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Cars on the Carpet
Geoffrey Scarre responds to Tim Chappell with a qualified defence of motoring.
Tim Chappell ’s stimulating and impassioned diatribe against the motor-car (‘How to be Car- Free ’, Philosophy Now, Issue 8) will strike a chord with two non-exclusive classes of reader: those who share his dislike of the ubiquitous metal boxes on wheels, and those who consider it part of the philosopher ’s job to comment on issues of public importance. Belonging as I do to both of these classes, I should like to argue that Chappell ’s article, though rightly intentioned, presents a simplistic view of the issues, being flawed by false analogy and rhetorical exaggeration. We need to define the problem of the motor-car more finely than Chappell does before we can think sensibly about its solution.
Chappell contends that “our society … is psychologically addicted to the motor-car in a way analogous to, but even more damaging than, the way in which individuals can be psychologically addicted to cigarettes.” Resulting from this addiction are “self-deception and the perpetuation of false values on a massive scale.” Somehow or other we must break free of our addiction, and Chappell proposes to form a ‘Car- Free Movement ’ “to persuade people that they don ’t need cars as much as their addictedness to cars makes them imagine; that, in fact, as a rule, they don ’t need cars at all.” Our ultimate aim should be to reduce our car use, like our smoking, to nothing.
Sadly, there is more sound than substance to this analysis of our situation. There is little reason to think of modern man ’s love-affair with the motor-car as an addiction like those to cigarettes or alcohol. Most people are not so much addicted to their automobiles, or to life at the wheel, as hooked on the benefits which car-driving brings. Cars are generally seen not as ends in themselves but as means to the fulfilment of other ends. To list just a few of their obvious advantages: cars enable people to travel to interesting places and events they could not otherwise reach; they make it possible to take satisfying work or courses of study at considerable distances from home; they reduce (road conditions permitting!) the amount of time spent on journeys to the office, school or shops, leaving people with more leisure to pursue more rewarding activities than getting from A to B; they help geographically separated friends and family members to stay in touch with one another; they enable the elderly and disabled to have a life outside the home. They can also, more subtly, extend people ’s horizons by revealing that there is a world beyond their local city, county or country. Then besides these benefits of private car use are the many we enjoy (and take for granted) which rely on others ’ use of motor vehicles: the provision of police, fire and ambulance services; refuse collection, draincleaning and the transmission of mail; the nearinstant availability of specialists to repair our washing-machines, televisions and computers; the delivery of goods to our supermarkets and warehouses; and so on. To be sure, there are individuals who love the automobile for its own sake, and some (mainly teenage boys) who even steal cars to satisfy their lust for speed, power and excitement. They are the real addicts. But most people like cars not as they like drink or cigarettes, but as they do vacuum cleaners, food mixers and other useful gadgets.
However, cars have a serious debit-side. Their disadvantages are many and notorious. Motor vehicles kill and injure people, make them lazy through lack of exercise, cause noise and congestion in our city streets, promote the rape of the countryside by road-building schemes, and poison the very air we breathe. Most drastically, the emission of millions of tons of exhaust gases accelerates the greenhouse effect which threatens to extinguish life on earth. If we don ’t pay sufficient attention to these enormous costs of the car habit, we are certainly victims, as Chappell asserts, of false, or at least of poorly structured, values. Yet we shouldn ’t, in pointing out the costs, ignore, as Chappell does, the reality of the benefits. The real problem is to work out how to strike a balance between the pros and cons, saving what can be saved of the emancipating potential of the motor car while radically reducing its harmfulness. Unlike drugs or cigarettes, cars do, in numerous ways, enhance the quality of our lives, and it is quite rational (not a symptom of addiction) to seek to preserve those enriching features. Our dilemma arises because cars damage and destroy lives too. Chappell ’s only reaction to the dilemma is to issue the Utopian rallying-call of ‘Give up your car! ’ A more realistic and appealing response would be to investigate the prospects for less damaging provision of the benefits which cars bring.
What is needed is a campaign of practical and educative action on several fronts. We must build cleaner, more fuel-efficient and less polluting cars. We must lobby autophile governments to put fewer resources into new roads and more into schemes for cheap and efficient public (especially rail) transport. We should try to persuade drivers to cut down their superfluous journeys (one oughtn ’t to make two trips to the shops when one would do; better still, one could go on foot). We have to ensure that it is possible to walk and cycle safely in our urban areas, and convince doubters that it is not only physically and mentally invigorating to travel under one ’s own steam but involves no loss of dignity. The young need to understand that ownership of a car is not a required rite of passage to adulthood. Steps should be taken too to reduce the number of cars on our roads, though I am unsympathetic to Chappell ’s suggestion that there should be “steep road-tax and petrol increases” to achieve this; in a democracy we should not want the only cars on the roads to be Daimlers. (A fairer measure to the same end would be to refuse driving licences to the under-21s.)
There is nothing even slightly original in these proposals, but I suggest that they are more reasonable than Chappell ’s purely negative ‘solution. ’ If possible, we should retain the improvements to the quality of life which the motor car has brought us. Of course, people who do not need a car should do without one. But we must avoid rhetorical distortions of either the problems or their proper solutions. It isn ’t true that we are faced with an ‘us or them ’ situation, as Chappell implies when he says that “the wellbeing of humans and the well being of cars are in direct competition.” Cars do not have interests, and some of our human interests are well served by cars. But we also have interests which they badly damage. We should aim not at totally kicking the car habit, but at reforming it. Sensible car-use is no more impossible than sensible use of alcohol. The car is a curse if we let it become so, but, like the genie in the bottle, a good servant when handled with wisdom.
© Dr. G. Scarre 1994
Geoffrey Scarre lectures in philosophy at the University of Durham.