We’re a cat family. Neighbours on either side have dogs, but we have a cat, a white and ginger cat named Mittens.
Earlier this week Mittens disappeared. Three days later we found her, lying weak and helpless in a section of our garden, one of her hind legs dislocated.
The vet concluded she had been run over. Run over! Someone had run over her and then left her wounded. Why didn’t they pick her up and take her to a vet? Cats are microchipped, so we could have quickly been found. Or did she scamper off before the driver could do anything? If so, why didn’t the driver knock on a few doors to see if any of them owned a cat?
$680 later we have her back. Maybe that’s the reason the driver didn’t act, the worry of a large veterinary bill.
I don’t know, but the episode highlights to me how much relational connections shape our ethics. The driver, I surmise, did nothing in response to a wounded cat. We spent $680 and a bunch of emotional energy. Both might give readers pause to wonder. $680 on a cat! On an introduced species that does its fair share of killing native birds! Better off to leave it for dead.
Yet relationship changes everything, trumps reason every time. Mittens has been part of our family for a number of years. We have laughed at her silly antics as a kitten, shouted at her when she clawed at the lounge, assumed responsibility for her care. And that builds connection and empathy. Yes, she might just be a cat, an introduced species that is a danger to native wildlife, but she is ours.
And the principle applies more broadly. Why are we happy to cart refugees off to degrading conditions on Nauru or Manus Island? Why do we tolerate drone strikes in Pakistan that kill thirty innocents for every ‘target’ person? Why do we spend billions on unused presents when children are dying of starvation? Is the answer as simple as we favour those with whom we have relationship and have less regard for those outside our relational circles? That for purely subjective reasons we identify with some not others?
It’s a salient reminder that we need to expand our relational circles to include those who are not like us, to allow ourselves to build empathy. But even more so it’s a signal that where we tolerate violence, degrading treatment, or indifference, the problem probably lies not in the other but in our lack of relational connection with them. Should this not give us pause to ask searching questions about the morality of what our empathy, or lack thereof, tolerates?