Poop bags, not bagpipes: insights from 18th century Scotland

In an earlier post I wondered at the curious way many dog walkers deal with their poop bags and what it reveals about how they think and what they believe. Not surprisingly, the reaction has been mixed.

‘Seriously? You’re interested in poop bags?’

So I was happy to come across the works of two leading figures of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment that seem to support my conclusions and even provide additional insights.

Not about littering. Taking a step back, and contrary to what you might assume, this subject is not about littering. In some ways it’s the opposite.

A bag nestles in a natural cradle.

Most of the poop bags I see down by the Potomac River—my main bag watching spot—have been carefully set by something, in something, on something, or tied to something—rocks, trees, signposts, whatever (see photo gallery Poop Bags of the Potomac—part II). They are not merely tossed like a beer can or a cigarette butt.

Why? People I’ve talked to say that it’s to make them easier for the dog pooper to find and retrieve at the end of his walk. Well OK, maybe, but. . .

In reality, many, if not most, of the bags are simply abandoned. A poop bag I see one day generally greets me on my next and subsequent visits, each time a little more flattened down and forlorn. If it’s disappeared, it’s mostly thanks to the ‘poop bag fairies,’ public spirited people, often bike patrol volunteers.

Before we meet our two Scotsmen, let’s take a quick look at how I have tried to make sense out of this so far.

High moral standards. I start from the premise that, for the most part, the protagonists are people who live around this area, which is the most upscale places in the nation. These are solid citizens, with impressive educational pedigrees, big houses, perfect lawns, high-achieving children, and professionally groomed dogs.

Official poop bag of
the National Park Service.

Our dog walker prides himself on his moral code and high standards in the matter of dog poop bags and everything else. He puts his bag down in a way that signals he will be back later to deal with it responsibly. That’s the kind of person he is. He is definitely not a litterer.

I’d go one step further. Since I’ve never actually seen a dog pooper set down his bag, I suspect that he chooses to perform his act out of public view. He’s like the true believer who prays in private, instead of putting on ostentatious displays of religiosity. It’s just him and the bag (and, of course, the dog).

At least up to this point, we could say that our dog pooper is a model of quiet virtue.

Sage of 18th Century
Edinburgh, Adam Smith
pondered the role
of morality in society.

‘Fit for society’. I believe that our first Scotsman, Adam Smith, would agree. We all know Smith for The Wealth of Nations, the Magna Carta of capitalism. But in many ways, his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was just as ground-breaking. Here he discusses economics a little, but mostly he examines what people believe, how they think, and their role in society.

Smith examined the relative merits of public vs. private morality, as exhibited by our dog pooper.

“Nature. . . endowed [man] not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men,” Smith wrote.

“The first desire could only have made him wish to appear to be fit for society. The second was necessary in order to render him anxious to be really fit. . . In every well-formed mind this second desire seems to be the strongest of the two. . .”

Smith concludes: “This self-approbation, if not the only, is at least the principal object, about which he can or ought to be anxious. The love of it, is the love of virtue.”

When dog poopers put their bags by, in, or on something, they are reaffirming their moral virtue, not to others, but to themselves.

‘Moral beauty’. But as we’ve seen, they often end up abandoning their bags. By the time the dog pooper returns to that stretch of trail, his mind is filled with other thoughts. He strides along, his dog trotting by his side.

How shall we judge a case like this, when personal moral standards don’t perform as advertised? Is our dog pooper, in fact, just a common litterer?

Adam Smith had nothing to say about this, so I turned instead to one of his Edinburgh colleagues, Henry Home, aka Lord Kames, a jurist.

Lord Kames, every
inch a jurist, examined the
the role of intent in
claims of moral rectitude.

Struggling through his essay Principles of Morality and Natural Religion I saw that, like Smith, Kames’s main interest was not just how people act, but also how they think.

As a pillar of the legal profession, Kames was interested in the importance of intent in judging whether a person deserves approbation or condemnation for a given action. If intent can be used in the courtroom to gauge the seriousness of a potential crime, it might be similarly dispositive as evidence of at least some degree of moral rectitude for dog walkers along the Potomac.

And sure enough, Kames maintained that a person must voluntarily intend to achieve some end as a precondition to establishing moral virtue, not just in issues of crime and punishment, but in that person’s broader relationship with society. He called it “moral beauty.”

“We approve …[good] ends as useful in themselves, but not as morally fit or right, where they are not considered as the result of intention,” he writes. “[M]oral beauty” proceeds from “intention, deliberation, and choice. . . ”

For Scottish dogs,
virtue means
maintaining steady bag
pressure.

So our delinquent dog pooper still can claim at least a shred of his self-perceived moral virtue.

All well and good. But how about the dog?

I turned again to Lord Kames’ essay.  While the issue of intent is of the upmost importance for humans, he wrote, “we discover very little of intention, deliberation and choice in the actions of inferior creatures.”

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