A Gas Station Burns in the Forest: Illuminating Our Moral Legacy
David A. Shapiro
In this chapter David Shapiro takes a close look at the moral legacy we leave future generations, that is, the moral lessons that we will be remembered by. He writes about a trip he took with his father and a friend in a Winnebago, a huge expensive motor home. During the trip, a tragic incident at a national park leads him to look at his culture and wonder about people’s failure to take personal action in an emergency. In the end, the explosive opening is revisited, and Shapiro shares the impact that this event had on his life and on his relationship with his father.
Discerning right from wrong can present difficult choices, but Shapiro tries to cut through the ethical for to clarify our moral decisions. His thought-provoking, conversational guide to moral choices offers multiple insights. While he acknowledges how difficult ethical decisions can be, he also clearly sets down many ways to understand them and make them, whether they involve personal or professional considerations.
Shapiro states the explosion that took place in Glacier National Park in Montana where two of the gas nation named national brand and Y-Pay-Mor (YPM) were closed to each other. They stop their vehicle in from of the branded gas station where credit cards were accepted unlike in the YPM which was more traditional one. One of them (national brand) explodes after they moved filling their vehicle’s huge 32-gallon tank from a gas station with his father and his best friend. The writer could see a man burning, and another woman shouting for help whose baby was in the restroom. They left the spot without helping out the other people who were in fire. His father said there was nothing they can do, so they went straight to rangers and asked for help. The author asked his father if they should go back and offer help. His father was afraid for their loved ones and their children, so he kept away from the dangers. Questions came up in the author’s mind like did they do the right thing? What is the moral legacy of the choice they made? etc. and how society will be remembered?
Looking back at the incident many years later, he remembers two gas stations located at the entrance to the park. He views the two stations as a metaphor for the divisions in society. The clean, modern, safe but more expensive gas stations is a corporate franchise, one branch of thousands owned by a major oil company. The other is poor, dirty, and falling to pieces. The rich ones visit the former gas stations with their credit cards and pay more than the customers who visit the later one. Customers at the later pay by cash, drive ordinary vehicle and camp outside, in the tents or under the sky. Shapiro argues that tragedy strikes the poorer and weak ones, like the less affluent gas station. This is what he calls the way of the world. He asks “Why did YPM and not the other stations explode?” He believes that bad things always happen to the vulnerable and ‘underprivileged people, whether through negligence, conspiracy of just plain bad luck.’ He further argues that they could have done something to the burning man and the screaming woman whose child was burning in the restroom. He feels guilty for being selfish.
The author sharply attacks such modern tendency and calls for giving up fear of losing one’s kiths and kins. He says that fear of our beloved ones has colored our moral choices. We have learnt to remain silent when someone is in pains which are a testimony or proof to our lack of moral virtue known as courage. We seem to have forgotten our responsibility towards other fellow humans. No matter we don’t have idea or skill, at least the writer and his father could have done something to rescue the innocent people. Similarly, like the author’s father, we very often try to get away from the trouble by informing the concerned people. This is an escapist’s attitude which the writer condemns. Besides, it is our excuse to say that we are getting late to office or work, or it is getting dark, or we’re tired and hungry, or we have to go miles, from here, etc. In the name of survival we make many excuses to escape from our moral legacy. We are leaving similar legacy to our descendents who will react more immoral and irresponsible than we did.
Shapiro explores philosophy in everyday life. Throughout the book, Shapiro uses stories from his own life, as well as other real-life examples, to illuminate dilemmas that everyone faces. With them, Shapiro demonstrates the various “moral prisms” through which these dilemmas can be viewed and evaluated. In an era when values, virtue and morality are seemingly up for grabs, Shapiro’s “moral prisms” helps us evaluate and understand the complex world around us and to indeed choose the right thing to do. Above all, Shapiro makes a compelling case for virtuous behavior based upon our moral legacy, “in which the choices we make represent an authentic expression of our deepest values; in which our moral legacy really reflects how we would most like to be remembered.”