Honking “Go” at a Dangerous Intersection (part 2)

This post, obviously, is a follow-up to part 1, and presupposes what I said there. In post 1, I said I’d discuss some of the philosophical ramifications of the claims I’d made, one set bearing on moral epistemology, one on ethics, one on political philosophy.

This first one is on moral epistemology: I think the ethics of driving, and of traffic generally, is a remarkably fertile and underappreciated source of data for ethical reflection and knowledge. Part of it is that so many of us do so much of it, and anything we spend that much time doing is apt to generate its own ethical issues and reveal something about us. Part of it, though, is that driving is a self-contained mini-universe of activity with its own distinctive aims and norms. Being self-contained, it functions as a kind of naturalistic version of experimental ethics, which is why there’s such a gigantic social scientific literature devoted to it–spanning economics, political science, sociology, and psychology, among other disciplines. Being normatively distinctive, I’m inclined to think that driving is something like a ‘practice’ in the MacIntyrean sense of that term.

By a practice I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. Notre Dame University Press, 1997, p. 187.

Arguably, driving is not ‘cooperative’ in MacIntyre’s intended sense; every driver has his or her own individually-determined route and destination. But we might think of it as cooperative in the sense that good drivers cooperate to maintain a good environment for driving, however individualistic their activities. (So driving has an individualistic ‘common good’.) Again, arguably, driving doesn’t aim exclusively at internal goods–efficiency and safety, I suppose, being “external” to the virtues in MacIntyre’s sense– but it seems to me a defect in MacIntyre’s definition that it lays such weight on that unanalyzed notion (“internal good”). The rest of the definition applies in a fairly straightforward way, however.

One of the distinctive things about driving is the combination of rule-governed and virtue- (or vice-) governed activity it involves. The rules of the road are, in principle, determinate and clear, and the cases in which they’re not are interesting ones for precisely that reason. Further, the rules are an interesting study in defeasibly rigorous norms—Objectivists would say “contextually absolute principles”—that are thoroughly teleological in character. In other words, traffic rules are not typically side-constraints in Nozick’s sense (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 28-30): pace Nozickian side-constraints, safety, as a goal, is “built into” the constraints. Pace Nozick, however, it doesn’t follow that the goal-oriented character of traffic norms necessarily entails a maximizing structure, or entails some form of utilitarianism (or for that matter, a utilitarianism of rights). I’m not denying that some traffic norms have a maximizing/utilitarian form. It’s possible that many do. My point is that many don’t involve a maximizing/utilitarian structure, or at least need not be interpreted that way, despite not being Nozickian side-constraints.

To continue the original thought: however determinate the rules of the road, however, they leave room for the exercise of the virtues (and vices). There is, in other words, an ethos to good driving that is not reducible to the legal rules of the road. This ethos exhibits a certain degree of cultural relativity, but the relativity is constrained by a conception of moral objectivity that makes it possible to say that certain traffic rules are irrational by any standard, that certain action-types are immoral by any standard, that certain traits are virtues or vices no matter who or where you are, and that certain societies of roads and drivers are just dysfunctional regardless of their self-conception.

Having said that, I’d also say that driving counts as a counterexample to the commonly-held communitarian view that ‘rights’ can be eliminated in favor of, some other norm like the virtues. I would challenge any communitarian (or MacIntyrean, or Hegelian, etc.) to produce a full ethico-politics of driving that omitted reference to individual rights. To make the task more manageable: try coming up with an ethics of driving that does away with the idea of a ‘right of way’.

There’s more to say, but the bottom line is that the normative structure exemplified by (a large proper subset of) traffic rules is not, I think, easily characterizable in contemporary meta-ethical language: unexceptional but within a specified context; unexceptional within a context but defeasible and revisable; rights-oriented but also virtue-oriented and virtue-encouraging; teleological but non-maximizing; culturally relative (within limits) and yet objective. In this way, traffic rules are more like truth-conducive norms of epistemic justification, or the principles of good health, than they are like Nozickian side-constraints or maximizing principles. That fact gives them enormous (but underappreciated) philosophical interest, and makes them a potentially valuable source of moral knowledge (cf. Nozick, Anarchy, footnote to p. 29).

