Conscience and Virtue in Toy Story 4


In Dependent Rational Animals, the Thomist philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre describes how human persons can best achieve fulfillment of their nature by learning to live in accordance with various virtues, becoming independent practical reasoners, and this learning takes place in communities of giving and receiving, in which there is a network of relationships that operate to ensure that more vulnerable members develop into independent practical reasoners, or people who know how to choose what is right. A similar philosophy is at the centre of Toy Story 4.


It is not necessary for my purposes to outline very much about the plot of Toy Story 4, but suffice it to say that the film revolves around a collection of toys, in particular Woody and Buzz Lightyear, who belong to a girl named Bonnie; Bonnie is starting kindergarten and the toys want to make sure that she feels comfortable during this transition.


The first key idea in Toy Story 4 is teleology: toys are fulfilled as toys when they act or are used is accordance with their nature as toys; namely, that a child plays with them, and in playing with them the child develops as a human being, with an emotionally secure and enriched life. The toys are created to achieve a certain end, like humans created to know, love, and serve God and who best fulfill their human nature when they achieve what they were created to. Furthermore, this seems to happen best in community, when the child has a family and the collection of toys operates together to help the child develop, and so all the toys in the community (as opposed to a mere collection in which toys sit unused on shelves) fulfill their nature. Freedom and fulfilment, on this view, is not simply an individual “finding himself” and following his whims, unencumbered of any outside influence. (For more on toy teleology, see Deacon Steven D. Greydanus’s review.)


Having said all that, how does a toy become and independent practical reasoner? How do the toys in the film make moral decisions to fulfill their nature and achieve the virtues? Woody tells Buzz Lightyear to listen to his “inner voice,” which Buzz takes to refer to the buttons on his chest that, when pressed play recordings of dialogue. This is essentially supposed to represent a form of conscience. Buzz has been created so as to be able to say certain phrases, which he uses as moral guidance; akin to an inherent knowledge of moral goodness.


Eventually, Buzz decides that he must do other than what the inner voice tells him. Clearly, our innate inclinations might be defective or misleading, and so it is necessary to reject what that inner voice says when it expresses such inclinations, but how does Buzz learn which inclinations he must not follow? MacIntyre would say in the community of giving and receiving, and Joseph Ratzinger (before becoming Pope Benedict XVI) in On Conscience describes conscience as an organ that “requires growth, training, and practice,” like language. The Church has a responsibility to correctly form consciences, and then to teach in a way that its word will resonate within those consciences. Indeed, Ratzinger warns against “liberalism’s idea of conscience” that does not point to the truth that one has learned, but instead “dispenses with truth” in favour of mere subjectivity.


It is not immediately clear, however, what community forms Buzz to the extent that he knows when his inner voice is wrong, or if this is simply a case of Buzz’s radical subjectivity driving his choices. Given that the film at least tries to establish the community of toys as being a place in which toys flourish, it is probably that community that teaches him not to abandon his friends, despite what he is programmed to say.


There is a counter example in the toy Bo Peep, who has been living independently as a lost toy, wandering from playground to playground to find children, but it is important to note that even this nomad life involves other toys; those she meets on the playground, and also a friend who eventually joins her. She is the most radically independent and subjective toy, but it is not right for her to be alone. There must still be some community for the toys to flourish as toys. Her independence is not that of MacIntyre’s independent practical reasoner, but that of an unformed subjectivity, and so there is room for it to grow and be fulfilled.

Patrick Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and is shortly to receive a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.

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