On Philosophy

July 21, 2006

The Philosophy of Traffic Jams

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:04 am

This piece is associated peripherally with yesterday’s post, so you may want to read that too if you like this post.

Some traffic jams occur because of accidents, sometimes lanes get closed, and sometimes people are just rubbernecking. I consider these kinds of traffic jams unavoidable. However traffic jams can also form simply because there are too many cars on the road. In theory it shouldn’t matter how many cars are on the road, if everyone drives at the speed limit, and leaves room before and after their car, there should be little reason for traffic to slow, except perhaps where lanes are forced to merge. Of course people don’t actually drive this way, instead they drive at different speeds, and when things start to slow down they change lanes frantically in order to try to find the fastest one. It is this behavior that causes and perpetuates “too-many-cars” traffic jams. Basically because each person’s driving is motivated by self-interest (they want to be in the fastest lane) the traffic jam is made worse and lasts longer than it should have to.

It is situations like this that demonstrate why we need ethics, because without such guides self-interest would become people’s primary motivation, and lead to problems for everybody. In my mind ethics is created, and needed, because of the existence of communities, not because it benefits individuals. However don’t think that I see utilitarianism as justified just because I said that the community was important; utilitarianism is aimed at maximizing the happiness of individuals, not of the community. In my eyes what is good for individuals is good for the community they are part of, and what is good for the community is good for the individuals that make it up (although not always maximally good for any particular individual). This may sound like an empty platitude, but consider how utilitarianism is willing to sacrifice a few individuals for the good of the rest. In my eyes this isn’t good for the community, at least not a community containing those individuals; to me it seems like utilitarianism would advocate kicking people out of the community when it would benefit the rest of the members. This I would say is an unethical attitude, because you can’t really kick someone out of a community, unless you deport them to some far off island where they will have no contact with the rest of the population.

But what is a community? Well I would say a community, loosely defined, is a group of people who interact with each other on a regular basis. This of course makes the borders of a community somewhat vague. For example you may interact with your neighbors on a daily basis, and your coworkers on the weekdays, but your neighbors don’t regularly interact with your coworkers. Thus I would say that what is considered a community for ethics should be reasonably broad, perhaps up to four or five degrees of separation. To see why consider the following situation: there are two communities (of one degree of separation), one community consists of A and B, and the other of B and C. Now lets say that A does something to hurt C, thus C’s community is hurt, and thus B is hurt, and thus A’s community is hurt, to some lesser extent. Because of this transitivity effect ethics should not allow such behavior, and hence needs a broad definition of community. Now that I have defined what a community is I can say more precisely the ethical principle we are considering here: it is ethical to act in the best interests of your community, and it is unethical to act against the best interests of your community. Following these principles will cause the community to thrive, and thus in turn benefit the ethical person, although these benefits may be smaller in some cases what the ethical person could have achieved by acting selfishly.

Now how does this relate to traffic jams? Well I would argue that our ethics, which most people learn through their upbringing, lags behind the situations modern people find themselves in. People who are all on the road together form a community, and that as members of the community we have an ethical duty to act in a way that is in the best interest of that community, which means driving at the speed limit, driving safely, and most importantly not driving selfishly*. Unfortunately until they start giving sermons on ethical driving in church I doubt that people will actually behave this way (because I don’t get that many visitors). Even so I will do my best to drive with the best interests of the community in mind, because what is the point of saying that something is ethical if you aren’t going to live by it?

*Or perhaps I am just bitter about being in traffic for two hours today.

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