This post is somewhat of a follow-up of my last one (Proceeding along the aporetic path), though it may not appear so, at first glance. Both speak to the challenge of knowing what one should do, acknowledging that it is both intentions and results that matter.
We have mice. My wife and I do not like to kill things – I even feel guilty slapping a mosquito on my arm. At first we thought we’d just live with the mice. As time passed, though, and we (euphemistically speaking) found more ‘traces’ of the mice on the counter, it was clear that we’d have to get rid of them.
Thursday, we went to the store and stood, dumbstruck and horrified, in front of the manifold products offering ways to kill our mice – poisons, sticky-tape, crushers, and the traditional old mouse traps. We just couldn’t do it. Then, however, our eyes fell on this small black trap that operates on a simple fulcrum. The mouse goes in, tips the fulcrum, and the door closes. Then all you have to do is find a place to release the mouse. Therein lay the rub.
Friday morning, the trap seemed to have been sprung. But did it work? Was there a mouse inside? I couldn’t tell. I picked it up, it seemed very light. I shook it – it sounded empty. I got an old coffee can, opened the trap and dumped it into the can. Indeed, there was a mouse inside! Unfortunately, though, it seems that I had given it quite a severe concussion when I shook the trap. It was all wet (I’ll spare you the details). I took it to a field near a river and dumped it out on the ground. It was free – but I’m not sure how long it lasted outside, soaking wet in the freezing cold with a concussion and no nest, struggling to stumble a few steps. But I walked away thinking, “I tried my best and I had good intentions – and I’ll know better next time.”
Next time came this morning. The trap was full again – and this time there was no doubt that there was a mouse inside. I called my daughter over to watch as I dumped the mouse into the coffee can. It was the most adorable mouse I’d ever seen. It was Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchet right there in front of us. My daughter giggled with glee as the tiny thing stared up at us. Its hind leg twitched and I knew what was about to happen, so I put the lid on the can before the mouse jumped out. I thought for a moment or two about getting a cage and keeping this little guy – but then thought it would be best to just let it go.
Leela and I climbed into the jeep and drove down to the reservoir with the can. We got out and walked over to the edge of the water. I brought the mouse a piece of cake as a going away gift, so I put that on the ground, opened the can, and tipped the mouse out in front of the cake. It sniffed for a second, looked around, and zoom – it dashed 20 yards away in a second and clamored into some leaves. For that one second, I felt quite good about myself and Leela was just joyful watching the little guy scurry away. And then it happened… More joyful than my daughter and I were the flock of seagulls above our heads. In an instant, the mouse was in the mouth of a seagull… then it dropped into the frigid pond… then the seagull dove in and grabbed it again before flying off to enjoy our little Bob-Cratchet-Mickey-Mouse as its own festive meal. Another gull ate the cake I had brought.
Good intentions… As I drove away from the pond, I wondered how often my actions have consequences quite different from my intentions. I’m not a consequentialist/utilitarian/teleological ethicist and this story may be one among many possible stories to demonstrate what is wrong with such a view. However, I do think that there is more to ethics than good intentions.
In her response to a comment of mine on another post, Jennifer Sanborn writes, “I’m not short on opinions, but I’m far more in the gray these days–not a bad place to be.” Amen… This mouse-and-man story is a chapter in my state of formation – well intentioned and increasingly in the gray.