Of Mice, Men, and Ethics

I hate sticky traps. But sometimes, there’s no recourse, not when the rodent hides in crannies where the cats can’t follow, and in spaces where it’s impossible to place “humane” or regular traps.  But sticky traps create another problem – and that’s what to do with a living creature that looks at you with fearful eyes.  Despite having seen the damage mice can do when uncontrolled, I still hate having to dispose of them.  But it takes days to clean and sterilize the mess even one mouse can leave… and, like other creatures that sample domestic comfort, mice that are released have this tendency to return.  So I have a simple rule with various pests – stay out of the house, and I’ll leave you alone.

In the aftermath of the rodent, however, I was reading a commentary by a reviewer on “ethics” and whether characters by various authors lack ethics when they kill without showing remorse and angst, even when those they kill are people who, by any reasonable standard, are truly evil.  Since some of my characters have been charged, upon occasion, with such behavior, I couldn’t help thinking about the issue.

What it seems to me is that the issue for all too many people is either whether the “killer” feels sorry or concerned about his acts or whether the acts take place in a setting where the one doing the killing has “no choice.”  And over the years, I’ve realized that, for many, many, readers, the ones who are dispassionate or don’t feel “bad,” regardless of the impact of their actions, are generally considered as bad guys, or antiheroes at best, as in the case of Dirty Harry or others, while the good guys are the ones who reluctantly do what must be done.  If a protagonist doesn’t show reluctance… well, then he or she is either a villain, soulless, or an anti-hero without true ethics.  Part of this attitude obviously stems from a societal concern about individuals without social restraints – the sociopaths and the psychopaths – but is it truly unethical [and I’m not talking about illegal, which is an entirely different question, because all too often application of the law itself can be anything but ethical] to kill an evil person without feeling remorse?  And does such a killing make the protagonist unethical?

How can it be more “ethical” to slaughter other soldiers in a battle, other soldiers whose greatest fault may well be that they were on the “other side,” than to quietly dispose of an evil person on a city side street?  Well… one argument is that the soldiers were ordered to kill, and no one authorized the disposal of the evil individual.  By that reasoning, Nazi death camp guards were acting ethically.  Yet… we don’t want individuals taking the law into their own hands.  On the other hand, what can individuals do in such a circumstance when the law offers no protection?

These are all issues with which we as writers, and as citizens, must wrestle, but what bothers me is the idea that, for some people and some readers, the degree of ethics rests on the “feelings” of the individual who must face the decision of when to use force and to what degree.  Was I any more or any less ethical in killing the rodent vandalizing my kitchen because I felt sorry for the little beast?  It didn’t stop me from putting an end to him.  Isn’t the same true in dealing with human rodents?

And don’t tell me that people are somehow “different”?  With each passing year, research shows that almost all of the traits once cited as distinguishing humans as unique also exist in other species.  Ravens and crows, as well as the higher primates, use tools and have what the theorists call a “theory of mind.”  The plain fact is that every species kills something, whether for food, self-defense, territory, or other reasons.

So…perhaps a little less emphasis is warranted on whether the feelings about the act of killing determine whether the killing is “ethical” or not.  Admittedly, those characters who show reluctance are certainly more sympathetic… but, really, should they be?  Or should they be evaluated more on the reasons for and the circumstances behind their acts?





10 thoughts on “Of Mice, Men, and Ethics”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    I suspect that while feelings should _inform_ decisions (lest one become too disconnected from others or from the _emotional_ consequences of one’s actions), they should never dominate a decision-making process.

    Are less mistakes made from misplaced sympathy than from a desire for revenge? Does it matter? Perhaps, in one sense it does. According to some notions, our decisions themselves are _not_ rational (particularly those that must be made rapidly or involve too many unknowns), but our post-decision assessment, and the history of our decisions, provides possibly rational input to our next decision. In that sense, a preference for the input of connective over disconnective emotions may not immediately change our actions, but may over time change _us_, or at least keep us from changing into that which we might not wish to become.

    As for a character in a story: if their role is to be other than villain, there needs to be a balance, I think. Someone that is kind and dependable to friends, and grants what courtesy and benefit of doubt they can to strangers, might actually maximize their impact by being quite calculating when they find it necessary to take out the trash.

    Or as a much simpler example, people that are known to almost never utter any of Carlin’s seven words can achieve shocked silence if they _do_ drop one, while people who use those words as punctuation are merely wearying to those that listen to them.

    “Doc” Smith had no problem with totally wiping out entire species of bad guys in his stories. Yet he had some characters that were physically quite human but the product of a much more violent culture than ours think the following:

    All were shivering inwardly at their knowledge, that the deadliest possible performer is not one whose ordinary life is one of violence, but a highly intelligent entity who, having coldly and accurately evaluated a situation and having come to a decision, proceeds coldly and ruthlessly to take whatever action is necessary to implement that decision.

    In other words, the reluctance to take drastic action shouldn’t require a show of regret; it should be enough that the action is contrary to the character’s customary pattern of behavior, and that the choice was neither arbitrary nor driven by emotion. And perhaps an awareness that having once made such a decision, caution is needed to prevent the precedent from enabling such a decision to be more lightly made in the future. Any thinking creature with power should never take it for granted that the use of power has less potential for abuse simply because it’s them using it.

