Monday, July 18, 2016

litter litmus

Of all the litmus tests to measure the inclination to avoid causing harm, littering is admittedly a low priority, relatively speaking. If I were somehow forced to choose exclusively between someone passing the test of not littering or passing the test of not attacking another, then of course I would choose the latter. If an incredibly bizarre situation implied that littering would reduce the threat to someone's life or body or property (distracting a predator?), then I wouldn't object. But the pettiness of normal, unforced littering is actually the main point of why I view it as an informative litmus test! Specifically:

First, the gain from littering is pitiful. The bother of transporting the piece of litter to a nearby receptacle is usually almost nothing. Someone who had the ability to transport something with them before it became "litter" doesn't abruptly lose that ability; empty containers take less effort than full ones. It's easier to comprehend an uncharitable decision when the reward from it is significant and prone to dominating the decision-maker's thoughts prior to the act. Littering can't fall back on that explanation.

Second, the gain from littering is temporary, but the undesirable effects of it will last longer. It's short-sighted. The minutes, perhaps hours, that littering spares someone are outweighed by the long time in which the litter will have the opportunity to irritate.

Third, the future impact will be (or would be) borne by people who are unknown. To show benevolence toward familiar people, especially people who will potentially repay the benevolence, isn't as revealing. In a sense, reluctance to litter is a sign of solidarity with "society" as a whole, because it's impossible to know who in society will be affected. Not littering is an individual tribute to the "common good".

Fourth, closely related to the third, not littering might signify that someone identifies with a guiding concept of model behavior. It might embody the willingness to ask the larger questions, "Would this decision be something that an ideal decision-maker would carry out? If everyone made this decision, what would happen? Would I approve of someone else making this decision?"

Fifth, circling back to the admission from the opening paragraph, the repercussion of littering is minimal. So, its form of injury is gentle and easier to overlook. The level of consideration it's associated with is greater than the baseline level associated with not stealing, for instance. Not ruining the pleasantness of the setting they're in is a more stringent standard of avoiding "harm" to them.

Day by day, I doubt that regular littering, or for that matter regularly not littering, is a conscientious selection, reassessed again and again. To the contrary, I'd primarily blame influences which are more or less automatic: personal habit and social custom. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. I wouldn't be surprised to find that litter and littering could be unquestioned parts of someone's learned way of life. Consequently, they would see litter itself as innocuous, and the litmus test I'm rambling on about wouldn't occur to them—it wouldn't function as a test. From my perspective, that's a sadder result than failing it.

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