For a few weeks now, a cockroach has been living in the wash-basin in my hostel room. He inhabits the space between the outer and inner walls of the ceramic basin, and the slit just below the tap serves as his door. When there is light in the room - either because of the Sun or Edison - he stays indoors. When it is dark, he comes out to forage.
The moment I walk into the room, he dashes into his habitat. All I can see of him then are his antennae projecting out of the slit. And therein lies a great moral crisis for me.
My baser instincts guide me to kill him at sight. His shiny brown-black body, jointed legs and huge antennae make for a sight that has disgusted every human being that has ever lived. Periplaneta americana is among the fastest of runners and fliers in the living world, and has a sickening tendency to jump onto you. By the way, his scientific name would translate loosely from Latin as 'The American who is found all over the world'.
However, when it is just his antennae projecting from the slit, a different set of thoughts cross my mind. His antennae, scanning the environment for signs of danger or opportunity, tell a story of a little being, one amongst trillions making his way in a cruel world. Is he then, any different from me, who is himself another inconsequential being trying to make his place in the universe? Seen from the perspective of nature, is there any substantive difference between the lives that he and I lead?
He is a product of evolution, adapted to live in his niche. So am I. It just happens that I consider myself and my intelligence superior to his. But he does his job assigned by nature; I do mine. He was born, will live his life, and will die. So was I born, will live and die. Why should I be the one to snuff out his life? And what reason can I proffer?
That he is a pest, with the potential to cause harm? But then could he not proffer the same excuse, and indeed with a morally stronger charge? He could harm me only inadvertently in his struggle for subsistence, devoid of intent. I, on the other hand, will willfully murder him the moment I see him.
And yet I know, that if he dared come out, the ancient instincts in me that have preserved my race so far, will overwhelm my conscious thinking. I will then become an unthinking beast, driven to destroy. But as long as he stays in his hole, I have the luxury of measured thought. I can think of non-violence then.
Will I ever be able even to fight this battle between my instincts and my reason? Can I tread the path the greatest philosophers have taken? For did they not achieve this greatness by fighting just this singular battle?
If my reason prevails and I let him go, I can satisfy myself that I have some control over my instincts. But the opportunity is weak: one wrong move by him could trigger the very thoughtless instincts that I am now battling.
Till then, a wary peace stands between us.