    Characters such as Lerris seem to me to satisfy all the constraints I’ve identified for responsible use of force.

  2. Sam says:

    I just started reading Scholar.

    Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read it.

    I just read a scene where Quaeryt is attacked by a thief and kills him.

    He does not know this thief. Has no past history with him as I understand it but writes him off as a waste of space and society being a better place without him in it.

    No trial, no question of how the man ended up a thief or whether or not given the right opportunity he could turn his life around simply summary execution.

    This bothered me. I was also bothered when Mykella killed her unborn niece/nephew in Lady-Protector – I’m not against abortion by the way – particularly the reasoning for doing so. Obviously it was unlikely the child would live but she killed it in part to avoid having a future enemy. Had it lived as the child’s relative and the victor in battle couldn’t she have taken it in and raised it? Shown it a kind face rather than an enemy to be despised and warred against?

    I’ve long been of the view that evil is subjective. No doubt to the mouse you kill you are evil. If someone tries to harm me or mine instinctively I will regard them as evil but objectively I don’t think evil exists. We live in an uncaring universe and what happens happens. All suffering and all joy are irrelevant except to those who experience them.

    So in my view there is no justification in killing someone because they are “evil”. Self-preservation or preservation of another you care about yes but anything else is appointing yourself as a judge, jury, and executioner who has a supremely objective view who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

  3. Hob says:

    Ethics or Value? Killing the mouse states that you value the house/environment and your time to be spent in a certain way. The cost is the mouse’s life and the mental disturbance caused to yourself.

    From this perspective, most ethics dislike/have difficulty with the idea that the environment is worth more than life/time, human or otherwise. Ethics have an aversion to death/decay. Why would your ethics be exempt Mr Modesitt?

    People are called heroes if they are seen to be extending the quality of ethical principles, not of personal comfort. Yet ones principles/comforts, defined or otherwise, are the only real expression of ones will. You value your time Mr Modesitt, but I don’t see outside of your personal discomfort with this fact how this relates to the principle of ethics.

    The key problem here is whose idea of the ‘perfect/reasonable environment’ would be valid? You are trying to define a greater principle that aligns with what you value already?–in the end it just becomes an application of greater force or of politicking.

    The heart of your point is valid I think–should current ethics be based on the objective environment and not on people? Could in the future there be a bio-law? Bio-philosophy? I fear no matter what law we adopt–politics is always in the way shaping that material. Politicking is a greater indicator of of our real desires and motivations as humans than any grand ideals.

  4. In defense of Quaeryt, I’d like to point out that the thief was threatening him with a knife and that in an earlier encounter with another thief Quaeryt was able to distract the thief with by essentially tripping him. Context is everything. When you’re threatened in the dark by a nasty man with a sharp knife, and your only weapon is imaging, you’re not likely to think about whether this man is really that bad and whether he could be saved… and maybe it’s a reflection on my views, but I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for people who use weapons in the dark to relieve honest folks of their belongings. Very few of those who go down that road can be “saved” when they’re at that point.

    1. Sam says:

      I think the thing that disturbed me was the time it took. That Quaeryt watched the man die of suffocation. If it had of been a quick/instant kill it would have bothered me less as it would have seemed more like self-defence. As it was the kill felt a little too calculated and drawn out for my tastes. I thought once the man lost consciousness he could have imaged the bread out of his throat.

      A couple of years ago I saw a story about Somali pirates and how a lot of them were former fisherman who turned to piracy because it was the only way they knew how to feed their families as foreign industrial fishing had depleted the reserves of fish in their area. One thing about the story that struck me was that the pirates were desperate men trying to survive and that often what I would consider the trul evil men were their employers who stayed on shore and took the bulk of the money to build their own little empires on land.

      A similar thing occurs to me with people smuggling here in Australia. A lot of asylum seekers give up their life-savings to get illegal transport – illegality which is actually questionable to some of us – to Australia by boat. Our former government introduced a policy of mandatory detention and off-shore processing of asylum seerkers who arrived by boat. Our current government which came into power in 2007 is more oriented towards the left but is trying to appear closer to the centre to appease the public’s – mostly fallacious – concerns about an invasion of refugees by boat. So the current government talked less about hordes of refugees and protecting our borders and started talking about leaky boats and how people smugglers are the scum of the earth trading in human suffering. About how dangerous the journey is and how these asylum seekers are being taken advantage of by the evil people smugglers. One example oft used by the government is a boat that sank off of Christmas island in December 2010 killing nearly 30 people. This was an example of how evil people smuggler’s are for putting these desperate people on such dangerous journey in return for their money. What strikes me is that if these journey’s are so dangerous then they are also dangerous for the “evil” people smugglers who crew the boats. In fact most of the people smugglers in Australian prisons are crew from these boats – a lot of them poor fisherman and some of them underage teenage boys. The truly “evil” people smugglers stay comfortably back in Indonesia raking in the money while others take all the risk. Very few of them are in prison.

