Sir Mallard the Duck
was recently listening to a very interesting lecture about the
17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. A contemporary of
Rene Descartes, Hobbes articulated ideas that were unpopular
at the time, but survived the centuries as a foundation of today's
Hobbes contended that there is nothing we directly
know of that is not of a material substance. That includes the human
mind, which is a function of the human brain. He also denied free
will in favor of strict determinism. We see an adaptation of this
philosophy in today's scientific method.
Hobbes insisted that the decisions we make are
entirely dependent upon our perception of reward and punishment.
We gravitate toward pleasure and do our best to avoid pain.
Chivalry-Now suggests something very different.
It tells us that the essence of virtue is something that exists
inside us that is not dependent on reward and punishment. It is
in someway innate, thus contradicting the utilitarian determinism
Now, the objectivity of science does well in
supporting materialism, and has brought us great benefits. Chivalry-Now
points to our subjective experience of ourselves as a direct
source of insight. This produces somewhat of a tension between the
While contemplating these very different views
of human nature, I was fortunate to find a tie breaker in my own
Enter Sir Mallard, the Duck.
A few years ago, my wife and I rescued a baby
female duck that had not only been abandoned by her mother, but
was viscously beaten by some other ducks. The little thing seemed
barely alive at first, and had trouble walking.
She would not let us too close, but grew to trust
us as we kept the more aggressive ducks away from her, and supplied
daily quantities of cornmeal for nourishment. Whenever we came out,
she would sit nearby feeling safe and secure.
We didn't think she would live, but she did,
and gradually got well, despite a nasty limp that continued all
summer long. She put on weight and by the end of summer found a
boyfriend and flew off.
To our pleasant surprise, the couple return each
spring and we feed them. Last year, they had some baby ducks, which
we fed and protected as well. We felt that our rescue had been a
complete success. Not a limp to be seen.
This year, however, the couple returned as expected,
but our little friend was obviously hurt. She hopped around on one
leg, and ate her cornmeal while laying down. This broke our hearts,
but all we could do is feed them and occasionally chase away the
neighbor's domesticated ducks.
What does all this has to do with Hobbes?
But it does set the stage for some insight into
nature that applies to our premise that there is more to us than
the determinism of pain and pleasure.
The mate of our rescued duck, we'll call him
Sir Mallard, exhibits incredible behavior toward our crippled friend
that can only be described as protective and yes, even courteous.
We get to view this daily, and it is a wonder to behold.
After we pile some cornmeal on a rock, Sir Mallard
hobbles up on shore, walks over to the rock, and looks around, neck
stretched for any sign of predators. He makes some kind of mumbled
duck sound, and his mate then hops over and starts to feed on her
own, while Sir Mallard watches. Every once in a while, he takes
a shaky beak full of meal, but quickly resumes his guarded position.
When his mate is finished, he accompanies her back to the pond safely,
and then sometimes returns for his own nourishment.
We watch all this in amazement every day. Sir
Mallard appears completely dedicated to the well-being and comfort
of his mate, and follows her wherever she goes around the pond.
His genuine concern and natural courtesy are truly admirable.
Now, a duck is not human, and I am somewhat guilty
of personifying this one. But the actions are plain. Call them a
response to instinct. Call them an animal variation of Nature's
Law. It doesn't matter. If this duck can exhibit this level of sophisticated
instinct, it certainly suggests that human instinct, which includes
conscience, can do so as well. And yes, many of us experience this
in ourselves directly when we allow it.
The lesson of Sir Mallard is difficult to explain.
Just as a dog's loyalty, or the attached friendliness of a parakeet,
or the love of a good friend. We don't have to explain it. It is
enough to see and feel it, to know that it exists.
calls us to recognize this for our own benefit. Virtue is not
something alien to who we are. It is not something that has to be
drilled into us to combat a natural propensity for evil.
is, rather, the instinctive source of our authenticity.