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To beat a dead horse

I was sitting in lecture the other day. Planning the route I would take on my run after class, I caught just a few words of my professor's lesson. As he repeated his conclusion, my professor muttered “not to beat a dead horse, but…” And that’s when I began to ponder: why, exactly, does our parlance stigmatize the beating of dead horses? What’s so wrong with that?

Sure, it’s implausible that I would come across a dead horse, or have any reason to want to beat it. You have to admit, though, it is possible. I picture an afternoon jog at the Al Buehler trail. There’s a slight chill in the air, but it complements the sweat my body exudes. I venture off the path to pee in the woods when I see it: a beautiful brown Thoroughbred with a bullet hole in its side and a blood-soaked mane. Looking closer, I see a bent leg and piece it all together. Some race horse owner must have checked the stables one morning and seen his prized stallion (named Charisma or some other horse name) with a broken leg. To put it out of its misery, the owner shot it, and somehow it ended up in the Duke Forest. Maybe I need an outlet for my rage, or maybe I want to be contrarian against my lecturer’s cliches, but I feel the sudden urge to give the beast before me a kick. Conventional wisdom tells me there isn’t much of a rationale to beat the horse, but even outside of my imagined world I am paralyzed wondering what I would do in such a scenario.

To provide some perspective, I wanted to reach out to some other Duke students. I asked my vegan friend, Leonie Jones, her thoughts on whether I could beat a dead horse or not if I ever came across one. “I'm not really sure what the context of this question is, but in terms of veganism, the bigger issues in my opinion are fighting against the continued torture, mass imprisonment and killing of billions of sentient beings,” she said, before I remembered that she goes to Durham University in the United Kingdom and not the university in Durham, North Carolina whose students I had wanted to question. As I reread her Facebook messenger response, I could imagine her saying it to me in her British accent and quickly realized my mistake. She added, though, “I wouldn't say it was particularly ethical because although the horse is already dead, I'd still see it as an act of clear disrespect towards the animal and its suffering.” Although Leonie isn’t a Duke student, she brings up a good point—perhaps I do need to consider this question from an ethical perspective.

With ethics in mind, I turned to Duke’s most ambiguous and inexplicably wealthy resource—the Kenan Institute for Ethics. I emailed the first professor I found on Kenan’s website, asking if it’s ethical to beat a dead horse. A minute later, I got an “out of office” email in response.

Facing this rejection, I turned to my second choice: Sarah Jacobs, a friend I made during Project Arts freshman year who mentioned to me that she’s taking a course in Kenan next semester. In response to the same question I posed the professor, she texted me a longer response than I expected: “Well, Jordan, to answer that timely question, I must look to our ethical forefathers. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, sufferer of horrible unethical punishment under the Gulag system, once said ‘even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn't the will to do what is right.’ In my interpretation, the horse, in this case, is dead, and therefore, defenseless. As such, the defenseless horse cannot do what is right, for the horse itself is indeed, dead. The horse cannot make the rational decision of whether or not to beat itself, and therefore, the vital decision of whether or not to beat the dead horse is left in our hands. With the weight of this responsibility on our shoulders, we must act with the will that the valiant stallion would have wanted. What that is, I leave to the horse to decide.”

In the classic ethical tradition, Sarah provided some powerful words that ultimately left me with more questions than answers. I was only left to look inward to find the truth I sought. Disillusioned, I found myself at rock bottom instead. If the systems that millions turn to for moral guidance, like veganism and ethics, couldn’t give me answers, what could? Is there such a thing as truth in the world, anyways? Is my search for naught? Are you supposed to do three questions in a series, or four?

From rock bottom, I stood up and looked around. The scene before me looked just like the clearing in the forest I envisioned from my lecture. And that’s when I began to realize—maybe life is a search for answers, and I can relish in the boundless purgatory of the departed colt. In a way, to seek veracity in a steed that prompts simple violence is to conquer that which it begs of you. Maybe the vegans and the ethicists of the world have a point, then. The greatest philosophers have spent their lives finding meaning and truth in the dead horses they saw. As Plato once said that Socrates said, “all I know is that I know nothing [about what to do if I see a dead horse].” I may know nothing, but I refuse to cease my search. I will not run from that horse when I see it. When you come across your metaphorical Charisma, that vexing beast in its glorious infinitude, in the Al Buehler trail of your life, will you beat it, or will you let it beat you?

Jordan Diamond is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.


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