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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics and The Call of the Wild

David DeCosse, Emily Hawley

Ethics and The Call of the Wild

To explore the ethical dimensions of Jack London's novel about the great dog Buck, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics on April 14, 2011, hosted an Ethics at Noon on the topic, "Echoes, Ethics, and the Wild: Dramatic Readings and Ethical Reflections on The Call of the Wild." Presenters were: David DeCosse, Director of Campus Ethics Programs, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics; Michael Zampelli, S.J., SCU Theater and Dance and Rector, Jesuit Community; Emily Hawley, SCU '12; and Matt Lee, SCU '13. The event was done in partnership with the California Legacy Project, the De Saisset Museum, the City of Santa Clara Library, and the Big Read Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sustainability and the Call of the Wild

By David DeCosse

How does the call of the wild sound in our hearts?

The question has arrived anew to us from the Santa Clara Valley in California, where Jack London wrote his classic "The Call of the Wild" and where this winter and spring the City of Santa Clara Library celebrated the novel as part of the National Endowment of the Arts "Big Read" program. The question is also posed like a two-edged sword to a society today torn by disagreement over the concept of sustainability. On one hand, the question helps us see the weak ethical foundations beneath most invocations of sustainability. On the other hand, the question points toward what we need to do to shore up those foundations.

First, a note on the current conflict and shaky ethical moorings of sustainability. One need not listen for long to hear roving bands of climate change deniers now on the airwaves. On the whole, their thinking often fails basic tests of intellectual integrity. But, more to the point here, they argue against the need to be sustainable on the basis of data alone. For them, the infamous "hockey stick" figure from "Inconvenient Truth" fails badly to represent a credible warming trend in global temperatures and that dismissal, among other reams of data-driven claims, settles the matter. Here the empirical has replaced the ethical: We know this group of people by and large hates the concept of sustainability but we only know that because they churn up one more oil industry study cloaked in disinterest or one more obscurantist piece of web info ready-made for an Onion spoof.

On the other side of the conflict, the green crowd often invokes sustainability as something self-evident; or as a norm that we all know is the right thing to do; or as a word meant to move us by rhetorical power more than by ethical clarity; or as a battle cry backed by a mass of supportive scientific data but not by the thing that matters most: An ethical argument set within a vision of what the natural world means to a fulfilled human life.

I'll call our current conflict over sustainability the state of living in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. That's where the great dog Buck is first found in the novel before his epic, transformative journey to the north woods. We're all like Buck in the early pages of the book, lounging under a lemon tree down on the Alameda, too comfortable with the artifice of ethical convictions, too distant from the substance of what should inform the way we value the natural world.

We need to start moving toward the north woods, each of us heeding the soundings of the natural world. In part, this would help us specify more clearly what a concept like sustainability requires: What does it mean to say that we have an obligation to hand on a natural world to future generations that is at least as healthy a world as the one that we inhabit now? But heeding such soundings would also mean that we would have to specify more clearly why we should be sustainable and how being sustainable fits within a larger sense of our life's purpose.

So it's time to venture forth. Literally, to go take a hike. Or, figuratively, to start heading for our own inner north woods, which may require close attention to our imaginations and bodies and senses.

One wrong imaginative turn here would be to admire Buck at the end of the novel as a great beast atop the evolutionary dog heap, an Ayn Rand-like hero contemptuous of whatever is weak. Such a misreading would not only free us from moral responsibility but also vainly presume that the natural and animal world's ends track simply with our own.

The philosopher George Santayana pointed toward a better way when he told a Berkeley audience in 1911 that a more authentic ethic for the time would emerge from increasing contact with the natural world. "When you escape," he told the Berkeley crowd, "as you love to do, to your forests and sierras, I am sure again that you do not feel you made them, or that they were made for you. They have grown, as you have grown, only more massively and more slowly. In their non-human beauty and peace they stir the subhuman depths and the superhuman possibilities of your spirit."

Sustainability isn't just something that we all ought to do. Nor is it a thing to be endlessly contested with reams of rivaling data. Rather, it's an ethical concept that is sorely in need of finding a home in a vision of what the natural world really means to us – of what this world sounds like when it calls us from the wild.

