Apr 022013

mouseI live in a townhome, and share a wall with an unoccupied unit. This puts us at greater risk of pests, and sure enough, a couple weeks ago we heard a mouse in the walls. We have since solved this problem by catching it with a live trap and letting it free in a field a few dozen miles away. This was not my preferred solution, and I feel it was not the most moral one. It was the one that would keep my girlfriend from hating me, which is very important to me, so I went with it. It also made me feel much better than the true moral solution, so it was hard to resist. However the moral solution would have been to use to death trap and/or simply kill it.

In case you aren’t familiar with The Prisoner’s Dilemma, here’s a short summary. Or here is one in comic-strip form.

It’s fairly easy to get people to do things that are to their advantage, and to not do things that harm them. On the other hand, it’s harder to get people to take actions that would lead to better results overall when it harms them personally. I’ve felt for a long time that the primary purpose of morality is to get people to cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma-type situations. It’s a big job that requires a multi-pronged approach. We add rewards to cooperating, and we add punishments to defecting. We attempt to instill a desire to cooperate in our fellow humans, so that there will be self-inflicted rewards and punishments for cooperating/defecting (as appropriate). And still we have a hard time even getting basic cooperation on simple issues, like pest-control.

You’d think the warm-fuzzy feelings I get for releasing a furry little mouse wouldn’t compare to the huge disadvantages of living in a city overrun with vermin. It’s nice having walls that aren’t eaten away in the night. I like not having to lock up all my food in glass or metal containers to prevent it from being stolen and soiled. And most importantly, I like not living in a city ravaged by plagues and diseases, constantly worrying for my own health and likely often falling sick.

But I don’t have to bear any of these costs, because I can avoid the cost of feeling bad for killing a mouse simply by shifting that burden on to my neighbor (or in this case, a neighbor of a few dozen miles away). Someone else will be inconvenienced by this mouse, and then they’ll kill it for me. This is an immoral action. In an ideal world I would have someone living with me that would help me keep watch over my immoral impulses and remind me of the right thing to do. Two people together are much stronger than one. But that was not the case this time.

I’m not sure there’s a point to this post. I guess I’m mainly feeling guilty, and I’m confessing to the internet. So I guess morality wasn’t completely impotent, just not effectual enough. /sigh

  2 Responses to “The Root of Morality (or: A Mouse in the House)”

  1. I think you did the right thing. You cannot know what will happen to the mouse now. At the very worst you have given someone else the job of moving the mouse along. I can see no need for the mouse to die at your or anyone else’s hands. If it was a deadly spider or snake and you acted the same way that would be immoral. Its a mouse. It doesnt eat that much and does not form a real threat to you. Everyone I know locks their food away or lives in a house which has never had any kind of pest issue ever, but not many people have such a luxury. You did the right thing and she was right sorry. No need for the mouse to die.

  2. Well said Khitchary. :)

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