by Jeff Polet
One of the most mistaken beliefs in our culture is the idea that technology is neutral in its application. One takes a risk, in Michigan, in suggesting that the automobile has been, on the whole, a social negative, but that’s precisely the argument I want to make.
I could point to the deleterious environmental impact of the automobile. I could point to the ways in which road systems have ruined landscapes, neighborhoods, and farms. I could point to the ways in which urban design has been perverted by the assumption that, as James Howard Kunstler has put it, every automobile ought to be made happy.
But instead, I’m going to focus on how the automobile has deepened one of the distinctive pathologies of mass society: the social estrangement and the corruption of morals.
The truth of this was driven home to me recently while I was driving I-196 between Holland and Grand Rapids. There has been a lot of construction on that road lately, which has required a narrowing of the expressway to one lane. This has caused significant congestion, but has also brought into relief those who refuse to play by the rules.
Social order is not held together by law, but by the customs, manners, and mores of a citizenry – what Tocqueville referred to as the “habits of the heart.” If you want to know how well-ordered a society is, look at how citizens behave when the veneer of law has cracked. A legal order defines public space narrowly, and when social life is conceived legalistically it devolves into a licentiousness which doesn’t nurture our nobler selves.
Such poisoning is exacerbated when individuals can operate under the cloak of anonymity. In that case, their truer selves come out. Living by the letter of the law becomes a fig leaf that barely covers self-interest. Where self-interest reigns, justice is in danger. A sense of fair play and deference to others yields to one’s own perceived need to “get ahead.” Hobbes replaces the Golden Rule (“do unto others what you would have them do unto you”) with the Silver Rule (‘don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you”), but “do what you can so long as it isn’t illegal” has no corresponding metal.
Most persons wouldn’t dream of cutting in line at a movie theater or at an office. It is understood that we should wait our turn, that fairness requires a kind of first-come, first-served policy, and that our claims are no weightier than that of anyone else. But mainly we fear the public opprobrium that would be showered upon us should we violate these social norms. We’d be hissed and booed and generally guilted into doing the right thing.
This is one way in which public life reinforces virtue. Best of all is doing the right thing because it is what you will. Second best is being guilted or shamed into doing the right thing. But a society of persons who can neither see nor choose the right, and neither can they be guilted into it, is lost indeed. Such intemperance is the enemy of a well-ordered liberty.
The saints and wise among us reflexively do what is right. Most of us require the props of public life to help us see what is right and then to egg us to its performance. The Greeks referred to a person who doesn’t engage the solicitous formation of public life as an idiotes (from which we get our word “idiot.”) They regarded such persons as selfish and ignorant, as lacking in virtue. The more private we become, the more idiotic we become.
Few things make us more idiotic than being behind the wheel of an automobile. Here, shielded by glass and steel against the incriminating glares and catcalls of our fellow citizens, we pursue, at high speed no less, self-centeredness without a whit of concern for others. I am referring, of course, to persons who, when traffic narrows to one lane, will insist on passing on the left, thus bypassing the queue. Such persons seem to think their time is more valuable than anyone else’s, that waiting in line like the rest of us poor schlubs is somehow beneath them. They violate one of the basic premises of justice as fairness. Obviously, the zipper merge is the best way to solve this problem, but all you need is one person to refuse to play by the rules and the whole thing falls apart.
Many of these individuals would never consider cutting in line at a movie theater, but they have no hesitation to do it on the road. Michigan could pass a law, difficult to enforce, making such spot-jumping illegal, but it’s a sign of disorder already that such a law might be needed.
Justice, like all virtues, needs to be habituated, it needs to be practiced in the little things in life. Persons who can’t be counted to behave justly except when the law requires are not persons you want for neighbors. Next time you see construction ahead and are frustrated with the snail’s pace, get in line.
An earlier version of this was published by The Bridge.
- What’s the difference between guilt, shame, and embarrassment, and how do they detract from or reinforce moral action.
- Why does participation in public life make us more virtuous? Is a society where people walk more likely to be virtuous than one where they drive?