefits of living in multi-generational communities and what the modern West thinks about the process of aging and the elderly. He recalls memories from childhood of his Grandmother living with his family after Grandfather died; the experience benefited and shaped him, he states, in ways that are still evident. Having her with the family taught him how to appreciate and learn from the elderly while dispelling tendencies to pitying or disdaining them. Now, years later, he maintains that intergenerational communities enrich the lives of both the older and younger generations. Sadly, he states, the West — in large part — no longer values this truth; it has segregated itself accordingly, by age, with the younger generations viewing gray hair as a sign that one’s life is over, not as a signifier of wisdom. He notes that the endeavor to avoid aging has permeated nearly all institutions of culture, even the church.