Friday, June 25, 2010

When toys are intrinsically valuable

One theme (of many) running through Toy Story 3, currently the top movie at the box office, is the conflict over "toy nature," so to speak -- the nature, purpose and value of the toy characters.

The toys' owner is all grown up and leaving for college, and they face an existential crisis. Without a child to play with them, what are they supposed to do? Are they unwanted? Will they be thrown out?

The film's chief villain, Lotso, is a toy whose owner replaced him and who, in his despair, came to hold the view that toys are "mere plastic," trash, garbage -- things to be used and then thrown away. It's this nihilistic view that explains and justifies Lotso's tyrannical system of government, in which the powerful toys rule the weak and the rights of the individual are not respected.

The question the film must answer is whether each toy is valuable for its own sake, as an end and not merely a means to something else. And the answer is that every toy, regardless of usefulness or "newness" or brokenness, is special. That's the message Toy Story 3 ultimately affirms.

We're debating the same question in America today -- only about human beings, not fictional toys. And it plays out in the controversies over abortion, euthanasia and embryo-destructive research. Is every human being -- regardless of age, level of development, ability, "wantedness" and perceived "quality of life" -- valuable, a person who ought to be treated as such?

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