For reasons like the preceding, I’m inclined to think that ‘traffic ethics’ is, or could become, analogous to ‘sports ethics’ in moral philosophy, becoming a kind of sub-topic or -discipline of its own in just the way and for just the reasons that sports ethics has become one. There’s been some discussion of traffic ethics in the professional philosophical literature–mostly, as far as I can tell, involving speed limits, insurance, and issues pertaining to climate change, e.g., the desirability of hybrid or electric cars—but the book that really alerted me to the potential for the idea of an ethics of traffic was Tom Vanderbilt’s 2008 book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), a masterpiece of philosophical journalism that doesn’t, for better or worse (and insofar as I remember), make reference to a single work of philosophy. I highly recommend it, and look forward to the day when what it says can better be integrated with work in moral and political philosophy.

More next time on the selfishness (or not) of traffic assholes, rights, and a framework for traffic utopia.

3 thoughts on “Honking “Go” at a Dangerous Intersection (part 2)

  1. I agree that the ethics of driving is a potentially fertile ground awaiting cultivation, not so much for its own sake, but because, as you suggest, it is a practice that many of us engage in frequently and in which, I think, most of us can see what the right way to behave is; unlike, say, bioethics, driving isn’t an area where we might try to turn to ethics in order to deal with conflict and disagreement, but one we might turn to for insights into how practical rationality and rules work, just as you suggest. I’m especially intrigued, though, by two issues you raise in these two posts, since they intersect with my own work: common goods and rights.

    It seems to me that driving provides a straightforward case in which a plurality of people co-operate for the sake of a common good that is both entirely instrumental and straightforwardly divisible — I won’t say reducible, though I’m not sure I shouldn’t — to the good of the individuals involved. As such, driving constitutes a challenge to views like MacIntyre’s (and, closer to my own work, a whole lot of interpreters of Aristotle), which insist that genuinely common goods can be neither of these things. It is, of course, important if true that goods can be common in the more robust sense to which MacIntyre et al. want to restrict the term; but if there are instrumental and individualistic common goods that generate reasons of justice for the people who participate in the communities formed around those goods, then that will be as important a feature of human community and justice as the existence of the more robustly common goods, even if the latter are of greater ethical import. As it happens, I’m pushing this view in the interpretation of Aristotle in my current writing.

    As for rights, here I’m less sympathetic to what I take to be your view. We should, I think, distinguish between attempts to eliminate the concept of rights altogether from normative discourse and attempts to eliminate a conception of rights as a fundamental normative concept. As I read him, MacIntyre is less interested in the first than the second; he prefers to eliminate the language of rights because he sees no prospect for retaining that language while eradicating the conception of a right as fundamental that he rejects. I agree with you, I think, that talking about the ethics of driving without appealing to the concept of a right would be at best torturous and likely incoherent. We could, I think, come up with a set of terminology of which ‘a right’ would not be a member, but in one way or another our new language would still contain expressions of the concept of ‘a right,’ or something close enough. But I see no reason why we need to retain a notion of rights as fundamental, and plenty of reason why we should avoid any impulse we might have to embrace one.

    To clarify, by ‘fundamental’ I have in mind a notion of rights that would (a) explain why we have reason to act in certain ways towards others, and (b) would not be explained in turn by any distinctively practical considerations. This is, in fact, how rights-language often functions in everyday discourse: “Why shouldn’t I have a third-term abortion?” “Because the baby has a right to life.” Perhaps we might ask, “Well, why does the baby have a right to life?” We might get the response, “Because it is a human being!” or “because it is a person!” But I take it that these sorts of explanations are not distinctively practical, but metaphysical; they do not supply us with some further practical reason that explains why we should recognize this right, but offer us a metaphysical account of what makes someone a rights-bearer. I think MacIntyre et al. are right to think that this sort of conception of rights is ultimately incoherent, precisely because it tries to give a fundamental practical role to a thoroughly deontic notion.

    But driving is an excellent example of how a coherent and action-guiding conception of rights need not be fundamental, and helpfully shows, in a fairly uncontroversial and unpretentious way, how rights can depend on common goods, even if it isn’t the case that they must.

    Of course, that is perhaps just another way of putting what you had in mind when you describe driving as rights-oriented (as opposed to, say, ‘rights-based’) and observe that traffic rules are not well understood as side-constraints or maximizing principles. So it may be that my intuitive lack of sympathy is just a superficial effect of a different set of background interests.

