Ethics on Wheels

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Ethics on Wheels


Two assumptions. First: Ethics involves the effect of our actions on others. There can be solitary sin. You can sit alone at home and covet your neighbor’s ox. But if you want to be unethical, you must get up, get dressed, go out and steal the ox. Ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved. When you drive in Manhattan, you harm those other people. A lot.

Next: Ethics involves actions that are volitional. If you live in Phoenix and you want to buy a newspaper or visit a friend or hold a job, you must drive (past a checkpoint where the cops demand to see your immigration papers). Here in Manhattan, you can walk to the corner for a paper, take the train to Brooklyn to visit your pals, bike to work. In Manhattan, driving is done by choice. A few reasons why it is a bad choice:

Cars kill. If you introduced a transportation system in the U.S. by declaring: “It’ll slaughter 30,000 people a year and hospitalize ten times that number,” it’s hard to believe it would catch on.

Cars kill in another way: in slow motion. Running over your neighbors is a quick way to kill them, but if you’re patient and work with other drivers, you can gradually kill even more people by so polluting the air that your neighbors keel over with hideous respiratory diseases. And by contributing to global warming, you can harm future generations. It’s a legacy.

Randy Cohen is the original writer of “The Ethicist” in the New York Times Magazine, a job he held for twelve years. His most recent book is ‘Be Good: how to navigate the ethics of everything’.

An earlier version of this piece was delivered as a talk at a T.A. fundraiser.

Cars distort foreign policy. To keep the oil flowing, we have a disconcerting tendency to invade other nations. Simply to maintain a navy to protect the shipping lanes (security guards for Exxon-Mobil) is enormously expensive, money that could be spent on schools, health care, refreshing glasses of Pinot Grigio.

Cars abuse scarce public space. I don’t put my swimsuits in a trunk and chain it to a tree in Central Park for the winter. Why should you store your Dodge Caravan on my block? Why is your private property in our public space? Even the greenest of green cars, one that runs on hydrogen or batteries or happy thoughts, is still a car: you have to park it somewhere, and keep circling the block until you do.

Cars marginalize the old and the young. A transit system that excludes 30 percent of the population is dubious indeed. If you are under 16, over 80ish, blind or otherwise physically challenged, you probably don’t drive. This is a bit of a cheat: few babies take the subway by themselves. They’re too weak to push the turnstile. But the principle holds.

Cars make you angry. When you walk to work, there’s no “sidewalk rage,” but locked in that metal box, people go nuts. If it were just your mood, that would be between you and your therapist. But the enraged too often shoot people, and that’s ethics. Or the lack of ethics.

Cars make you fat. Because you don’t walk to work, because you drive everywhere, because you lead a sedentary life. With obesity comes diabetes and other maladies, imposing a huge cost, financial and social, on other people.

Cars make you lonely. Isolated in that cell on wheels, you have fewer opportunities for the chance encounters that invigorate daily life. And when you get home, after your soul-crushing nine-hour commute, the car isolates you further, because you live way out in some horrible suburb, a consequence of the sprawl caused by cars themselves. The private car is a rolling circular argument, creating the very problems it purports to solve.

City life might include a role for the private car, but it is a minor supporting role, not the starring part it has held for generations.