Driving a car is almost certainly the most dangerous thing that any of us do in our lives. Certainly, it’s the most dangerous to other people. Even the ghastly Mexican drug wars (60,000 killed since 2006) are not more lethal than the traffic there, which kills about 17,000 people every year.
So there’s no doubt that regulating drivers is part of any kind of utilitarian concept of morality, and certainly part of the essential functions of a state. Bad driving is wicked and antisocial under any recognised scheme of morality. I suppose you can argue that some speeding is entirely safe but in a country where the speed cameras are painted bright yellow anyone who fails to notice one is guilty at the very least of driving without proper concentration.
So how does all this look in practice?
One interesting thing is that there was no attempt by our lecturers to make explicit the moral dimensions of what we had done. I’m not saying there should have been. It wouldn’t have been effective. But the emphasis was entirely on self-interest and the unpleasant social and financial consequences of being caught again.
Related to this was the extraordinary lack of remorse or even interest shown by some of the participants.
The resentment of cheats is an interesting emotion. According to evolutionary accounts of morality envy and “spiteful punishment” are absolutely necessary emotions if our more selfless and co-operative instincts are to flourish. The problem of defectors and free riders (and who could ride more freely than a cyclist in London traffic?) is central to game theory. Co-operative strategies can only flourish, and co-operative instincts spread through evolution, so long as no one cheats and gains the benefits of co-operation without the costs.
I’m sure this is why Scandinavian societies were so conformist when they were egalitarian.
Car drivers, then, are an interesting example of a society, or a social game, where this mechanism does not apply. Like Russians under communism and after its fall, they have become anarchic individualists, held in line only by fear of punishment. They don’t see anything wrong in cheating, nor in other drivers cheating. Only in their hatred of cyclists is a vestigial mark of any moral sentiment.
I think this almost perfectly illustrates why the Founders were so interested in making sure religion flourished in our society. You see, there are always cheaters. And the tighter the regulatory and enforcement schemes become to eliminate them, the bigger the cheating. Thus irritating anti-social behavior like butting in line and running a red light morphs into murderous sprees in elementary schools. That is the bottom line out of the horror of Newtown last Friday – evil is real and always with us.
It takes some force other than law and regulation to deal with cheaters and hold a society together. I have mentioned before that I visited the Soviet Union in its penultimate days. It was, frankly, a society of cheaters. All that governmental force only created a society where law had little or no value. Only brutality kept it functioning. When I was there Gorbachev had allowed some religious practice to return. It was only that context that nice people were also decent people.
It is also worthy of note that England is a nation with a state recognized religion. Monopolistic religiosity is an expression of the same brute force as government absent religion. From such was the Reformation born.
Advent is extra important this year.