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'CALVIN AND HOBBES' AND THE MORAL SENSE

11:00 PM, Dec 17, 1995 • By JAMES Q. WILSON
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The puzzlement is only momentary, however, as Calvin endlessly watches television and daydreams about getting the big break that would put him on the screen. The "big break" usually turns out to be something such as spotting the first robin of the spring or inventing a Transmogrifier in the form of an empty cardboard box. "I don't need an education," he explains to Hobbes. Hobbes, characteristically prudent, asks how Calvin will make it in the world bereft of knowledge and skills. "I'll go on talk shows and hype myself," the boy replies. "Television validates life." Besides, "if something is so complicated that you can't explain it in 10 seconds, then it's probably not worth knowing anyway."

When his absurd ambitions come to nothing, or his school grades remain low, Calvin's defense is rationalization. He may be the most skilled rationalizer to appear in print since Ring Lardher's Alibi Ike. Everything is somebody else's fault. But sometimes the "somebody" has an identity that implies there may be more to Calvin than he lets on. After finally smacking Susie with a snowball "right in the kisser," he realizes that Susie or her mother will be in touch with Calvin's mother. He prepares her: "Bad news, Morn. I promised my soul to the devil this afternoon." "Oh?" she responds. "That recently?"

Being a calculating, rationalizing Economic Boy, Calvin naturally takes the dimmest view of how the world is organized. It is filled with people just like Calvin, all out for themselves. He observes to Hobbes that we don't trust the government, the media, the legal system, or each other. And then cheerfully adds, "It's like a six-year-old's dream come true."

Indeed. If the world is filled only with duplicates of Calvin, then it corresponds exactly to the moral sense of a six-year-old who is having a temper tantrum. The difficulty with maintaining this view is having to live with its inevitable consequences. On a walk in the woods, Calvin tells Hobbes that he doesn't believe in ethics anymore; as far as he is concerned, "the ends justify the means." Get what you can while the getting is good; "might makes right." Hobbes promptly pushes Calvin into a mud hole. "Why'd you do that?" Calvin protests. "You were in my way," Hobbes replies. "Now you're not. The ends justify the means." A brief moment of partial enlightenment touches Calvin, but of course he manages to reconcile it with self-interest in an utterly implausible way: "I didn't mean for everyone, you dolt. Just me. "

Since Calvin's social life is confined to his parents and Hobbes, it is easy to see how he might fail to grasp the principle that one cannot easily claim the protection of a moral rule for oneself without granting it to others. If he played marbles with Susie instead of trying to hit her or "gross her out" with ghastly descriptions of the worm intestines in his school lunch, he would have to accommodate her views at least enough to keep the game going, and by doing that might learn that the rules of marbles (for example, taking turns, not cheating) have general applicability to life. But it would be an uphill struggle: He even treats his parents, most of the time, as the means to his immediate end. A Mother's Day greeting to his long-suffering mom contains the blunt acknowledgment that she is getting a hand-made card because he would rather spend the money on himself, an obvious hint that his allowance be increased, and a forthright suggestion that she get up and make his breakfast. Never mind that no real six-year-old would ever write such a card; Calvin is the distillation of the self-centered instincts that people have, without the fig-leaf of make-believe affection.

But Calvin does face a few others who can help him acquire the recognition that his well-being depends to some degree on the existence of a moral order. There is Moe, the schoolyard bully, who extorts Calvin's lunch money with supreme indifference to any rules of fair play, and Rosalyn, the dreaded babysitter, who, though often defeated in her efforts to maintain a semblance of order, usually wins in the final inning.

One of Calvin's "scientific" experiments almost confronts him with the reality of his social nature. He builds a Duplicator that turns out five more Calvins who the real Calvin thinks can be used to do his homework, go to school, and clean up his room while he loafs. But he soon discovers that, since they are his moral as well as physical doubles, all they really do is get him in trouble at five times the rate he got in trouble by himself.

"I'm being framed by my own doubles," Calvin complains. "The worst part is that I don't even have the fun of doing the stuff I'm getting blamed for."

His attempt to change this is met by the perfectly reasonable response of his amoral doubles: "Let's put it to a vote." Democracy is a good political system, but it presupposes some moral convictions.