Thursday, February 03, 2005

Morality in binary, off or on?

Exploring the fine line between obligation to a moral patient and random acts.

In school (the big one) I learned about some of the things people think it means to be human. Most of them passed into a blurred memory after a while. One stuck out, and I can't tell you where or when or how it came to me, but it's there. It's this; humans are a moral agent such that they are not as anything else as of yet discovered in the universe. With that classification implies two other categories of stuff, the "moral patient" and the "not morally bound."

A moral patient is something that needs to have moral consideration but has no will or obligation to act morally itself. Common examples are everyday animals, those that one might meet in passing via food, those that we might meet at random and those that we might invite into our homes. (Specifically invite, some simple rules apply to those that come in uninvited that I will not cover here.) As a moral agent I must consider the moral patients I encounter in this world when I make decisions and add an aspect what _should_ this thing have, how _should_ it be treated... and so on. Where the root "ought" is factored in.

Things to which we might not be morally bound; the snow on my driveway, a car tire, mold on my cheese, grass on my lawn and plants that I do invite into my home (houseplants).

There are fine lines here, some might say they feel a moral obligation to the plants in their homes. I suspect that aside from the obvious mushy-feelings that the act of inviting something into one's home... carrying on the care and control over the life of, and the quality of life of that thing is an act that can only be done on a moral patient. Thus, the invitation into one's home (for example, there are many other types of obligation to care) is an act that elevates things of no moral standing to the standing of moral patient. This is a deep rooted multi-cultural phenomena that I attribute to the "reciprocity" theory of survival/evolution.

Things examples in my personal life that fall into this realm are; heirlooms (some of which have no value and are snot-ugly), a shred of pajama's from a high school friend sent in a letter as a joke, a houseplant adopted from a neighbor, a houseplant adopted from my wife's former roomate, a can of shoe polish (which I never use now that combat boots are no longer part of my daily attire) that I bought when I really didn't have money to spend.

I am morally bound to other human beings in various ways. A spouse, parents, those I work with (and for), those I spar with online in first person shooters. These are not of which I write. Then there's the things that cross path with me that end up becoming moral patients without intending to, becoming moral patients without an invitation from me, but becoming moral patients just because they are. Let me repeat that again more clearly, becoming moral patients just because THEY ARE. ("E", as in they exist, and ARE.)

To my right is my front door. Outside my front door is my porch out in the cold. Above my porch is a crappy light hanging "chway-co" or off kilter, inside the crappy light is a bird. I am pretty sure he has been sheltering in the light for a while. (I know it's a he because the females do not have the same coloring, see apendix below for example of the critter.) As sometimes on the way home at night had that "holy shit was that a bat?!?" moment on my porch as the bird decides I am too close and flits down to the spruce tree nearby. Once I even stepped back to wait for the swoop-dip-swoop characteristic of a bat, but only heard the rustling of a nervous avian in the branches. Knowing then that the bird chose to fly during the middle of the night (how many do that?)well the ones that are SLEEPING when you disturb them do.

I have no doubt that thousands of these creatures shelter nightly in places hidden to avoid predation and stay out of the rain all over Madison every single night. Yet this one wears no invitation, not even a house or a bat shelter (forwhich my neighbors have already adequately supplied the neighborhood bats) have I put up. Still this thing sits there in a shelter my house just happens to provide, or rather my need not to fall on my face on the way up the stairs on the way home...I can't imagine its all that comfortable. Not a good perch really, to the side without support for one of the spindly-avian legs and without good sight to the sides.... except I know that 40 watt bulb out there is putting out 8% light and 92% heat.

Its warmer in there. Probably much warmer in there than it is out in that tree. There sits that bird... in that light... warmed by a porch light I only want on when my wife expects, or when I expect someone that is invited or when I myself am on the way home. The light costs me less to leave on than the cost of the brandy I sipped while writing this (I buy el cheapo brandy too), and really I could not care about the kilowatt hours, it's replacing the bulb itself that is a pain... yet still I wonder...

Do I turn the light off tonight when I go to bed?

Appendix Photo, photo of a similar bird


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