By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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• It may be too cynical to say that secular scientists are trying their darndest to talk about moral ethics without bringing themselves to say "spirituality." But Martin Marty, in his Sightings newsletter, says we should give the humanist journal Daedalus a chance as it tries out the phrase "intuitive ethics." A hybrid of nature and nurture, "intuitive ethics," the authors of an article on the subject say, means an "innate preparedeness" to judge the goodness of human actions. It comes in four categories: "suffering, hierarchy, reciprocity, and purity." This has to do with something called "virtue theory," they explain, according to which virtues are "social skills" that are not just the product of conditioning but also of intuition. They call their approach a "modified nativist" view, but hope to avoid middle-ground vagaries and instead find a "heretofore ignored link" between intuition and standards of behavior. This sounds an awful lot like what C.S. Lewis said a half-century ago in Mere Christianity, but Daedalus takes its theory for a test drive around American contemporary culture: "We have found that American Muslims and American political conservatives value virtues of kindness, respect for authority, fairness and spiritual purity. American liberals, however, rely more heavily on virtues rooted in the suffering module (liberals have a much keener ability to detect victimization) and the reciprocity module (virtues of equality, rights, and fairness)." Entry

Also from Sightings:
At age 81, Anthony Flew changes his mind about atheism

Isn't anyone in the Western world giving birth anymore? Sure they are, writes David Brooks in the New York Times . "All across the industrialized world, birthrates are falling—in Western Europe, in Canada and in many regions of the United States, Brooks says. "But spread around this country, and concentrated in certain areas, the natalists defy these trends." For these practitioners of natalism,  Brooks says, "their personal identity is defined by parenthood. They are more spiritually, emotionally and physically invested in their homes than in any other sphere of life, having concluded that parenthood is the most enriching and elevating thing they can do." And they band together in an increasingly kid-averse society. "In a world that often makes it hard to raise large families, many are willing to move to find places that are congenial to natalist values. The fastest-growing regions of the country tend to have the highest concentrations of children." These include Colorado's Douglas County, the fastest-growing country in the U.S. Perhaps Brooks' most provocative statement is this: "If you wanted a one-sentence explanation for the explosive growth of far-flung suburbs, it would be that when people get money, one of the first things they do is use it to try to protect their children from bad influences." But a close runner-up comes when he says that although natalists tend to be red-state people, they don't think in terms of those superficial categories: "What they cherish, like most Americans, is the self-sacrificial love shown by parents. People who have enough kids for a basketball team are too busy to fight a culture war." Column*

• Imagine a fashion model crusading against the fallacious ideals of beauty in celebrity culture. That model is Gregory Landsman, says the Melbourne Age. A South African native, Landsman strode down runways from Tokyo to Europe to Australia before growing disillusioned with the industry. "A supermodel is basically a manufactured commodity," he says to the Age, and to anyone else who will listen. "We're trying to aspire to something that's not real and it's a fantasy . . . the models themselves don't look like these [magazine] images." Landsman talked to schoolchildren, including six-year-olds who were dieting and an eight-year-old who longed for a nose job, and wrote a book the Age calls "semi-autobiographical": The Balance of Beauty: Explodes the Body Myth. "I think the messages are being absorbed at such a young age and emotionally I don't think they can really deal with it." Article

• When Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted on the BBC in the fall of 1969, hardly anyone laughed. "Much of the time," writes Dave Eggers in a retrospective in the New Yorker, the studio audiences were respectful but confused." John Cleese asked fellow cast member Michael Palin, ""Do you realize this could be the first comedy show to go out with absolutely no laughs at all?" But Monty Python found its stride, or at least found an audience, despite being what Eggers calls "the most consistently bizarre program ever aired on TV." But after 35 years, three movies and a group autobiography released last year, now Monty Python has to prove itself all over again, as "Spamalot" opens on Broadway in February. Eggers says there are plenty of question marks: "Would Broadway audiences take to the Pythons' particular brand of humor? Would they be able to understand all the words, if spoken with accents—one of them French? And, perhaps most important: Could a low-budget film, wherein King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table pretend to ride horses with the aid of pages banging coconuts together, be adapted for the stage, thirty years later, with the world at war?" Article

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