On ethics, and the use of art.

The blog post about driving and texting (“This is not going to work” by Seth Godin) argues that the use of art will fail to change the culture. He argues the use of regulatory mechanisms and force, to prevent people from driving and texting. His argument goes along the lines of: “Art will not work. We have to use force to prevent people from texting. Let us turn it into a technology problem.” Yes, we can turn this from a moral choice to a technology problem, but it will not solve the bigger issue. What is the bigger issue? How we, as a society deal with human choices that might result in tragedy. In general.

Let us take driving. In general, driving a car might results in a tragedy. And it does. On regular basis. Yet, we do not ban driving. Why? Because the benefit of people driving “outweighs” the costs. What is the cost? The cost is in people injured or killed in car accidents (on average in 2011, 89 people were killed on the roadways of the U.S. each day). How can you measure the benefit and the cost? What is the cost of a human life? How can you make the decision? When would the cost outweigh the benefit? How you measure the benefit?

Utilitarian morality and ethics rely on this type of calculations. We say: “let us ban texting while a phone is moving because the costs, the accidental deaths caused by people texting and driving are not worth the benefits”.  His perspective is not an isolated one. When discussing this topic with students the majority of them hold somewhat utilitarian perspective of what is fair, what is just, and how morality and ethics should work. Many consider the use of utilitarianism when making decisions.

The underlying assumption for utilitarian morality is the maxim of “always picking the lesser evil”, and many people agree that state and the legal system should enforce such a model. Is this the only valid perspective? Is it the one that will maximize the happiness in our societies in the long run? (*)

The story of Reggie Shaw and Megan O’Dell is so powerful not only because it is about a family, and about irrational and tragic death caused by 19-year old careless teenager driving and texting. It is so powerful because it is about remorse, about doing the right thing after making a mistake with such enormous consequences, it is about forgiveness and it is also about bond, that we have, as human being with one another. The story of hatred, transformation and friendship between Reggie and Megan is a big deal here. This story is powerful and it can transform lives of people eaten by regret and hatred. There is no utility measure that can deal with that.

Texting and driving is the wrong behaviour, and none should do it. No exception. But the use of force, the limitation of liberties is a wrong thing to advocate. Telling the story, discussing it with your kids, with students and friends, is a powerful mechanism that can, and it will make the difference.

Never text while driving. 


(*) I think life without choices would not be worth living. I think utilitarian perspective is flawed, and dangerous, leads to potential abuse, and should be avoided. Deontological ethics is a school of thought closer to my heart. Rules that are setup and agreed by a society as a whole, work better in a long run.

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