Randy Cohen, the former ethics columnist for The New York Times, is just as susceptible to ethical rationalization as the rest of us. Ethical rationalization occurs when you attempt to justify your questionable behavior with ethically fallacious (and often sanctimonious) argument.
As a transportation bicyclist and a professor who teaches media ethics (meaning I know at least a little something about the philosophy of ethics), allow me to point out why I think Cohen’s thinking in his recent Times op-ed about scofflaw bicycling is wrong.
Cohen admits to disobeying traffic regulations when he deems it in his best interests. He justifies it this way:
I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.
Two things leap out of this paragraph. First, he blithely brackets out other fundamental concerns — duty-based concerns, for example. Second, his faulty assertion that his behavior hurts no one ignores at least one other important way harm occurs other than by physical injury. I intend to argue here that he applies the wrong fundamental concern (consequences of his actions) given the context of traffic as an agreed-upon system. Cohen apparently thinks of traffic as a set of laws:
Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable. There aren’t enough cops to coerce everyone into obeying every law all the time. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.
Traffic is a system of regulations enforced by law. The regulations create the system of traffic. The regulations were adopted to create a system that might be safer given the introduction of the destructive automobile to city streets (see Fighting Traffic for a cogent description of the advent of traffic regulations). Cohen properly recognizes the destructive nature of the automobile and uses that recognition to bolster a claim that bicycles are a different kind of vehicle and, therefore, should not be held to the same regulations (or riders to the same behavior). He misunderstands what it means to be a part of a system.
I will not argue that our traffic system is perfect or ideal. And I do not claim that our current system is best for bicyclists in all circumstances. But I will claim that a system is necessary for the orderly and safe use of the streets by people using the various modes of transportation.
A fundamental purpose of a traffic system is to make human behavior predictable. The ability to predict the actions of other street users leads to trust, e.g. the system requires us to drive to the right, therefore that oncoming car is unlikely to hit me because the driver is subject to the same system. Subject to the system — i.e. I do not get to choose; I get to follow the rules if I choose to be part of the system. This is where Cohen’s teleological argument falls apart. His refusal (in certain circumstances) to follow the system makes his actions unpredictable and, therefore, a danger to those trusting the system to work — and not just a physical danger. He’s also setting a poor example to other users — something he should be especially cognizant of given his stature in the community of philosophers of ethics. Cohen wants you to think of “harm” in terms of injury. He does great harm in terms of social trust — the very product and purpose of the system of traffic regulations.
I contend that the proper fundamental concern of ethics to apply here is duty: We have a duty to our fellow traffic users to follow the system so that social trust — and the possibility of safety that follows — is maintained. We also have a duty to change the system if it is not working well. That’s a serious conversation we ought to have.
[On a personal note: I enjoyed Cohen's column in The New York Times. I have great respect for him. I have used his column many times in my media ethics class. His leaving the column has left a big hole in my Sunday mornings.]