Rainy and glum, it was a good Sunday to spend at the laundromat. After starting the wash, I walked outside and lit a cigarette. Across the parking lot, adjacent to a restaurant, was a pickup truck with a golden lab in the truck’s bed. It was raining in that typical, consistent Oregon way and the pup appeared anxious and miserable—unable to sit still, peering over the side of the truck, shaking.
My first thought was how cruel this was—that this dog should be left in the rain instead of the large cabin of the four-door truck. But I told myself it was likely that the driver had merely stepped inside to pick up a sandwich or a milkshake.
Forty-five minutes later, the dog was still there with no sign of the driver.
I couldn’t help but intellectualize the situation; it seemed like one of those hypothetical situations a professor would present in an Intro to Ethics class, or Philosophy 101.
What is my responsibility, given the circumstances? Is this legal? Do I have a moral obligation to take some kind of action? If it was a warm, sunny day, would I even have paid much attention to the dog in the back of the truck bed? Is it any of my business? Does the dog really mind the rain?
Even if the driver’s action was legal, is it morally wrong to leave the dog in the truck bed rather than the cabin?
I called the police. Not 9-1-1, but rather the direct line to the police station. I explained the situation. The operator said, “It’s not illegal. Please call back if the dog gets out of the truck.” On numerous occasions I’ve broken the law, and will likely continue to do so in small, irrelevant ways. I jay-walk, roll through stop signs, run yellow-red lights, and speed. I’ve done other things, too, but you get my point. There is no moral precision in the law. That is to say that just because an action is illegal doesn’t mean that it’s immoral, and just because an action is legal doesn’t mean that it’s moral or ethical.
I felt better for having called the police—for doing something instead of walking away. It was supposed to ease my conscience, to tell myself that it was now out of my hands—that I had done what I could. But it didn’t feel like that.
I spent some time contemplating the small actions that I take and don’t take—the carelessness of my own impact on the world, and the carelessness that I see around me—and was reminded of an anecdote from the late writer David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods and them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’
Awareness of my environment, my place in it, and the way that I process and think about the world around me are the most important elements of my daily life. This awareness, or lack thereof, is the lens through which I see and process life.
I don’t know what all of the circumstances were with the truck driver and the dog. I’d just like to think that regardless of the situation, I wouldn’t leave my dog back there. Steven Pinker, in a 2008 essay for The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Moral Instinct,” writes that “Even when people agree that an outcome is desirable, they may disagree on whether it should be treated as a matter of preference and prudence or as a matter of sin and virtue.” I felt sympathy for the dog in the back of the pickup truck, and would prefer not to do that to one of my own animals, if at all avoidable; sin and virtue, however, carry a greater burden—a burden left for another discussion.
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