An Ethicist Walks to Work

A few months ago, something that happened on my morning commute provided an example of moral perception I could use in class later that day: what it’s like to see the ethical texture of an entirely mundane situation.

I was walking along North Avenue on my way from the transit station to my office on campus. Alongside the stadium, I approach a driveway that leads to a parking garage.

There was a car on the other side of the avenue attempting to turn left into the drive, across two very busy lanes. I checked over my shoulder and saw a gap in the traffic that would allow the car to turn safely . . . at just about the moment I’d be walking across the drive.

Traffic was already building up behind the driver waiting to turn and, given the usual run of rush-hour traffic in Atlanta, small delays like that can quickly add up to larger problems.

On the surface, my options are to stop, to continue walking, or to sprint across the drive.

I stopped and waved for the driver to make the turn onto the driveway in front of me.

Thinking about my decision to stop, it seemed to me many different kinds of values were in play, though three broad considerations stood out for me.

First, I had the right of way. By law, the driver is required to yield to me if I am crossing the driveway at the moment she or he is attempting to turn. As a (small-d) democrat, I consider that law as binding on me and on others, a matter of mutual recognition among free moral beings.

I yielded my right of way voluntarily, which is significant.

Second, I may have been in danger. Had I attempted to cross, the driver attempting to turn may or may not have seen me. So, stopping may have been a matter of prudence . . . though I could just as easily have made a timely dash across the driveway.

Third, by stopping, I may have made many people’s morning commutes just a little less irksome. Had the driver attempting the turn not been able to take advantage of the gap in the traffic, she or he may have been sitting there, delaying traffic in the other direction, for several minutes. Given the way the transportation system in Atlanta functions (or fails to function), anything that keeps traffic moving makes people a little better off.

As an addition to that third point, it also occurred to me that I could empathize with the driver: I really hate making left turns across heavy traffic, and would be grateful if others were to make it even a little easier to do so. In this, then, reciprocity (a matter of the right) converges with benefiting others (a matter of the good.)

The point I made to my students, in spelling all this out, is that I really didn’t think all this through explicitly and in detail before I made the decision to stop and wave the driver through. Rather, I just perceived the situation a particular way, perceived the connections woven through it – the connections among people, among institutions, among technological systems – and acted in response to what I perceived.

It’s just that my awareness had already been tuned a particular way by spending so much time experiencing and studying and thinking about values and connections.

For example, why did it even occur to me to check over my shoulder when I saw that someone wanted to turn left across traffic?

I’m not saying mine was the only, or the most appropriate, or the most admirable response; the point I made to my students really was only about the nature of the perception and the response, the very idea that ethical values might work their way into everyday awareness, and that they might be relevant in how a person walks to work.

I’ll have more to say about walking, from time to time. In fact, for my next post, I’d like to consider a hypothetical encounter between a pedestrian and a self-driving car.

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