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.