Friday, 30 November 2012

Morality Behind the Wheel

I was behind the wheel again one recent morning and travelling along a section of dual carriageway near to home when two birds flew directly towards me at about grill height.

As far as I know, I hit the birds at around 100km/hr, killing them instantly.

This little event reminded me of a couple of things, the injured parrot that my father brought home one day (a sweet but otherwise irrelevant memory) and the first time I hit something substantial with a car – a kangaroo.

Hitting the kangaroo was pretty devastating, not only because the car was important to me at the time but also because rather than killing the kangaroo outright, the collision merely shattered both its legs.  After some initial flustering, I dispatched the kangaroo with a handy stick, bemoaned the damage that it did and got on my way.  Since then, I’ve hit another kangaroo, plenty of rabbits, a bluetongue or two, a deer, quite a few birds and about a bazillion insects.  And a taxi (I didn’t kill the taxi).

The thing that struck me as I pondered striking the birds was that of all the things I had struck, that first kangaroo affected me the most.  The remainder were little more than inconveniences.

But even when I think about my unfortunate interaction with that first kangaroo, my primary concern was ending its suffering – the fact that I had caused its death was a very minor concern.  The stupid thing did jump right out in front of me and I did try to avoid it to the best of my ability.  Note that I distinguish between being a party to causing its death, which I did when I hit it with my car, and killing it, which I did when I broke its neck with a stick.  I intentionally killed the kangaroo in order to prevent a lingering death that I had unintentionally caused.  It wasn’t the death that affected me so much as the suffering, which I brought to an end as quickly as I could.

Nowadays, whenever I see a dead kangaroo on the side of the road, if I think about it at all my thought will likely be something along the lines of “Oh, a dead kangaroo, better not drive over that”.

When I see a dead cat or dog beside the road, my reaction is quite different.

As an atheist, this may appear somewhat strange.  A dead animal is a dead animal, the species shouldn’t make much of a difference, but of course it does.

Part of the reason why I react differently is that I have pets myself, and so when I see a dead pet by the road, I can imagine one of my pets there and thus feel a vicarious sense of loss.  Plus, I have had pets die so the sight triggers memories of past losses.

This potential for emotion is amplified immensely if one considers what it would be like to hit a child.

To be honest, during my pondering, I indulged my rather black sense of humour with an attempt to come up with a joke along the lines of:

The first time I ran over a child, it was devastating … Active Suspension now comes standard with the 2013 Chevrolet Suburban – ‘No More Bumps in the Road’


Friend – “It must be devastating to run over a child”

Me – “Yep, it’s pretty bad the first couple of times”

The point of this black humour, of course, is that for any normal person it would be absolutely devastating to hit a child and, at least when one tries to predict the experience, running over a child would be devastating every single time.  The nonchalance that one gains with respect to running over random wildlife, or even pets for the more hardhearted among us, doesn’t seem to apply to running over children.

Those who think humans are something totally separate from the animals might not be happy about it, but I think that this inability to normalise the death of children is related to our tendency to mourn the loss of someone else’s pet, even if we know neither the animal nor their owner.

The scale of the emotional power associated with the death of a child derives from the huge personal (and genetic) investment that K-selecting humans have in their children together with the fact that the vast majority of us ourselves have been children at some stage.  In the awful circumstances of seeing child killed, we can conceptually put ourselves in the position of the parents (modern day Western parents are, on average, likely to have slightly less than two children and a lot less likely to have witnessed infant mortality than in the past).  But not only that, we can also put ourselves in the position of the child.  The death of another, be it a child or any other human, is an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality.  Death by some other means is also horrible, but a random death such as in a car accident is disturbingly democratic – it could happen to any one of us.

Despite the attempts of people like D’Souza to claim otherwise, uttering “Dead kid, well it’s not my kid, so why should I care?” is not the normal reaction of an atheist, irrespective of how devoted she is to the idea that we evolved rather than being created.  It’s the reaction of a psychopath.


I have witnessed the catastrophe of infant mortality from a closer vantage point than is comfortable.  I can tell you that there are few things more heart-breaking than watching grieving parents bear an infant’s coffin towards a grave.

I should also point out that in this article my focus was intended to be more on inadvertently causing death, not on causing suffering.  I do understand that when we strike an animal with our cars, it is entirely likely that the death we cause will not be instantaneous.  We can also imagine a moment of terror that comes with some level of realisation that death is looming in the form of a metallic box on wheels.

When discussing death, we sometimes reassure ourselves with the idea that death came quickly: “At least she didn’t suffer”.

It seems that, in a sense, we generally consider the causing of suffering to be a greater wrong than the causing of death.  Again, the idea that an atheist may be oblivious to the suffering of another animal, be it human or other, a pet or a wild animal, is nonsense.

1 comment:

  1. D'Souza debates again on Dec 5, with Hutchinson against Shermer and Krauss - details here


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