I have been told recently that lemmings don’t actually jump off cliffs to their certain doom. But the common misconception that they do fits with the point I want to make today. Even if lemmings do not throw themselves en masse off a cliff there is one species that does tend to do so: human beings. Let me explain what I mean by starting with a quote from von Hildebrand.
The behavior of unconscious persons is dictated by their nature. They tacitly identify themselves with whatever response their nature suggests to them. They have not yet discovered the possibility of emancipating themselves, by virute of their free personal center, from their nature; they make no use as yet of this primordial capacity inherent in the personal mode of being. Hence their responses to values, even when they happen to be adequate, will always have something accidental about them. Their attitudes lack that character of explicitness and full consciousness which is a prerequisite of meeting in a really apposite way the demand emdbodied in the values. For what the values claim of us is not assent pure and simple, an assent which might as well be a fortuitous efflux of our natural dispostions; it is a fully conscious, rational, and explicit assent, given by the free center of our personality. By such an answer alone does a personal being adequately honor the values and their call, which is addressed to each of us in sovereign majesty, irrespective of his individual dispositions.
Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ignatius Press 2001, p. 62-3
The way he is using ‘unconscious person’ does not mean someone who is asleep or who has been knocked out. What he means is the same thing that I mean when I refer to human beings as lemmings. The actions of unconscious persons/lemmings are “dictated by their nature.” But here another clarification is needed, because when he says ‘nature’ I think we should understand him to mean our fallen nature. In other words, those who go through life as slaves to their various inclinations.
With this in mind we can understand what he means by saying, “Hence their responses to values, even when they happen to be adequate, will always have something accidental about them.” Values are those things which are good and, therefore, make a demand on us. The demand is of an action to be taken on our part in response to the good. For instance, if we see someone bleeding on the ground with a knife in his chest, then the good we are called to do is to try to save the person and call an ambulance. And it is not just a good deed we are called to do, but we should recognize the injured person as good. In fact, the good of the person is the main reason we should perform the good act of helping him.
But for the unconscious person/lemming, if his response happens to be adequate in a given situation, it is only accidental. Lemmings, like a school of fish, just follow along with the rest of the group: if the group makes a moral choice in a certain situation then so will they. But not because it is the right or moral thing to do, but because everyone else is doing it. And it is here that we can see how people behave like lemmings.
At one point in this country the prevailing current of thought would say that a particular belief or action is wrong; for instance, homosexual acts, pornography, abortion, contraception, and the list could go on and on. But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction on these issues and they are viewed as good. (As if that which is truly good could be arbitrary.) Why did this happen? Quite simply because too many people in our society act like lemmings. They don’t question the behavior of the group and just go along with the crowd – right off the cliff.
In order to correct this problem we are told by von Hildebrand that our decisions and actions need to be made with a “fully conscious, rational, and explicit assent, given by the free center of our personality.” In other words we shouldn’t just go along with the crowd. It is ironic, therefore, that that is how much of society view Catholics: as people who have just bought into a bunch of rules and regulations against what is happening in secular society. But this couldn’t be further from the truth for the real Catholic. A true Catholic follows the teachings of the Church not because everyone else is doing it but because of what it is: it is the teaching of Jesus Christ. After all, if Christ is who He said He is – God – then what He revealed to us must be true and good. And if it is true and good then it deserves our freely given and fully conscious adherence.
But I need to return to the main point and it is this – we are not lemmings and therefore we should stop acting like them. Yes, like lemmings we are creatures made by God but we, unlike them, were made in the image and likeness of God. We have rational souls and therefore have the ability to know right from wrong. As a result we should choose and do the good but not just because it is what a Catholic is supposed to do. To act in that manner would just make us lemmings in religious clothing. Instead, we choose and do the good because we recognize within it that which is true. We are drawn to the good and desire it because in it we see God.