Virtue and Mischief: Roadkill and moral equations


Krista and I drove home from a church-related function last week when something unexpected occurred. It was around 9 p.m. It was dark and balmy.

We were just entering the western border of the Greenville city limits, so my trusty Ford Fusion was cruising at about 40 miles per hour at the moment a black, gray, and white blur—about the size of a small dog—darted out of the brush to my right and onto the pavement directly in front of the car, no more than 20 yards away.

I recall conducting an instantaneous, multi-step calculus: Swerve to the left and try to miss the creature squatting in my lane? No. A car was speeding toward me on that side of the highway and moving to the left would surely spell all kinds of disaster for both of us. Swing off the road to the right? Nope. Nowhere to go—a small ditch and trees lay there and, despite my occasional grousing to the contrary, I value my life and the life of my mate. Slam on the brakes and hope for the best? Not a good choice either. At the speed I was traveling, and given the milliseconds that had already passed since engaging in the above-cited computations, it was almost certainly too late. Moreover, it seemed to me that attempting such a hasty stop carried with it the strong possibility (the virtues of anti-lock brakes notwithstanding) of an unintended and unwanted swerve to one side or the other.

So I tapped the brakes to slow just a little and maintained my bearing on the road, crushing the creature with the right front tire and underside of the sedan. We felt and heard the impact.

“Oh, crap, Krista—what was that?”

“It was a raccoon. Wow.”

“I had no choice. Really. You saw my options—right?” I asked, seeking support and confirmation. “I couldn’t do anything. I had no choice. Right?”

“I know. You did the only thing you could. Poor thing.”

“Boy. Did you…you know…feel that? At least it died quickly,” I added, seeking a silver lining.

We returned home a few minutes later and commenced the process of herding the (sometimes) decidedly feline-like amigos to bed. After faces had been washed and teeth had been brushed, I mentioned our bloody, deadly encounter to our trio.

Daniel was unimpressed and motivated by his desire for sleep. “Hmmm. Too bad. Good night.”

Abby was intensely sympathetic to the plight of the hapless, masked mammal but accepted my explanation that, on balance, I had no other option. “Ahhh, poor raccoon! But don’t feel bad, dad, it sounds like you kinda had to do what you did.”

Predictably, it was Luke who probed deeper. “Couldn’t you stop in time? Couldn’t you have pulled off the road? What about honking? Did you think of that?”

“Well, yes, Luke,” I replied, beginning to feel a little like a white-collar criminal being grilled by Mike Wallace on an installment of “60 Minutes.” “But I couldn’t do any of those things in time to save the raccoon because I was going too fast to stop before hitting him and pulling off the road was way too dangerous as well given that there was a ditch and a bunch of trees just a couple of feet from the side of the road. I could’ve killed mom and me. I admit that honking didn’t occur to me, but I seriously doubt that would have made any difference either.”

He looked at me skeptically, but grudgingly accepted my explanation. “OK. But let me ask you this. Let’s say there were 10 ducks on the road instead of a raccoon. Would you have swerved off the road then?”

“No, Luke. I would have done the same thing.”

“What about 100 ducks?”

“It could have been a million ducks. I would have done the same thing.”

“Hmmm. I see. What if it was a dog or a cat?”

“Same thing, Luke. I’d certainly feel bad, but I wouldn’t consciously sacrifice our safety in that situation for the safety of a dog or a cat or a 100 ducks or a deer or—”

“OK, I get it. But what if a person ran out in the road like the raccoon did tonight? What then?”

“Wow. It’s hard for me to predict exactly, but then I think I would slam on the brakes, maybe, and hope that I’d slow down enough to just injure him. But I’m not sure, to be honest. Maybe I’d reflexively swerve on way or the other.”

“I see. Interesting. If you had to choose between me and Daniel, who would you choose?” he queried with a grin, obviously jousting with me. For the next 45 minutes we continued our discussion of various moral dilemmas, including a sobering (though blessedly brief) examination of “Sophie’s Choice,” the William Styron novel centered on the ultimate, cruelest of dilemmas.

Luke listened intently, interjecting only the question “why?” at appropriate and understandable intervals.

“Luke, I’m sorry, but I don’t know why,” I responded. “Horrible things happen sometimes, and sometimes they’re caused by other people. And everyone has to confront very, very difficult choices in their lives.”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“And just so you know. I’d choose both of you somehow. And Abby and Mom, too.”

By Tim Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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