Kant Justify Breaking Biking Laws
By Jonathan Eggers and LASIS Staff
Pedestrians texting while crossing the streets. Taxis and delivery trucks whirling by at Autobahn speeds. If you thought navigating your way around New York City Streets was tricky, brace yourself for another threat – the unlawful biker.
According to the New York City Department of Transportation, commuter cycling in the city increased 262% from 2000 to 2010. I support the cyclist movement and its promotion of exercise, energy conservation, and getting where you want to go quickly. What I don’t support is disregard for bicycle safety laws.
I’d have thought no reasonable people would have supported a universal violation of these laws. I was wrong.
Randy Cohen, the original New York Times Magazine “Ethicist,” (and fodder for some past favorite LASIS stories—see here and here) recently wrote an article in the Times explaining why breaking these laws is ethical—he actually advises it.
It’s worth quoting from Mr. Cohen’s piece, “If Kant Were a New York Cyclist” just so you don’t think I’m taking him out of context:
“The rule-breaking cyclist that people decry: that’s me. I routinely run red lights, and so do you. I flout the law when I’m on my bike; you do it when you are on foot, at least if you are like most New Yorkers. My behavior vexes pedestrians, drivers and even some of my fellow cyclists. Similar conduct has stuck cyclists with tickets and court-ordered biking education classes.
“But although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical.”
That’s the opening of the piece. A bit later he says that, his “reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”
In other words, he straight up says, “I break the law, and so should you.”
This made no sense to me. And I admit I was on less than familiar terms with Kant’s categorical imperative. So before scoffing at his theory, I investigated. Now I can scoff.
Eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative can be boiled down to the following: in order for an action to be acceptable in society it must satisfy the principle of universality. (“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”) In other words, ask yourself if is it possible for everyone else to act in the same manner as you do without harming society? If so, you’ve passed “Go”—Kant’s categorical imperative theory.
Mr. Cohen’s article argues that members of society have an ethical responsibility not to act in a way that would harm others. Mr. Cohen uses this moral reasoning as a justification for rolling through red lights when no one appears to be around.
When nobody’s around, he says, no one can possibly be harmed by a disregard of traffic laws. He says that his disregard for traffic laws would pass “the test of Kant’s categorical imperative.”
Mr. Cohen has Kant’s philosophy absolutely backwards. If Mr. Cohen’s actions were adopted and bikers universally began to blow through stop signs and red lights whenever they thought it was safe, the outcome would likely be disastrous.
Everyone makes mistakes. We all can quite firmly believe the coast is clear—and it turn out not to be. And “I only do it when I know it’s safe” presumes that subjective determinations are universally reasonable.
In addition, of course, not adhering to traffic laws does harm society. A traffic light is a bright-line rule: when it’s red, you stop; green, you go; end of story. If a red light can mean merely “yield” to bicyclists, that puts the burden on vehicles with the right-of-way to be extra-cautious, because they are not sure whether or not the cyclist will stop. The line between “green light: go” and “green light: slam-on-the-breaks-every-so-often” becomes fuzzier. Forcing bicyclists to adhere to the same restrictions as four-wheeled vehicles standardizes road rules.
In support of his theory, Mr. Cohen points to Idaho law which has been much more lenient on cyclists, allowing them to treat stop signs as mere yields. Well, Mr. Cohen, I have news for you.
New York City ain’t Idaho!
According to the most recent census data, NYC’s population density packs over 27,000 people per square mile; compare that to Boise, Idaho’s largest city, which is less than 3,200. There are more people on the island of Manhattan alone than in the entire state of Idaho.
Mr. Cohen tries to ground his arguments in more than just old-fashioned philosophy. He explains that bicycle laws are unreasonable, mere “clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws.” (He also mentions that he would “hope” famous bike riders like Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer run red lights. He fails to mention that Justice Breyer has been in bicycle accidents at least twice—in fact, his being hit by a car in 1993 may have contributed to his then being passed over for a position on the bench in favor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
New York was the first state to adopt bicycle regulations into traffic and safety laws. The NY legislature in 1887 created what would be the first of many bicycle laws in response to a manufacturing boom that significantly decreased the price of bicycles, making them more affordable to all classes of society.
As the streets filled with new modes of transport and no on-the-books laws to regulate them, a clash occurred between cyclists and horse-buggy operators fighting for road space. The legislature recognized the safety implications—especially in Manhattan, where vulnerable pedestrians, then and now, make up the majority of the commuting traffic. It’s one of the reasons why New York City will not allow right turns on red, in deviation from the rest of the United States.
The roadway is a shared space with shared rights and while legislatures have been inclined to lump bicyclists with motor vehicles, they have done so out of legitimate concerns for safety and access. Perhaps an argument could be made that since so many bicycles roam the streets of New York, the law should be more favorable to their practices. Mr. Cohen would have done better to rely on the utilitarian theories of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham—interpreting the law to promote the greater good for the greatest number of people.
Or perhaps, even simpler, applying Aristotle’s Politics, if a law doesn’t make sense anymore, get the legislature to change it.
But the solution Mr. Cohen endorses — for riders to just ignore the laws and ride as they see fit — is both philosophically and practically unsound.