      My thought is that those on the front line in criminal organisations aren’t usually the truly evil ones but rather more often desperate people who can’t see any other way to get by. Of course sometimes it’s just about easy money and greed for some but I expect they are the sort who move up in such organisations.

  5. Joe says:

    You are evil if you care more for yourself than for those your action affects: you know others suffer because of your actions, but you don’t care because your actions benefit you.

    Thus it is evil to poison a well so as to eliminate the peasants and take over their land. It is evil to enslave people or entrap them in debt. It is evil to trade the commodity markets in a way that leads staple prices to rise and poor people to starve, even if it makes you a buck. It is evil to destroy the environment. And yes, killing a mouse because you can’t be bothered to move it does in my opinion qualify as evil.

    A hero is someone who changes something for the benefit of others even to their own detriment. Thus the people who worked to mitigate Chernobyl could be considered heroic. It is remarkably rare that killing someone actually improves matters. Usually one has to change the entire system to prevent an event from reoccurring.

    Soldiers in the battlefield seem less evil to me than murderers because they were placed in that situation by circumstance and unrelated choice. If someone signed up to kill a specific person, then it’s different. But I would not view soldiers as blameless either. After all they signed up, and did not refuse orders. On the other hand, I rarely have anything but contempt for the leaders who start wars.

    In the same way, killing an animal to eat is different from killing it for other purposes — we only have so many choices as to what to eat, and most of them are bad. Millions of insects perish in the production of vegetables, fruit and cereals, including vital pollinators.

    Feeling heartbroken indicates that you understand how your action impacted those you harmed to change the world for the benefit of the many. This is a sign of having deeply understood the situation and not having acted just for your own benefit, but having tried to minimize harm to all. That is why heroes often express sadness/sorrow.

    1. Sam says:

      From what I’ve seen most of us care more for ourselves than others.

      Mum mum states it as something like a sliding scale of compassion. We care for ourselves then our friends, family, local community, nation and much futher away humanity in general and last occasionally other species/the enviroment.

      My parents often argue because my mum says that they don’t care about children starving to death in third world countries as much as they care about going out for meals and owning a unit to get away to on weekends. Every dollar they spend on such “luxuries” could go towards saving a childs life. Or anyone’s life for that matter but they’d rather spend it on themselves.

      My mum isn’t so much passing judgment as stating what she perceives as simple fact. They do donate to charity but nowhere near as much as they could.

      To greater or lesser extent most of us put ourselves first. Which is why I find it hypocritical to judge others who do so in situations/circumstances where we might do exactly the same thing only we have the luxury of not knowing what we would do in such circumstances.

      1. Joe says:

        There is a difference between not helping someone who is suffering but not because of your actions and creating suffering for that person because it benefits you. The former is not evil, the latter is.

        I do agree with your mother in that someone who is more compassionate will try to help people further away. Helping may or may not involve donating food. For instance, it might make more sense to donate towards the education of girls since that is a proven way of reducing the number of starving children they will have.

        1. Sam says:

          I suppose up to a point I subscribe to the notion of collective responsibility. I am part of a society that I have some say in particularly as it is a democracy. Therefore I bear some responsibility for the actions of my society/government and how those actions affect others.

          There is also the question of past crimes that I have benefited from. My ancestors – not neccessarily direct – took this land from it’s indigenous inhabitants and woefully mistreated them for decades. While individual Australian aborigines bear some responsibility for their lot in life I believe that society bears a large part of the blame/responsibility even if we aren’t mistreating them today.

          The aboriginal people in some ways are stuck between the past and the present. The way of life of their ancestors no longer serves them to survive and prosper in the present. They were once nomadic travelling where the land could support them. Much of that land was seized by my ancestors and is now farms, mines, steelworks, buildings etc. The land can no longer support their way of life as it once did.

          Eventually I expect they will make the transition to the present and their descendants will begin to prosper but they will have lost something in the process. Which is why it is such a hard transition to make and why their current lot is so poor.

          They are a broken people and it was my ancestors who broke them so in part I bear responsibility for it particularly as I have benefited from their loss.

  6. David Sims says:

    I admire your insight, Mr. Modesitt. Can you explain, in a way consistent with that insight, why it would be immoral for a government to carry out an ethnic cleansing by the death camp method?

    People are competitive primates having an instinct to organize themselves into tribes. It always eventually happens that the population living in an area grows to the limit of the food supply (or to the supply of some other vital resource). If more than one tribe is living in that area when the population limit is reached, it will be clear to both sides that further expansion by one can only come about through a reduction of the other side’s numbers. Each side can claim that their needs make ethnic cleansing necessary.

    Like you and that mouse. It’s HIS need for food versus YOUR need for (safely sanitary) food.

    You may kill a mouse for that reason. You may kill a man for that reason. You may kill many men for that reason. We are here because our ancestors did the killing better than their rivals did. The highest value in any proper moral system is the survival of the group that practices it, and since killing off rivals is proved as necessity for survival, any moral system that would prohibit such killing is improper and should not be practiced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *