Backyard Philosophy

Nonfiction. I would say don't read this one first, it's way too long. Come back to it later. And maybe read it in chunks. Good luck.

*Written and researched for a memoir writing class at uni.*

You’re outside staining patio furniture and your dog starts to bark. Then yelp. Then growl and gnash and bound about the shrubbery with the screeching, primal whine of a jack russell terrier in pursuit. Your dog plunges into the azaleas and reappears with a lizard in her mouth. She carries it in that proud dog way while it writhes and hisses between her teeth.

You chase her around the garden. Repeatedly screaming ‘Bad dog!’ fails to really penetrate the animal’s moral compass, and yelling its name in a disapproving way doesn’t help either. It’s the garden hose on “Jet” mode that finally separates the two. You lock the soiled dog inside.

The blue-tongue lizard lies where it was dropped. Bloodied and sunk into the grass. Thirty centimetres long. Thick. Fleshy. Completely motionless but for its breathing, which is heavy and sporadic and uneven, as if only its left side can inflate. A back foot has been severed, the tail long since dropped. It looks sick and wounded; mortally so, you think. It’s suffering, making weak and weird gluggy noises as air moves past blood.

You look at the lizard for a long time. There’s no one else around, and you decide it must be your job to kill it. That ultimately feels like the right thing to do. Or at least, maybe, a humane thing to do. You feel somehow bound to the thing, to your fellow living creature, to end its pain, and bury it in the backyard where the dog won’t find it. You walk very slowly to the garden shed.

You remember learning about God’s all-knowingness in a primary school scripture lesson. It was quite a moment. You’d long since come to terms with the fact that omnipotent super beings, like God and your mum, but especially your mum, were all-seeing. As such you’d cultivated the appearance of a perfect child. You sat up straight in assemblies. You picked up litter that wasn’t even yours. And you committed your crimes, including but not limited to drinking orange juice straight from the bottle, when you were sure no one was looking. This is why an all-knowing God presented such a curveball. Because now even your thoughts were on trial.

Exactly what that means for your morality these days, and for the lizard dying painfully on the grass, is a problem you don’t solve on the slow walk to the garden shed. You don’t really believe in God anymore, you know now that your mum is just a normal, actually slightly myopic person. And so, you think, logically, no one but you can ever really know your thoughts. They’re safe. Secret and inscrutable. Locked away behind your eyes.

What will make you good or bad in the eyes of other people, then, are your actions. It won’t be how you feel about the lizard but what you do to it that defines you. But remember, only you and the dog know what’s happening in your backyard. If no one sees what you do does that make it neither good nor bad? If a tree falls (and crushes a lizard) in a forest and nobody hears it, and so on, and so forth.

It’s like a modern, lower stakes retelling of the Ring of Gyges. The story goes that a shepherd of the king, a man named Gyges, was tending his flock in the wilderness when an earthquake opened up a hole in the ground. Inside the hole was a giant bronze horse, and inside the giant bronze horse was a corpse, and on that corpse was a ring. Gyges nicked it. Later that day he discovered that when turned a certain way the ring makes its wearer invisible. It’s an allegory from Plato’s Republic, even if it really does sound like the plot of Lord of the Rings. And well, the humble, ring-wearing shepherd goes on to amass riches, kill his enemies, seduce the queen, murder the king, and take the throne for himself. Quite a day out for Gyges. The point of the story is essentially, ‘Well, wouldn’t you?’ Would a rational, intelligent person have any cause to be just if there were no consequences for their actions? Only you and the dog know what’s happening in your backyard - and this fact stews in the back of your brain as you walk.

You’ve finally arrived at the garden shed. And, looking upon the row of tools, you find yourself facing a terrible decision. Should you use the pitchfork? Surely not. A rake? The blower vac? No. Jeez. Ridiculous and cruel. And though it still doesn’t feel particularly humane, you move towards the shovel.

