Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Objects in the Road"

I know, I know: "Ethics at 6 in the morning??"" Where's my coffee?, you're thinking. Bear with me.

Andy Cline of Carbon Trace has a nice post up on thinking ethically about street traffic that puts things quite elegantly, I think, while at the same time exposing blind spots, as it were, in the thinking of otherwise decent people when it comes to their sharing the road with bicycles. Read the whole thing, of course, but here are some snippets:
I ask [students] to identify with one or more of the various theories of ethics or at least talk about something they found interesting. For many students these are their very first stabs at thinking about ethics on purpose.


Several students agreed with the idea that other human beings are not means to our own ends; they are ends in themselves. And I chimed in that living up to this deontological ethic would argue that, say, we should not treat people on the road (using whatever conveyance) as objects to be gotten around; rather we should treat them as people sharing a public space.

This is where the discussion gets interesting because acting in this way flies in the face of what the culture teaches us driving is and what the automobile — the machine itself — teaches that we should expect. And guess what? A big part of what the culture and the car teach us is that traffic laws are suggestions, enforcement is a hassle unless it’s happening to the other (object) guy, and 40,000 people dead per year is just the price you pay for a transportation system.

How do we change that?
Good ethicist that he is, Andy goes on to answer.

This struck me because, when I mentioned in one of my classes that I'm a cyclist, a student sort of blurted out, "I hate cyclists in the street." I took no offense and she didn't mean it personally--but that's precisely the problem: Her statement reveals indifference (at least, when she's in her car) to drivers other than herself. Yet, it's such a common attitude that I don't have a ready rebuttal to it. I mean, it's hard to rebut indifference. It's hard to get someone to see how indifference is potentially harmful to others.

I think, though, that Andy has provided me (and you, too--if you care, that is) with a means of doing this.

Of course, cyclists often also exhibit that same indifference via they way they regard the traffic (and the laws regulating that traffic), even as they insist on respect from motorists. This post is for those folks, too.

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