From the Archive: A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Continuing along the thread of music and the experience of systems and of movement, here is a post that appeared on my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, on November 11, 2011. In it, I draw from half-remembered conversations from grad school to inform an elucidation of the fluidity of movement and the transparency of technical artifacts when we are using them.

(This post was followed, a few days later, by a more technical post based on an attempt to read Husserl.)

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A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Yesterday morning, I was discussing risk and risk perception with my engineering ethics class, focusing on the distinction between the risk expert’s quantitative approach to risk (risk = probability of harm x magnitude of harm) with the lay public’s qualitative and experiential approach to risk.

There are a number of reasons, I noted, why Americans regularly accept the relatively high risk of injury or death from automobile accidents (with ~40,000 car-related deaths in the United States every year), but are skittish about flying in airplanes and exposure to other risks that are, statistically, of much lower probability.

People are generally more likely to accept risks they take on voluntarily, for example, than risks that are imposed without their consent. People are also more likely to accept familiar risks than those that are novel. They may also, I speculated, be more willing to accept risks when they have a sense of being in control of their own fate. In fact, when we are in a familiar circumstance with a sense of being in control, we may not even perceive a given activity as risky at all.

There is little in American experience more familiar than driving and riding in automobiles, and we seldom feel more in control of our own fates than when we are behind the wheel. Continue reading

The Music of Movement

Thinking about the convergence of ethics and music, I was reminded of a passage in Oliver Sacks’s A Leg to Stand On.

The book recounts Sacks’s own experience as a patient, recovering from a severe injury to his left leg.

He describes experiencing his leg as an alien thing, little more than a pillar of chalk attached to him but unconnected to him, no longer part of his bodily experience of himself. Then, in an extraordinary ten-minute period during a physiotherapy session, his sense of his own leg began to come back to him, dramatically and, at first, erratically.

But then his therapists urge him to walk, and he simply cannot imagine how it is to be done. With some prompting, he is able to move a few steps, but only hesitantly and mechanically, relying entirely on visual cues.

. . . as if I was operating a peculiarly clumsy, and unstable, robotic contraption, an absolutely ludicrous artificial leg. I cannot convey, except in this way, how strange this pseudo-walking was – how entirely lacking in any sense, and, conversely, how overloaded with a painstaking mechanical exactitude and caution. I found it a matter of the most elaborate and exhausting and tedious computation. It was locomotion of a sort, but unanimal, unhuman (p.144.)

Continue reading

The Music of Systems

As I continue to mull over possible connection between ethical experience and music, I came across a passage suggesting that systems have a kind of music to them.

I provided students in my environmental ethics class with a few excerpts from Donella M. Meadows’ very useful book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer. The last chapter, “Living In a World of Systems,” provides insights from general systems theory as to how best to go about working to change systems of all kinds.

One section in particular caught my eye:

Getting the Beat of the System

Continue reading

What a Field Guide Is For

Thinking about my maybe-project of writing A Field Guide to Basic Values, it occurs to me I should be ready to say something about the very idea of a field guide.

When I first took up birding, at the age of 12, I leaned very heavily on the battered old field guide I had available to me, at least until I could save up enough allowance to get my first Peterson guide.

Every new discovery would send me shuffling through the book, nearly at random.

I figured out almost immediately that water birds were at the front of the book and songbirds at the back, with hawks and owls in between, but for finer distinctions I was stumbling around blindly. Continue reading

Saving St. Aldo

There is a long-running debate in the field of environmental ethics between Bryan Norton and J. Baird Callicott over the meaning and the legacy of the works of Aldo Leopold.

I have been a near observer of one side of this debate, as Bryan’s office was, until his retirement last year, just around the corner from mine.

To throw around a lot of technical jargon, while Callicott reads Leopold as a moral monist espousing a form of ecocentrism, Norton reads Leopold as instead seeking to foster a pluralistic pragmatism that is compatible with or encompasses the more generous varieties of anthropocentrism.

In more ordinary terms, Callicott thinks environmental ethics needs to produce a single, compelling moral theory (that’s “monism”) that includes acknowledgement that non-human living things, and especially, ecological systems have value in themselves (that’s “ecocentrism”). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Death By Robot

“Death by robot is an undignified death, Peter Asaro, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said in a speech in May at a United Nations conference on conventional weapons in Geneva. A machine ‘is not capable of considering the value of those human lives’ that it is about to end, he told the group. ‘And if they’re not capable of that and we allow them to kill people under the law, then we all lose dignity, in the way that if we permit slavery, it’s not just the suffering of those who are slaves but all of humanity that suffers the indignity that there are any slaves at all.'” – Robin Marantz Henig, “Death By Robot“, in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine.

This gets close to what I was trying to say in my recent post on self-driving cars, at least in that it offers an alternative to the usual default discourse of utilitarian calculation. Continue reading