On Helping My Daughter Learn to Drive

I’ve noted already that things I learn in private life sometimes converge with what I’m thinking about in my professional life, and this morning brought an especially complex tangle of such convergences.

(I am a practical ethicist, though, so I suppose some spill-over is inevitable. In fact, I used to observe that it’s very hard for me not to talk shop in social situations, since the whole world of human experience is shop.)

My older daughter is 15 and has her instructional permit for driving. I took her out this morning to the parking lot of a nearby mall so should could continue getting used to being behind the wheel and developing basic skills.

We’ve been to the parking lot several times in recent months, but at irregular intervals, so her progress toward competence is slow. She is improving, though.

I was talking to her, as I drove home, about what it’s like to be an experienced driver.

It’s a matter of paying attention, I told her. More than that, it’s a matter of having ingrained habits of paying attention. So, if I’m at an intersection or driveway trying to turn right, I have to be sure to glance to the right before I hit the accelerator, in case a pedestrian is crossing in front of the car.I told her, in fact, that driving well is a matter of noticing what’s important, responding appropriately, and being able to think clearly when you need to.

What I notice, though, is that she already has much of the cognitive skill she needs to be a skilled driver, just from being a human being making her way in the world, including an attentiveness to other people. Granted, she now mainly worries about other cars because of the way they complicate the situation she needs to respond to – that’s why we go to an empty parking lot on a Sunday morning! – but she’s also thinking about the people driving those cars, their motives and intentions, their well-being.

From what she says about them, she’s aware that, in her more erratic moments behind the wheel, she may pose a danger to them, and it concerns her.

Part of what troubles me about self-driving cars is the absence of that immediate and natural concern. A human being who acted only on cold calculations of utility while faking an external show of concern might well be regarded as a moral monster. Could that be why autonomous robots could be regarded as uncanny or just creepy? Would autonomous robots be moral monsters from the first?

It has occurred to me that too much training in moral philosophy, too much thinking about the trolley problem, for example, might push one toward a kind of monstrosity.

When I was talking with my daughter about driving, this morning, I also noted that playing music with other people is very much the same: noticing, responding and, when necessary, thinking.

I picked up on the connection between music and ethics in a week-long class on improvisation with Joe Craven, who focused from the first on the development of particular cognitive skills of receiving and sending, which are very much like what I’ve been calling noticing and responding.

In that class, we didn’t do much at all with music theory, which is the thinking part of playing music, being able to stop and analyze a chord progression, for example.

Of course, what I would aim for, in the end, as a musician and as a driver and as a social being, is not to have to stop and think too often, but to be practiced and experienced enough that everything just flows.

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