The Bird and the Worm (Animal Death)

Near the end of the spring semester, I walked out to my bicycle after class and found the front tire flat. I stared at it for a minute, thinking surely this doesn’t mean I can’t ride back to my house. But it did mean just that, so I left my bike chained up and began the long walk home.

The day was warm and I assume most students were indoors avoiding the heat. I walked across campus with my thoughts to keep me company. At some point, however, I stopped my walk and removed myself from my mind in order to watch the course of nature. I had stumbled across a bird attacking a worm.

The worm was exceptionally long (three-quarters of a foot if I had to guess), which is what made for such a remarkable sight. The bird stood over it and, with persistent force, shot its beak down at the worm. With each peck, the invertebrate flailed helplessly. I stood there, a short distance away, and watched the scene until its fatal end. When the worm ceased to writhe, the bird picked it up and flew away.

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One of my favorite topics to debate with friends is the idea of ethics based on conscience—how it feels. When it comes to moral behavior, should we act based on our gut feeling? In my mind, I often indulge this sort of ethical system. Because something feels wrong, I am more ready to label it as sin. This sensitivity easily leads to pacifism—killing feels wrong thus it likely is wrong.

The more intellectual/academic among us will instinctively reject this. We have been trained to be skeptical of our emotions (and for that reason, I have many reservations regarding this system). But, I think this ethics based on conscience is more common than we believe. Everyday we make decisions based on it; it’s not uncommon to hear a mother give the advice, “If you have to ask, it probably isn’t a good idea.” Though we may try to logically sustain our ethics, it often boils down to how we feel about a certain action.

Some criticism for this moral theory involves the discrepancies over what “feels right” from person to person. A simple answer to this is that many have numbed themselves to the things that should feel wrong—e.g. injustice to the poor, violence, killing, etc.

This ethical idea is very loosely related to Virtue Ethics. The idea is that if we have fostered the proper virtues within us, our conscience should guide us in the way of those virtues, and it will cry out against us when it sees something wrong. Though not totally convinced, I often include these gut feelings as one pebble on the scales of my decisions.

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The bird and worm left me utterly confused because I was unmistakably disturbed by the worm’s death (I have a history of overly sympathetic reactions to the suffering of invertebrates—just ask Lauren about when I inadvertently crushed a snail). Being disturbed by what I saw is a strange reaction, I know, for a number of reasons. Chief among those is that worms have, perhaps, the least capacity to suffer among all Animalia; a worm flailing has far lighter implications than a dog or cow. Still, when I saw the encounter, something in my brain was made uncomfortable by the sight.

The thing that left me confused, though, was remembering that this was nature I was seeing. I’ve been trained both in church and by Michael Crichton to believe that nature holds the ideal state of existence, that however God’s creation does it is the proper way of doing it. This produced a conundrum in my brain—I feel like this death is wrong, but nature is built on constant death such as this.

I haven’t come to any conclusions since then. I’ve simply been plagued with constant questions regarding my thoughts on animal cruelty, the naturalness of death, Virtue Ethics, and pacifism. I guess I could just drop the ethics-based-on-conscience thing, since I wasn’t totally convinced to begin with. But I can’t forget that bird pecking the worm, and the feeling that swelled up in my gut.

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