"While on an expedition in the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean, with a group of naturalists, Rick wandered off with his Dominican friend Rubio to look for wildlife in the forest. 'Suddenly,' says Rick, 'we heard a loud squeaking'. Rubio was the first to discover its source - a distressed Hispaniolan treefrog, which had been caught by a green vine snake. 'I photographed the drama as the frog dangled in front of me, but Rubio was unable to resist helping the victim and gently touched the snake, which promptly dropped its meal and slithered away along the branches.' The frog, seemingly unaffected by the snake's mild venom, hopped off. Rick was left wondering whether it would have been morally better to let the snake have its meal - and, indeed, if it would have succeeded in swallowing such a large frog had it been left to try."
Thus reads the caption to The Dilemma, a picture taken by Rick Stanley of the United States which last week won him the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition organized by the British Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine (Hit this link to view the picture - http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/wpy/OnlineGallery/Photo.jsp?photo=2244).
This column is not concerned with photography, nor is it with the fates of the frog or the snake. But this story and, in particular, the photographer's moral reflections reminded me of a question from a reader who inquired some time before whether word 'amoral' is the same as 'immoral'. At the time, I was able to give a straightforward reply dictionary-wise, but I did not have a good example to help illustrate the point. I think I have a good example now, thanks to Rick's dilemma.
Being immoral refers to people's actions deliberately violating accepted principles of right and wrong. It's the direct opposite of being moral.
Being amoral, however, refers to situations beyond the confines of the human moral value system. In other words, being amoral is neither morally good nor is it morally bad.
The animal world is an amoral world. Animals in the natural world don't do according to what's right, but to instincts. In other words, they just do it. They don't observe the human laws of right and wrong. They instead follow the greater laws of the universe, the laws of Nature, the Tao. The tricky part, an extremely elusive quality in human societies, is that in the natural (amoral) world, no matter what you do, you're doing the right thing because nothing can go wrong. Rick was in that situation (he did not fully realize it).
Hence, morally, it would not have made a difference whatsoever had Rick not bothered at all with the fate and fortunes of the snake or the frog. It obviously matters to Rick and some of his fellow men, but it would have been infinitely inconsequential to the big scheme of things. The aforementioned snake would have in all likelihood gobbled the frog had our young photographer not intervened and if so, what? The snake would not explain why he had to do such a bad thing nor would the frog family rise in unison to condemn the atrocity in front of a United Nations of all creatures.
Animals do. They don't judge. Humans may cringe from the cruelty when they see the picture of a venomous snake nailing its fangs into a poor little helpless frog (all adjectives are human-invented), but such cruelty is in fact kept at the lowest minimum in nature. Unlike humans, animal hunters kill only when they have to. And when they are sated - unlike humans, they sate easily - they leave their prey alone. So there's actually much more peace and harmony found in the natural world, the amoral world than in the human world.
In the human world, only babies are amoral. Babies, before they learn to argue and talk back, that is, are generally allowed to wet the bed if they feel like it. Babies are beyond moral reproach, although I have observed young mothers scolding babies for "becoming shitty again" catching parents unprepared.
Adults on the other hand are always straining themselves to do the moral thing, the good. They take great pains to refrain from doing the immoral, the bad. The results, however, are generally unsatisfactory. One crucial piece of evidence is that whenever people are happy, they tend to describe their good feelings by making comparisons with what's happening in the natural world.
Had you ever listened to the late Nina Simone singing Feeling Good, you'd know what I mean. Here is the lyric (in parts):
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Reeds drifting on by you know how I feel
Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom in the tree you know how I feel
Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don't you know
Butterflies all having fun you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done
That's what I mean
Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel
And I'm feeling good