Matthew Parris

If it’s a race that only one horse can win, am I wrong to want it to be mine?

27 June 2013

1:00 PM

27 June 2013

1:00 PM

Why is Christianity so unhelpful on the very ethical dilemma that most concerns ordinary people in our everyday lives? Why does Jesus have nothing helpful to say about the ranking of obligations?

Last weekend, digging a huge hole in the ground to receive a gargantuan granite trough I’ve just bought, I was about four feet below ground level and wielding a pickaxe when, with a panic-stricken tweet, a fledgling coal tit fluttered down into a puddle in the depression. There were high winds on Saturday and I suppose the bird had been blown from its nest somewhere.

This one managed to half-fly, half-hop to the water’s edge where it stood tweeting desperately and trying to fluff out its wings to dry them. It could nearly fly, but not well enough for the required vertical take-off. I watched for a while; the bird was not quite viable, I thought, outside the nest — yet so close. Maybe when dry it might be able to flutter away. I left it there in the hole, safe from the wind, to check later on its success.

But when I returned it was still there, looking more unsteady on its little legs. It had given up tweeting. I fetched a box and placed the bird in it with a jam jar-lid of water and some moistened bread and millet. The bird felt very warm in my cupped hands. I put the box on a slightly-warm radiator, covering the top with a book by Bruce Chatwin. If this bird pulls through, I thought, Chatwin’s writing will have proved of some use to man or beast.

But the bird perished. When I returned the fledgling was lying with eyes shut and claws heavenward: dead, but not quite cold yet. I took it rather delicately in my hands and went outside. One thrust of the spade was enough to dig its grave. Despite myself I was quite cast down; and as I lay down to sleep that night, sad again.

Which takes some explaining; but before I try, a word about my researcher’s hunt for a pupillage. Matthew Shaw is an exceptionally capable person who, having passed all his legal exams, now needs a ‘pupillage’ (a kind of apprenticeship) to become a fully fledged lawyer. Many, many more young would-be barristers are seeking pupillages. They just keep trying, but those without rich parents are at a big disadvantage; they must find a source of income while they wait. In Matthew’s case, working for me part-time provides this. He yearns to take this next step, though, and now I feel associated with his hopes. When (as keeps happening) he gets into the last two or three in the selection interviews, I wait with bated breath. I’m depressed if he falls at the last fence.

Which also takes some explaining. Matthew has become invaluable to me and I shouldn’t want to let him go. And for him to succeed at one of these final interviews it would be necessary for someone else — possibly just as good — to fail. My hopes therefore have nothing to do with increasing the sum of human happiness or improving the quality of the legal profession. It’s just that this is a race only one horse can win, and I want it to be mine.

Now back to the coal tit. I’m not especially fond of coal tits: they’re two for a penny in Derbyshire, they’re not especially pretty, their song is tuneless and they’re crowding the finches off my bird feeder. I poison rats, I’ve hired a contract killer to deal with rabbits, squirrels are an unmitigated pest and if thoughts could kill, the legion of jackdaws around our house would be turning their own claws heavenward. I’m not sentimental about animals as an order of creation, I know fledgling tits die all the time — nature requires it — and I’m a big fan of a beautiful stoat I watch from my window.

It’s just that this fledgling — indistinguishable from a million others — was mine. Fate had thrown it in my path and upon my mercy. Though there is only room for so many coal tits in Derbyshire, when this one died — and in a very small way — I lost something.

You will see at once, reader, the general case of which Mr Shaw and the coal tit are particular instances; and it is this I draw to your attention. I happen to believe it’s of the most profound importance in moral reasoning. Human obligation — though it bristles with a multitude of oughts and shoulds, gets its teeth into real dilemmas only when it moves from listing ethical desiderata to prioritising the list.

I cannot help every coal tit. I cannot want every capable applicant for pupillage to succeed. I can, however, adopt a very tiny sample of fledgling tits or fledgling lawyers, and powerfully wish these, ‘my’ protégés, well. It’s not about whether you should want to help other creatures. It’s about whom or what you prioritise, and whom or what you relegate. It’s about ranking.

Christ offered no guidance here that anybody could actually use. He sort-of suggested we should consider ourselves equally bound to all — but this is impossible. All He said about those circles-within-circles of moral duty so intrinsic to all human reasoning — family, community and tribe — is that He came to set brother against brother, and we are as beholden to the Samaritan as to our own. You cannot live by such precepts.

Had I my life over, I’d like to search the world’s other major religions to see if they are less coy about competing duties. I suspect they are all coy. I think I know the reason. Morality flows not from divine teaching, but from animal instinct and the survival of species.

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