The Problem of Pragmatism: Musings on a Sewer Mess

Sewer Hole

On a Saturday evening, I was playing basketball in my driveway with a few friends when one of them asked, “What’s that leaking in your garage?”  I noticed a few leaks and rushed upstairs to investigate.  Water covered our hardwood floors from the first-floor bathroom to the front door.  The toiled had overflowed when my wife, who was upstairs, drained the tub after giving my two daughters a bath.  This was evidence that the problem was not in the toilet, but in our main sewer line.

Plumbers discovered, through the use of a special camera, that tree roots had grown into the sewer pipe at the point the smaller pipe from our home meets the larger pipe from the city main line – a junction called ‘the tap.’ The only permanent solution was to repair this part of the line. Because the pipe runs through a section of our yard that slopes up to the street, the tap is buried deep – at least 10 feet under the ground.   This was going to be an expensive mess!

Two weeks later (delayed by days of rain), our big dig began.  What we found was shocking:  a large crack ran along the larger city pipe (called the ‘sewer lateral’) that allowed roots to invade, which caused a nearly three-foot-long mass of roots and organic matter from our sewage to form and almost completely block the pipe.  It was worse than we imagined!  It was plain to us that this juncture was not sealed correctly when it was originally installed.  The evidence showed clearly that a crack had been there from the beginning.

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My first experience with a major plumbing crisis has prompted a couple of philosophical reflections I would like to share with you.

1. The criteria ‘as long as it does not harm anyone’ leads to poor moral judgments.

While it is true the good moral actions benefit people and bad morals harm people, we can never know all the consequences of our actions, for often we are not around to experience them.  It is thus impossible for us to weigh the costs of an action accurately and so we should not base our judgments solely on such a calculation.

A better way is to do what is right simply because it is right (doing good for goodness’ sake).  The biblical principle of ‘working heartily as unto the Lord and not onto men’ would have a construction worker lay sewer pipe in the best way possible both out of concern for the homeowner but also to please God with excellent work.

2.  Knowing often, if not always, requires trust in authoritative guides and responsible risk-taking.

Dealing with a plumbing problem is similar to the experience of going to the auto mechanic:  you are utterly dependent on the expert to know what is wrong and what must be done to fix it.  While the plumber showed me the roots on the camera (because I asked to see), there were a number of possible ways to fix it short of digging it up (which was the most expensive option!).   I had to trust their word about the severity of the problem was and about what to do about it.  There was no way to be certain about which solution was best or to predict what would happen if we did not dig it up and replace it.  I had to make a decision based on the clues I had before me and accept responsibility for being wrong.

More importantly, perhaps, I now feel deeply grateful for the proper functioning of basic utilities.  Flushing the toilet without fear has been liberating!

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