The lizard hasn’t run away by the time you get back. It actually refuses to leave or stir or slither into life no matter how many times you poke and prod. It continues to gasp painfully. It’s bleeding and grotesque. Your sense of nobility begins to wane; the lizard has started looking like a slimy animal. Alien, scaly and weird. You think that maybe, in that case, it should die an animal’s death; on nature’s terms. It’s arrogant and surely unkind of you to saunter up to a still (if barely) living thing and play God with a spade.

Every living creature, irrespective of its species, has an inherent interest in avoiding harm and suffering. For Australian philosopher Peter Singer, the rightness of an action must weigh all affected interests of all beings equally. Your desire to go inside must be weighed against the lizard’s desire to avoid suffering - and at the same time weighed against its interest in not being decapitated. It’s tricky. What you and the lizard really need is a tête-à-tête, some kind of rational, intelligible powwow, in which you discuss the creature’s hopes and dreams and position its pain on a scale of one to ten. You look at it again. There’s a temptation to view it as an inferior, insignificant reptile that’s lacking any profound sense of emotion or internal conscious experience. But that would be wrong. This creature is capable of real suffering; you can see it. And you have to help it. But how?

‘Bahhhh,’ you groan, lifting the shovel high above your head, lathering on some simulated menace, stern eyes and gritted teeth and the like, to make your intentions very clear. But the lizard does not, as you’d hoped, quit pretending. It doesn’t move at all. Maybe it’s already dead? Nope, still twitching. Okay. Deep breath. You try to fill yourself up with righteousness on the inhale, with the ultimate utilitarian goodness of this bad act, but it doesn’t take.

And still you hold the shovel above your head. You seem unable to swing it down, and you wonder if your arms have become suddenly stuck for your sake or for the lizard’s. You try to get creative, imagining the thing as some murderous tyrant, even trying to convince yourself that this is the slaying of a very small dragon. But no. That doesn’t work either. You start to wonder who you’re doing this for, anyway. It’s seems an obvious lose-lose. And the lizard won’t thank you, and no one else is here.

Every twelve weeks you donate blood to the Red Cross. You sidle in, fill out the forms, get stabbed in the arm, and sit smugly in a plush leather chair while you bleed into a bag. You do not particularly enjoy this process. Actually, you don’t really like it at all. It makes you kind of queasy. And no one likes getting stabbed in the arm.

The reasons you go back every twelve weeks are, pretty much: the Red Cross leave a big bowl of “Thank You” Freddo Frogs unattended by the door, and also when the donation is over they wrap your stabbed arm in a big, obvious bandage. You keep this bandage on for longer than you need to.

You have not managed to convince yourself that you’re donating blood for anyone but you. Not through lack of trying. You want to feel selfless and noble, but every twelve weeks you disappoint yourself by feeling only stabbed and queasy and generally inconvenienced until they give you the big, obvious bandage.

And yet your blood still ends up in a bag. It’s still taken via the appropriate channels to a human being that needs it. And the only person who will ever know the bad reasons behind an ultimate utilitarian good is you.

It makes you wonder what God would say, were he still around to read your thoughts. It makes you wonder what kind of person you’d be if you had the Ring of Gyges. And is there even such a thing as real, full blown altruism? Are you the only person who’s unable to serve others without also serving yourself?

Aristotle believed that seeking a virtuous life was programmed into human beings in the same way that wanting to become an oak tree is programmed into an acorn. A virtuous person will habitually act according to virtuous values, which are in the “golden mean” sweet spot between excess and deficiency. Courage is the ideal middle ground between cowardice and recklessness. Honesty lies between total secrecy and loose lips. Lizard empathy might be in the sweet spot between kicking the thing and writing it a sonnet. For Aristotle, morality was uncomplicated: just be a virtuous person and you will know and do what is right. This is undoubtedly vague, and hard, and a bit of a cop out from Aristotle, you reckon.

