A hungry bike rider’s dilemma

Consider this moral dilemma:

It is a warm fall late-afternoon and you are on the final leg of a fairly grueling bike ride. It’s been several hours since breakfast and there was really no time or appetite for lunch. Riding along, in the midst of the reds and yellows of autumn you spy a tree of red spheres. Yes, apples. Plump, ripe apples. The perfect remedy for a fast-encroaching hunger.

The problem is you’re riding along a public highway and it’s unclear as to whom the apples belong. The tree is in the ditch between the property line and the road, holding forth the possibility that these apples belong in the public domain. Who owns an apple tree that isn’t within the boundaries of private property? All of us? In this instance, certainly the hungry bike rider would have a legitimate claim on at least one apple, if not the entire tree.

But such judgments are not clear. There is no town official or judge to issue a ruling. Only dozens, maybe hundreds, of apples, many on the verge of falling lose from the tree and plopping to the ground with the slightest jiggle, as several already have, a few clearly nibbled by deer or other creatures. If deer can have their fill, why not you?

As you look upon this wonderful specter of fall and the temptation it evokes, you recall a young St. Augustine and his guilt-panged encounter with fruit. It was a pear that Augustine couldn’t resist and it’s natural in this instance to compare apples and pears, if not oranges. Augustine goes on at length in his Confessions as to the intense guilt brought on by his theft of some pears and certainly an otherwise innocent cyclist, at least when it comes to the thievery of fruit, does not want to follow a similar path. But Augustine’s transgression was different. He wasn’t even hungry when he stole the pears. He didn’t eat them, even though he acknowledges how beautiful they looked. His was a crime, a sin, he acknowledges prompted by the prodding of friends and aspirations of youthful miscreancy.

Taking an apple from this tree would not be comparable to Augustine’s sinful nabbing of a pear from a neighbor’s tree. He knew the owner and it was not he. He wasn’t even hungry and you are so hungry that those dozens of apples within your reach are beginning to make your mouth water. Augustine sinned, as he would confess, and he goes on at great length in his begging of God for mercy. What of that applies to these apples?

Except that you don’t know whose fruit this is and tempting apples, as well as pears, have caused trouble before.

And so you resolve to leave the apples for others, or more likely no one other than deer, to enjoy. You take an unsatiating sip from your water bottle and resume the journey, almost able to taste one of those apples left hanging on the tree, and wondering if taking one would have been the worst thing in the world and wishing that all moral dilemmas were as inconsequential as this one. TL


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