A young man gets off his bike and stands over the still squirrel just next to his front tire. As the blood courses from its body and it moves from the world of the living to that of the dead, from warm, pulsating, parsimonious creature to cold carcass, he is likely considering his options. Should he bring it to the nearby health center? Call the police? Cover it so as to protect it and its kin from the shame of laying guts exposed on the pavement? After a few sidelong glances, he smiles awkwardly, adjusts his bike helmet, and flees.
This is not the stuff of fiction, a thought experiment meant to test our moral intuitions and motivate a frustratingly righteous take on act consequentialism. It took place within our very own community. The nearby health center was McCosh, mere cubits away; the available police, Public Safety.
I entered the scene just after the incident took place, as the boy was leaving. I only noticed it because a small group in front of me had stopped, horrified, pointing at boy and body. I averted my eyes. Those around me seemed disturbed, though I am unsure whether it was an expression of moral judgment at the boy’s act and subsequent abnegation of responsibility, or a physical response to the sight of the mangled corpse. I felt little, and I did nothing. Apart from the initial repulsion, no one did anything. One individual proclaimed the event “terrible.” I wondered aloud whether she reacted similarly each time she saw road-kill. It is rare that we witness death (at least among non-insects), but seeing it take place does not make instances we do not see less terrible (insofar as they are in fact terrible).
Hours later, subscribers of WilsonWire received an email warning that those who “hate seeing a pool of squirrel blood and dead rodents” should avoid the path by McCosh health center: a helpful heads-up to Wilson residents that also indicated to me that all of our reactions were likely begotten by the apparent grotesqueness of blood and rodents and not by recognition of this particular rodent’s death or its suffering.
This is unsurprising. To most on this campus, squirrels are sources of amusement and irritation, sniveling nut-mongers whose main activity can best be described as “clambering.” Most of us are unaffected by their pain and unmoved by their feelings, wants, and needs. No one will seek justice for this squirrel’s death. The University’s investigators will not be notified, let alone tasked with identifying the perpetrator and holding him in some way accountable for what he did. We, the onlookers (bystanders), did not seek to remove it from the middle of the path, let alone grant it a dignified burial. I still cannot muster feelings for this nameless far-from-human creature that could motivate me to action of any kind. But perhaps with more reflection I will.