Everyday Ethics

I was reading Gothamist this morning and saw what was, simultaneously, the saddest and most hilarious little ‘human’ interest piece posted last night: a rat got stuck in a crack in a New York City sidewalk and a reader snapped a photo. (I’d post the pic here but I don’t have the rights – you’ll have to go check it out on their site.) Suffice it to say the animal was trapped with its top half poking out of a crack in the pavement in what was both a horrifying and strangely… cute fashion. Anyhoo… what interested me was this:

1) readers sent in Photoshopped versions of the rat with ridiculous humorous things for it to do while it was trapped (playing Solitaire, etc.)

2) the comments were FILLED with heated back and forth about what was the moral thing to do in this situation. Kill the rat or pull out all the stops to save it? Call the fire department, get a crow bar, spray on the WD-40, grease it down with Vaseline… or… put a bag over its head and stomp it?
Opinions were about evenly mixed. Some wanted to kill the rat for compassionate reasons. Others because it was a pest, and, hey, how often do you get one of NYC’s billions of rats to stand still long enough to bump it off? Still others joked about lawnmowers and golf clubs… and worse. Those who wanted to help it felt sad watching it struggle, or liked rats, or simply didn’t want to be the sorts of people who passed a fellow living creature in pain and did nothing to help. Some even went as far as to beg the Gothamist editors to find out where the sidewalk in question was, so they could go down there themselves and try to help.
I was amazed how passionate people got. And it got me thinking about how morally complicated we humans can be. In war, a man may be our enemy, yet still our brother  – we shoot him one moment, then patch him up the next. Are we hypocrites, or simply dealing with competing human instincts for compassion and defense? Animals do it too – I just saw something yesterday about animal mothers taking in babes of other species – even a leopard nursing the offspring of the babbon she had just killed.
So here we see people laughing, callous, and mean… and people over-the-top empathetic. What are we humans? Just an illogical bunch of conflicting impulses we try to cram into some cohesive ethical code?
I think so. 
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of rats, but I don’t fear and loathe them the way I do cockroaches and water bugs. It’s an atavistic thing. What would I have done? Faced with the moral conflict of aversion to rats, knowing they are pests and wanting less of them in NYC in a general sense, but not wanting to be their personal executioner, feeling compassion for this singular rat’s painful struggle… I think I’d have done one of two things. Walk on by, or call 311. Freeing a rat to go about its merry way making MORE pests for NYC to deal with doesn’t seem right. Killing it myself is more than I want to take on. Walking away seems a fair option, since it isn’t, strictly speaking, my problem or my societal duty (I am not a rat catcher by trade). But if I wanted to be diligent, I could CALL the rat catcher and alert him to do his thing. Thus, the 311 call.

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