    I trust that your trip to Nicaragua is generating more and more philosophical insight!


    • Thanks, that´s a great comment. I´ll respond to it when I get back home about a week from now. My trip to Nicaragua certainly is generating philosophical insight–in part because I finally have the time for theorizing, in part in response to what I´m experiencing here, and in part because I made sure to take some Aristotle along to read. But more when I get back.


    • This is a from awhile ago, but I found it very interesting and wanted to respond.

      On the whole, I agree that “driving isn’t an area where we might try to turn to ethics in order to deal with conflict and disagreement,” but in some significant cases, it is. I suppose this turns on how broadly one defines “the ethics of driving,” but there have been some interesting philosophical discussions re speed limits, and some on the fairness of the terms of car insurance policies and tort law (see e.g., the last chapter of Murphy and Coleman’s book, The Philosophy of Law).

      On rights: I think we’re agreeing. I had only meant to reject the strong eliminativist view you mention. I don’t myself regard rights as fundamental in the sense you describe (or in Mackie’s sense, either). If we’re disagreeing, I think it’s over the interpretation of MacIntyre’s view, which I think you describe too charitably. As I read him, MacIntyre wants to eliminate rights altogether from normative discourse. He himself is not particularly clear on the issue, but strong eliminativism is where I think he ultimately ends up. His most explicit account of rights comes in a very obscure paper, “Community, Law, and the Idiom and Rhetoric of Rights,” in Listening: A Journal of Religion and Culture vol 26 (1991). Oddly, the paper is not included in his Selected Essays, is not excerpted in Kelvin Knight’s MacIntyre Reader, and is not cited in Mark Murphy’s book Alasdair MacIntyre, but it makes MacIntyre’s eliminativist views transparent.

      On common goods, I think we might also have a subtle disagreement. I’ve already discussed my objections to the language of “instrumentality,” so I won’t rehash. I have similar objections to the language of “divisibility.”

      (1) In one sense, a common good cannot be divisible or reducible to the goods of those who constitute it. Take friendship or romance (or even a kiss). In a genuinely common good, the common goods are shared in a strong sense, so that one can’t divide it between the participants without subverting the identity of the thing shared. A kiss is not the sum of two utility functions, and neither is a friendship, a romantic relationship, or even a commitment to a profession.

      (2) But if a common good benefits every member who constitutes it, the preceding claim has to be made consistent with the fact that all parties to a common good benefit from it (as individuals), none lose out, and each is made better off than they would have been had they not participated. Demonstrating the individualized (or distributed) benefits of a putative common good presupposes some way of distinguishing the good of each separate person such that had some inferior arrangement been adopted, the same individuals would (as individuals) have lost out to some degree.

      One problem I have with discussions of reducibility/divisibility is that they seem to me to insist on the first point while ignoring the implications of the second. But both are true, and both have to be part of any account of common goods.

      Re the common good of driving, I should clarify that I’m including the following as part of “driving” in the broad sense:

      1. You’re driving very late at night, and come to a red light at an intersection where there are no cameras and no cops. There’s no traffic, either. (Add as many Ring of Gyges-type provisos as you like.) But you stop on principle.
      2. It’s night-time. Someone driving by you doesn’t have his lights on, so you flash him. But he’s driving by you, so it’s not directly a question of your safety whether or not he has his lights on.
      3. You get a ticket for a moving violation. You believe yourself innocent. It’s a lot of trouble to defend yourself in court, and less trouble just to negotiate with the prosecutor to eliminate the points on your license and pay the fine. But you fight it, on principle.
      4. There’s a dangerous intersection at Main and Broad. You go to the next Town Council meeting and demand that something be done about it. (It’s optional to the example whether you yourself use that intersection much.)
      5. You think that people drive too fast, so you campaign for lower speed limits. In the midst of the debate it’s brought to your attention that your proposal–the wider use of speed cameras–has serious flaws as currently implemented. You admit the point and resolve to solve both problems in your future efforts. (If you succeed, you may benefit yourself, but there is a high chance of failing, politically, since lots of variables are out of your control.)

      I’m not sure whether these are cases that you’re regard as objectionably instrumental or divisible, but it seems to me that they qualify as fully robust contributions to the common good.


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