Evicting the Hawks

Some behavior isn’t illegal, or dishonest, or vicious, or violent, or clearly unfair. Some people’s behavior is, rather, unethical because it is just plain rotten, the kind of conduct that should prompt four ghosts to seriously consider spoiling their Christmas Eve.

This is the kind of conduct recently engaged in by the residents of the co-op at 927 Fifth Avenue at 74th Street in New York City, just across from Central Park. They directed workers to destroy the large nest of New York’s red-tailed hawk family, and remove the structure that supported it. The wealthy residents of the building (which include Mary Tyler Moore, who, Ethics Scoreboard is relieved to report, opposed the actions of her co-op mates) considered the hawks’ larger-than-your-typical-pigeon-size droppings a nuisance, it seems, and they were tired of being traumatized by the occasional sight of the raptors’ half-eaten prey.

The hawk family had built a large nest on the side of their building, twelve stories up, a decade ago. The return of the large winged predators had been written about in National Geographic, and discussed on NPR, and been the topic of one of those wordless nature essays they use to close the CBS Sunday magazine show, “Sunday Morning.” The resilient hawk family spawned a book, and dozens of essays and stories that expressed joy at the miracle of nature finding a way back to the Concrete Jungle. Most of all, the hawks brought wonder to children, bird-watchers and tourists, and exhilaration to those residents of Gotham who still were capable of appreciating nature.

But the hawks annoyed the co-op residents, so the birds had to go. By removing the nest, the residents broke no laws; they had every right to do it. There is no clearer example of the demarcation between law and ethics. The presence of the hawks had given pleasure to thousands, maybe millions; it aggravated a relative few. Still, those few chose to value their convenience over the quality of life of a city. This is the essence of unethical behavior, really: placing one’s own comfort, advancement, pleasure, preferences and objectives above those of anyone and everyone else, no matter how minor the benefit, or how great the loss to others.

We see more and more of this behavior in American life. Cities sweep street artists and musicians from our parks and sidewalks because some consider them, like the inconvenient hawks, a nuisance. Colorful public Christmas displays that once were highlights of the Christmas season are shut down by lawsuits brought by people who would never visit them anyway, while schools fear to let their students sing the lovely traditional Christmas carols lest the ACLU attack that harmless tradition as attempting to “establish” a religion. Children’s games that gave kids pleasure for generations are banned in schools and on the playgrounds because adults find them too “competitive” or “violent.” And an uplifting and patriotic movie like “Saving Private Ryan” (my 10 year old’s favorite film) can’t be broadcast in some areas because a group with an agenda decides to protest its use of harsh language. There are hundreds of such examples, and they all involve Americans willfully depriving other Americans of pleasure because they have the power to do so. Whether these acts are motivated by principle, or a political agenda, or fear of bird droppings, or just selfishness, they are not ethical, because ethics necessarily requires that we consider the pleasure and welfare of others. If we can allow others their pleasures by minimizing our own displeasure (avoid the Christmas display; don’t watch the movie; don’t play dodgeball in the living room), that is the ethical course.

Next time, let the hawks stay.

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