Monday, March 29, 2010

The bathroom dilemma: Yuck and Inconvenience

So last time, I presented the problem.  I've spent some time thinking about it, and in particular the false dilemma that I presented.

I presented the problem as a choice between the waterless urinal and the 1 gallon automatic flush urinal.  Many people have pointed out that I have a third option, the bushes by my office.  If I'm serious about saving water, and 2.5 minutes is too long to walk, then couldn't I water the bushes by my office as a compromise?  I did a little digging, and it turns out that it may actually beneficial to your plants (at least your tomato plants)!

But there is a pretty strong yuck factor involved in peeing in public.  So inconvenience versus yuck!  This is what ethicists are for!  First, generally, I don't think that yuck! is a justification.  If I said something like, "Peeing in public?  Yuck!"  That isn't good enough moral reason for me not to do it.  "Gays getting married?  Yuck!"  amounts to the same thing.  The argument from yuck is essentially:  This act disgusts me.  People should avoid doing disgusting acts.  Therefore I should not do this act.  Plug in anything that is disgusting and you have an argument.  But the relevancy of how an act makes us feel and whether we should do it is questionable.  I think barfing is disgusting, and cleaning up barf is probably more disgusting.  But I think I should do it (cleaning it up that is, not barfing per se).

But there is a difference between gay marriage and peeing in the bushes.  One issue has heavy "moral weight" and the other not.  I think something has "moral weight" when decisions made about x either affects a great deal of people, or affects some people in a great deal, in a significant way.  This is terribly vague I know, but I think the vagueness is necessary.  Gay marriage affects both a great deal of people, and some people in a great deal.  I'm not sure if peeing in the bushes would count in either sense.

So whats the point of this distinction?  I want to say that on issues that concern "everyday ethics," that is issues that have only a light "moral weight" do not require the same kinds of justifications as weighty moral issues.  "Yuck" may well be enough for me to  not to do something that that has little moral weight.  Why?  Yuck makes us unhappy, in a temporary sense, not in a lifelong sense.  When we engage in a something that is only yucky (cleaning up barf as opposed to torturing someone, which is both yucky and cruel), we usually don't think that this will ultimately affect our overall evaluation of our lives.  Everyday ethics deals with precisely that, a small wrong, not a wrong that will ultimately affect the overall moral evaluation of our lives.  The less weighty a moral issue, the more it can be affected by yuck!

So I'm not peeing in the bushes.  Why?  Because its not a morally weighty issue and it makes me go yuck! The burden of proof, I think, is on others to show why this is a morally weighty issue that forces me to discount yuck.   If we were talking about being a vegan versus being a vegetarian, would the yuck factor be enough to take veganism off the table?  I'm coming around to the possibility of it being morally light enough because the difference of moral weight between a vegan and a vegetarian is the difference between being a good person and a slightly better person.  But if we were talking about the difference between a vegetarian and a omnivore, even a conscientious one, the difference in weight is significantly larger because of reasonable doubts about where our food is coming from.  It turns the compassionate omnivore into a regular omnivore.

So what about the other possibility, that its too inconvenient?  If morally light issues can be overridden by yuck, could it be overridden by inconvenience?  I think it might.  But first we should compare yuck with inconvenience.  I think most people would pick something inconvenient over something yucky.  It may be inconvenient for me not to eat anything at this moment, but it sure beats eating something yucky.  So, yuck gives us better reasons to reject some moral proposition than inconvenience because it affects our lives in a greater magnitude than yuck (and remember I'm not saying that yuck or inconvenience is affecting our over all lives a great deal).  So if its merely inconvenient that I walk 2.5 minutes to the waterless urinal, then I should, since the ethical gain is worth it.  But what if I drank a cup of coffee at home, drove half an hour to work, and really needed to go?  I don't think people would typically label this an inconvenience.  We hyperbolically describe these situations as emergencies.  But what actually is happening is that we are faced with turning something inconvenient (walking 2.5 minutes) into something yucky (soiling ourselves).  The moral weight of the issue hasn't changed, but our justification for rejecting the 2.5 minute walk has.  Heck, even compared to the yuck of peeing in public and the yuck of soiling ourselves, peeing in public would be the more preferable option. 

So... unless I'm being pressed with a yucky situation, I have a moral obligation to use the waterless urinal.


  1. Isn't the morally weighty issue here that peeing in the bushes (unless your "office" is in your backyard) counts as public urination, punishable with a fine? If others discover your actions, whether you are fined or not, found guilty or not, affects your reputation, your relationships with co-workers, family, friends, and your spouse. The economic negative of a few hundred dollars (either paying the fine or hiring a lawyer) surely outweigh any benefit you derive from saving time and a few gallons of water.

    You're the professional philosopher, though, so maybe you're more able to determine a measure of utility vs. chances of being caught including tangible and intangible consequences and benefits leading you to one action or the other.

  2. Yet another yucky option would be to pee in the closer toilet and not flush it, thereby saving whatever amount of water entirely.

  3. Nate- True... but the likelihood of me getting caught peeing in the bushes would be pretty low. I just still think its yucky depsite any real negative consequence.... Although if it were my backyard.....

    Gary- Autoflush urinals. I can't stop them. Besides it doesn't guarantee that the next person who comes along won't flush the urinal before they use it.

  4. Pee in the sink then. ;)