Reflections on Respecting and Protecting the Wild

By Emily Hawley

Passages referred to in Hawley's Remarks

Passage 1:

My family is from Alaska, and I spent a lot of time in the region as a child, but I failed to appreciate its natural beauty, spending most of my time with my nose buried in books like Call of the Wild instead. I was probably eight years old, when I first read Call of the Wild, but even then the beauty of London's natural imagery stood out to me.

This scene in specific is still difficult for me to sit through, I find myself enraged by the cruelty and injustice towards Buck and his fellow dogs, at the hands of these really unpleasant characters, especially after Buck's character has been so humanized.

Before Mercedes, Hal and Charles have even begun their journey they are humiliated in front of the more-experienced men after they can't budge their over-loaded sled, but once out in the wilderness, humiliation is the least of their problems. They are used to a world where they can bargain or plead (at least in Mercedes' case) until they have their way and are unprepared to live at natures whim, hubristically pressing on until it's too late.

They not only lack the necessary knowledge and respect for nature needed to survive in this environment, but are also blind to its beauty as they single-mindedly drive towards their goal--missing the wonder of an emerging Alaskan springtime just as they fail to comprehend its ramifications. And soon after John Thornton rescues Buck from being beaten to death by Hal, the entire team breaks through the melting ice ending their ill-fated journey.

This harsh reminder of the mercilessness of the wild brings up the question of whether we today are in the footsteps of Mercedes, Hal and Charles? Our society has evolved to create a buffer-zone between ourselves and the forces of nature, separating us from the immediate consequences of our actions and disrupting the process of survival of the fittest, but this barrier can only go so far.

Look at Japan: they had incredibly sophisticated Tsunami-relief infrastructure, the third largest economy in the world, and were far more equipped for facing the after-effects of natural disasters than most of the world, but still have been devastated by the recent earth quakes and tsunamis.

And Japan was relatively prepared for disaster, on a global scale, the melting ice that the travelers ignore is the melting ice on our poles, and our failure to address climate change, whether because of denial of its existence or the result of some tragedy of the commons in our individual greed, is an even more relevant example. Jack London lived long before any theories of global warming, but his perception of human folly is even more pertinent, and brings us to a choice that we will need to make: either to continue following in Mercedes, Hal and Charles' footsteps or to learn their lesson.

This choice brings us to out next passage and an examination of the alternative:


In this passage we see a positive relationship with nature--that of love. For London, Thornton is the exemplary figure for how we should live in relation to the wild, he never tries to overly domesticate Buck, and lets him run free as he wishes, trusting their bond that he will return (and Buck always does). This attitude of partnership, respect and love is central to preservationists' argument for allowing the wild to evolve on its own without excessive human influence.

London's appreciation for Thornton's way of life brings up the question of why we should protect the wild; is it solely for our own survival and to prevent ourselves from plunging under the ice? Or is there something more that ties us to the land (as Leopold would say) that makes it an ethical obligation?

John Thornton had no way of knowing how valuable Buck would be to him when he first saves the dog's life--his act was solely one of compassion and in depicting Thornton's relationship with nature as the ideal, London shows that respect for the natural world should be more than self-serving.

I suppose protecting the earth for your own sake is better than not protecting the earth at all, but it is the bare minimum, it leaves us thinking of the earth merely as a resource to be carefully allocated, and ignores the richness of London's message. One of the most important elements of London's book is the vividness of London's imagery that allows even those who may only know the sunny California life to appreciate the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.

And we can not only appreciate the beauty of the wild, but the depth of the Call that pulls Buck from civilization. Narrating from Buck's point of view allows us to transform with him and reminds us of our own primal connection to nature--and perhaps our own dissatisfaction with many of the artificial constructs of society.

This need for a natural outlet is another argument for preservationists and leaving parts of the wild untouched or restoring others--but how much human influence does it take for the wild to lose its purity? Are we even capable of appreciating the wilderness without interfering in it?

However capable we are of restoring wilderness, the fact that an eight-year-old can see it as something worthy of protecting speaks to a greater value than another tool for human benefit, and as a place that we should strive our utmost to defend.

Apr 14, 2011