But it’s in moments of introspection like these, holding a shovel above your head while thinking about a long-dead Greek man and a God you don’t believe in, that you feel inclined to do some moral mathematics. Some pluses and minuses. Balance the virtue checkbook, as it were. And sure, you take out your elderly neighbour’s bins for them every Tuesday, but if the referee doesn’t see a handball you commit at indoor soccer you play on. You lie all the time. Sometimes for no reason. Plus for a socially and environmentally conscious person, a vitriolic hater of Big Oil and political apathy, you sure do drive a lot. You recycle but you don’t compost (composting is gross). And for all this concern over a tiny lizard, you absolutely eat meat. Lots of meat. Baby lambs and all.

You pick up litter, but only sometimes, and even then only if it’s on your way and doesn’t look slimy. Your $50 one-time donation to Mission Australia is an obvious plus, but there are some heavy minuses that can’t be forgotten. Like the stuff you’re really ashamed of. Like how your first, immediate instinct when a homeless person asks you for money is to pretend they don’t exist. You’ve convinced yourself it’s really just easier to walk by and not look at them at all than it is to explain, in words that would seem like a lie or disingenuous platitude even though they’re not, that you don’t carry cash these days, and that you’re really sorry, and that you really do sympathise because you’ve watched documentaries. It would be embarrassing to say all that. And so instead you ghost a human being. Just like you ghost those Mission Australia people outside the train station ever since they cornered you and made you feel so skin-crawlingly guilty that you had no choice but to be charitable. $50 whole dollars worth of charitable. And you hated them for it.

So Aristotelian virtue might be beyond your reach. You wonder if you fare any better with Immanuel Kant’s categorical moral imperatives, the most pertinent one being: ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ Don’t refuse to compost unless you’d be okay with everyone else refusing to compost, that sort of thing. It’s important to consider what exactly you’d be willing into universal law with this shovel. You certainly don’t want lizard decapitation to be compulsory - surely it should be a case-by-case sort of thing. If you’re universalising ending the life of a suffering creature, at what level of pain out of ten do we have to start murdering each other?

You’ve been holding this shovel above your head for a long time and, clearly, you’re starting to lose it. Your arms are tingling. You’re angry that your moral challenge has now also become a physical one. Then you remember the lizard. The thing that’s dying.

The pins and needles encourage you to be honest with yourself. The idea of killing this lizard makes you feel icky. There will be blood, and guts, and a life ended when you bring down this shovel. You don’t, like, believe in ghosts or anything, especially not reptilian ghosts, but this thing looks like it could very well haunt you. And though the creature is in pain, it's only alternative is to be dead. You can’t decide if killing it is good or bad any more than you can decide if you are good or bad. Plus, hard binary words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ seem a subjective and flawed way to make sense of people, and an even more ridiculous way to make sense of murdering a lizard.

You want to make a rational, moral decision, but it seems your failing upper body strength has made the call for you. The shovel’s moving. It’s coming down.

As it gains momentum, and it’s too late to stop, you find yourself unable to point the edge down. What you end up doing instead is whacking the lizard on the top of the head with the flat part of the shovel. There’s a dull, fleshy clunk. The creature hisses for the first time in a few minutes. It’s breathing resumes, slightly faster but no less awful than before. You can add severe brain trauma to the list of other traumas this lizard has suffered today.

The humane path is becoming less and less clear.

Kant had it easy, you think. He sat in a room with paper and quill and imagined moral dilemmas. Aristotle probably never had to euthanise a lizard. Nor Singer nor Plato nor Frodo nor Gyges. All that moral philosophising is abstract and esoteric and it doesn’t give you any answers - it just makes you feel kind of dumb and gives you way more questions. So forget it. All that really matters is you and your shovel; there are some serious problems you need to solve with this spade. Like, deep down, do you even really want to be a good person? Or do you only want to seem like a good person? And is there a difference?

But ultimately, no one else is here. You’re invisible. That’s why you walk away, throw the shovel on the grass and let nature decide. You don’t return until the next day, where you see the beast is gone but for a dark speck on the grass that you presume is dried lizard blood.

You imagine it must have slithered off into some hole to die. Painfully and concussed and somewhat by your hand.