The Limits Of Altruism


I have a habit of picking up various invertebrates that are wandering in the middle of the sidewalk and placing them on safer ground. Snails, caterpillars, even earthworms. I am sorry to say that have not brought myself to be able to try this with slugs yet, because they are too sticky (after a good rainfall in my neighborhood is like a slug massacre).

I pick up these creatures because I cannot bear the thought of a big shoe crushing the bejesus out of them. I feel I am doing these little creatures a big solid, by helping them out like that.

But am I really?

First of all, how do I know where I am placing them is truly safer than the middle of the sidewalk? Sometimes I put them in the yard of a nearby house, sometimes by the lawn at the side of the road; I try to gauge it based on what direction I think they are traveling. But I might be totally wrong in my assumptions. Perhaps they were leaving the seeming safety of the yard because there was too much rainwater in the soil, or a predator, or even some sort of poison.

If I put them on the grass by the side of the road, isn’t there the chance they will slowly move on to the middle of the street, and get vaporized by a moving car tire?

Then there is just the whole existential anomaly of it all…me, this huge creature, scooping up this snail and just putting it somewhere. How does the snail interpret this action? Does it, even within the few seconds for me to move it, think its death is immanent? Do I seem like a “god” to that earthworm? Or: do I seem like some sort of massive demonic creature who has just fucked the hour or so it took to crawl from the yard to the sidewalk? Did I just destroy its mating pattern? Did I just give it a nervous breakdown the likes of which it will never fully recover?

I think of this all now after coming back home from the gym. On the way, a grey adult cat started massively lovebombing my legs, rubbing against them and weaving around my sneakers, following me down the street and even crossing over with me to the next block. It clearly wanted to be taken home. It’s windy today, and not as chilly as it has been; but still, it’s nearing winter.

I couldn’t take this cat home. I already have two cats. I’m not going to say I can “barely” take care of these two cats, but I can barely take care of these two cats. Which is to say: two cats seem to be my absolute limit in the taking care of cats department.

And yet I felt so bad for this other cat. I tried to walk faster and not look back. It was so tempting, but I just couldn’t do it. Absolutely not. Even if I brought home this cat “temporarily,” (and it’s never temporary), I feel my other cats, angry, would draw up an official document of protest against me, jamming a ballpoint pen between their paws and co-signing.

Of course, now I’m home and feel guilty. Not a lot guilty. A little bit guilty. Occasionally, visual flashes of the grey cat frozen and dead in a gutter pass by my inner sight. That type of guilty.

But I could have taken this cat home and fucked up its life. It could have been the crucial “one cat too many” that would have completely tanked my little cat experiment. Maybe all the cats would have suffered for it. Overflowing litter boxes, cheaper cat food, nervous cats.

And of course…I eat meat. I eat seafood, I eat chicken. I know animals suffer for it. I still do it. I don’t think I get enough protein without some meat in my diet; others tell me that’s bullshit, that I can get the protein from spinach and such, but I don’t fully believe them.

So I am not even consistent. Will all my altruism for the invertebrates ever add up to anything? Is somebody or some thing keeping track? Has it all been canceled out by the shrimp I’ve ingested over the years?

Or is it all just one moment—this moment of facing the snail or the cat or the menu and making a decision. It’s this Question being put before me, in all its permutations:

“There it is. What do you do?”

And maybe there isn’t a moral to it at all.

More to read about on Butterfly Language:
A Relaxing Trip With Sluggo And Alan Watts
Time, The Singularity, And You
Review: “Email To The Universe” By Robert Anton Wilson