Randy Cohen's article about the ethics of Idaho stop-style jaybiking (ISJ) led to quite a bit of discussion on the internet yesterday, and while I think Cohen's piece did make a weak defense of ISJ, the criticism misses the mark as well.
Cohen's piece goes a long way to make one subtle point.
But although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical....A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one.
He also claims that if meets the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant who's categorical imperative was "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law" because Cohen wants everyone to behave as he does.
Now, I'm not sure if we can all agree that Kant's moral philosophy is so prevalent or accepted that it is all we need to decide the ethics of certain behavior, but nonetheless, it is Cohen's point.
Felix Salmon misses this. He focuses first on another line
“I flout the law when I’m on my bike,” he writes; “you do it when you are on foot, at least if you are like most New Yorkers.”
This, of course, is one of the weakest ethical defenses imaginable: if lots of other people are flouting the law, that doesn’t give anybody else the ethical right to do so, let alone the legal right.
Salmon would be right, if this were Cohen's defense. It isn't. When Cohen writes that all cyclists should ride like he does, Salmon also misses the point of that and the reference to Kant.
The “should” at the end of this passage is utterly indefensible. At best, Cohen has demonstrated that he’s causing no harm to others (although I’ll take issue with that in a moment). But if Cohen is doing something illegal — which, by his own admission he is — then he needs something much stronger than “no harm to others” before he urges such behavior on all other cyclists.
What Cohen is arguing is that the Idaho Stop should be legal. That's the should. And in so doing, he's arguing that he's meeting Kant's first formulation that how he acts is what should be universal law. So he isn't arguing so much that people break the law, but that the law be changed. This is the point of the end of his column
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.
Cohen is saying the law should be changed, and until then he'll break it.
Salmon then stakes out an alternate position from Cohen's. Where Cohen argues that it is OK to break the law if it causes no harm, Salmon says it is OK to break the law only when following it causes harm. You may or may not agree with one of them.
Salmon then pulls out the old "If we follow the law, we can get the respect of drivers" appeasement strategy. But as he notes, what really annoys drivers is when cyclists are in the road in front of them and slow them down. My experience is that this, not ISJ, is what keeps us from getting "respect" from the minority of drivers who do the bulk of complaining. So if you really want to appease the fringe of drivers who fail to respect cyclists, you're going to have to get out of the road.
Salmon somehow tries to distinguish between jaybiking and jaywalking by arguing that peds fear cars. And cyclists don't? He seems to be arguing that because pedestrians don't want to walk down the middle of the street, it's OK for them to jaywalk - which is in contrast to his rule above that "it is OK to break the law only when following it causes harm."
Salmon writes of Cohen
Doesn’t he understand that in order for New York to work as a cycling city, cyclists will have to stop taking the law into their own hands?
Doesn't Salmon understand that Cohen wants to bring New York cyclist into compliance by making normal, safe cycling behavior legal?
Salmon also tries to argue the slippery slope. But Cohen has a reasonable limiting factor - he only does the things that cause no harm and that he thinks every cyclists should be free to do. That Salmon doesn't believe Cohen can do this is irrelevant. Who should I trust more on how Cohen behaves - Salmon or Cohen?
That Salmon then admits that he jaybikes removes all his ability to preach to us about how it
behooves all cyclists to adhere to the law as it stands, even if they’re convinced that they’re doing no harm.
At least Cohen follows his own rules.
Eric Jaffe dedicates much of his column on the question of why cyclists run red lights.
In an upcoming issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention the researchers cite three main reasons for the behavior: the need to turn, the failure of a signal to recognize them at an intersection, and the absence of others on the road.
As for breaking a law you don't agree with, readers are left to decide for themselves whether Cohen's actions are indeed ethical. Sure, some riders will exercise great judgment and save time. Then again others will make poor decisions and create more confusion (and, toward bike riders, resentment) than already exists on city streets. Some traffic laws may be inefficient or just plain wrong, but letting everyone on the road decide which ones to honor doesn't seem all that right.
But that's already the situation we have. Everyone decides which laws to honor right now. Most cyclists choose to not obey red lights and stop signs, and most police choose not to enforce it and some places have chosen to make that legal. Most drivers have chosen to obey traffic lights (but not stop signs). Considering how willing drivers are to break traffic laws, the question Jaffee should be asking is "Why don't drivers run red lights the way that cyclists do?" I think the answer to that has nothing to do with ethical drivers, but their knowledge that it's orders of magnitude more dangerous - to them - to do so. It is a matter of self-preservation, not high moral fiber.
And the argument that we shouldn't slip in to anarchy, where everyone decides which laws to follows, is not an argument against Cohen's position. Again, he has a limiting factor.
But there is another argument for why ISJ may, in fact, not be ethical. And that is that it does cause harm if done where it's illegal. One could make an argument that breaking the law - even a minor law like this that is basically unenforced and carries only a $25 fine in DC - tears at the fabric of civilized society and in so doing is net negative. That is hard to prove or disprove, but it's not unreasonable.
Of course, there is also the argument that Cohen hints at. Driving a car - because of all of it's negative externalities (safety, pollution, resource consumption, land use, health, etc...) - is unethical (unless, I suppose, you make offsetting payments to cover the costs of these externalities).Certainly those negative externalities exceed the tug at civil society that jaybiking represents.
Now of course, the choice is not between driving a car and jaybiking. Nor is it necessarily jaybiking and riding legally. The choice is between jaybiking, riding legally and travelling by some other means, likely with higher externalities.
If we could turn on a machine that would make it impossible for cyclists to run red lights and stop signs, would it be smart to do so? Would it be ethical? What we would be doing is reducing the utility of bikes, without any likely safety gain. Some cyclists would surely continue to ride under the new paradigm, but other cyclists would opt out. Total utility would very likely go down.
The laws we currently have are the closest we can come to that machine. Cohen is arguing that we should turn it off, and that it is more ethical to do so. And I have to agree.