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Moral Moments

The Right Way to Make a Left Turn

by Joel Marks

I love roundabouts. Whenever I visit England, the first thing I do is rent a car and head out into the countryside. Even though the driving is sinister, I have no difficulty adapting. But I positively look forward to the traffic circles on the roads and in the towns. They are such a pleasant change from the obligatory stop and wait at intersections in the US. How many hours, days, seeming years I have spent sitting at stop lights at otherwise deserted crossroads!

Of course most of us are spending an ever-increasing percentage of our lives behind the wheel of an automobile, whether stop or go. To while away the time, people are importing ever more elaborate entertainment systems into their cars: first it was radios, then tape players, then CD players, then phones, now even TVs and computers. As a philosopher, however, I prefer conversation if I have a companion, and reflection if I don’t. And what I have discovered is that the whole of ethics can be derived from traffic observations.

Consider again those accursed American intersections. One consequence of their design is that you must wait even after the light has changed to green in order to make a turn across oncoming traffic (which to us means when turning to the left). But if you want to proceed straight ahead, no problem, right? Wrong.

Suppose you are second in line behind a car that wants to turn. Typically there is room to pull over to the right and pass, but only if the turning car has pulled over far enough to the left. Not infrequently the first car fails to do so; hence you, and everyone behind you, are needlessly stuck for the duration.

“Learn how to drive!” oft leaves my lips on such occasions. But might I not as well have said, “Do the right thing”? For while there must be some rule in driving manuals about pulling over to the left when making a left turn, is it not also the case that this procedure could be inferred from a moral precept?

Indeed, from any one of many. Are you a fan of the Golden Rule? Then surely you would pull to the left to accommodate others because you would want others to do the same to accommodate you. Are you a utilitarian? Then you would realize that pulling to the left maximizes the amount of good in the world. Are you a Kantian? Then you would recognize that, by hogging the road, you would be treating those behind you merely as a means and not as ends-in-themselves. Do you
practice Zen? Then you would be aware of not only your own desire to turn but also the desires of others to travel straight ahead. And so on.

Similarly it is incumbent on the first and all subsequent drivers in line to keep to the left as much as possible, in case someone behind wishes to make a right turn while the light is still red, which is legal in most localities in the States.

Now, ethics as a whole includes not only morality but also prudence. Thus, sometimes it happens that the car at the front of the line and about to make a left turn is pulled over far enough, but the driver has neglected to activate the turn signal (or decided to turn only at the last moment? or the car has a faulty signal light?). Then you could still be stuck when the light changes, if you have not left enough room between your car and the one in front because you had falsely assumed the
other would continue straight on. So morality dictates always using the turn signal, but prudence dictates always leaving room; and hence ethics dictates both.

Yet another cause of needless waiting at an American intersection is the inability to make a right turn, simply because traffic coming from the right is turning too sharply to their left, leaving you no room to maneuver. When traffic is especially busy the effect can be to completely undercut the temporal and energy efficiency of right-turn-on-red laws. Thus, again, utilitarianism would object to the inconvenience to the blocked driver as well as the consequent environmental
degradation, Kantianism to the disregard of the blocked driver’s personhood, Zen to the lack of awareness thereof, etc. And from these observations yet another rule could be extracted: Whenever turning left at an intersection, fully enter the intersection before turning.

I could keep multiplying rules of the road ad infinitum, sufficiently to make any legislator or bureaucrat or highway patrol officer happy, or any teenager dread being tested by the motor vehicle department. But is there not a benign corollary to the driving-and-ethics connection? Rules are visible signs of an underlying principle. If one could grasp the principle, therefore, one would have a short-cut to learning all of the rules, or even be able to bypass them, as well as generate indefinitely many more as new situations presented themselves. In other words, a principle conveys understanding of a rule or rules. Furthermore, if the principle is a genuinely ethical one, then presumably the understanding it conveys will be motivating.

I hereby venture, then, the modest proposal that driver education should incorporate a healthy dose of basic ethical theory. No, ethics cannot totally substitute for learning driving rules. For one thing, there are non-ethical rules, such as “A yellow light means you should be prepared to stop.” Secondly, there is always a tradeoff between rules and principles – even in pure logic – because the fewer the rules, the longer the inferences. So while ‘in theory’ it may be possible to derive the entire ethics of driving from a single principle, it would take too long to do so on every occasion.

But should we supplement the rules of the road with a little ethical instruction? Or make it a prerequisite? By all means. And while we’re at it … how about doing that for all of the rest of life as well?

© Joel Marks 2001

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. The Moral Moments website is at www.moralmoments.com.

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