After narrowly escaping being run down by a biker in Brooklyn, I was not so receptive to Randy Cohen’s laissez-faire arguments
Wednesday 8 August 2012
Walking just a mile from my apartment to my parent’s house in Brooklyn, New York on Monday evening, I witnessed three bicyclists riding in an alarmingly dangerous manner: one nearly ran me over as he turned on a red light while I crossed a street; one was going the wrong way on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn’s busiest street; and one forced me to wait to cross on a green light because he ran a red without even slowing down, much less stopping. By the time I was safely indoors, I had decided that New York City ought to start much more aggressively enforcing the traffic laws on bicycles.
So, imagine my surprise when I got to my parents house, opened the New York Times Sunday Review, and saw that Randy Cohen, The New York Times Magazine’s erstwhile “ethicist”, had written an op-ed in favor of these irresponsible behaviors. To be sure, Cohen did not endorse each of the foolish choices, but his distinctions between the ones he proudly engages in and all others are pure sophistry. Cohen writes:
“But although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical … I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection – that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral 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.
“I am not anarchic; I heed most traffic laws. I do not ride on the sidewalk (OK, except for the final 25ft between the curb cut and my front door, and then with caution). I do not salmon – ie, ride against traffic.”
Cohen’s assertions rest on several false premises. The first is that only a physical injury to another person constitutes harming him or her. But Cohen himself admits that “My behavior vexes pedestrians, drivers and even some of my fellow cyclists.” Why is vexing someone not harming him? If you go around the city causing aggravation to your fellow citizens – whether by blasting loud music, disobeying traffic laws, littering, or whatever – you are causing harm to other individuals and to society as a whole. Whether or not you are behaving unethically, you are certainly behaving selfishly.
And when a bicyclist nearly hits me, as they frequently do, I feel more than just vexed: I feel momentarily scared. Obviously, accidents are worse than near-accidents, but shouldn’t bicyclists respect pedestrians enough not to frighten them by almost running them over?
Second, Cohen makes totally meaningless distinctions and pretends that he is somehow limiting himself to only the ethical violations of the law and infringements on other people’s space. Why is running a red light OK, but riding on the sidewalk or against traffic a step too far? Riding on the sidewalk is the same as running a red: you are entering the pedestrian’s legal space on a fast-moving, heavy metal object.
Suppose Cohen’s personal rules do actually avoid harming anyone else. Why does he think that he has the right to decide which laws he follows and which he doesn’t? Anyone can justify breaking the law in this way. How does Cohen know that every bicyclist who takes his advice will be as careful as he is to make sure no pedestrians are coming?
Contrary to Cohen’s assertion, he is indeed behaving anarchically – because the only natural endpoint of letting individuals decide which laws they will follow, and under what circumstances, is anarchy.
Finally, Cohen argues that pedestrians jaywalking is just as dangerous, possibly even more so, as a biker running a red light. This is self-evidently absurd. To state the obvious, pedestrians do not move as quickly, and their bodies are not as hard, as bicycles. Also, isn’t “two wrongs making a right” one of the most well-known of logical fallacies? If pedestrians are jaywalking right in front of bicyclists and causing collisions, or near collisions, they shouldn’t be, and the police should ticket them, as well.
Some bicyclists, such as Cohen, feel that – because biking is better for the environment than driving – they enjoy a superior moral status to everyone else and they are therefore entitled to flout traffic laws. (Cohen makes this argument by implication, with an extended riff on how driving is unethical because of its negative externalities such as pollution.) This is why one can defend such antisocial behavior in the New York Times. Can you imagine the Times publishing a defense of selectively violating laws against littering or playing loud music late at night? Of course not – because in any other realm vexing your neighbors by breaking the law is understood to be rude and unacceptable.
What these self-righteous bikers fail to recognize is that New York is filled with fellow non-drivers who are seriously threatened by their behavior. It is, of course, better for the environment, public health and livable streets if more people bike and fewer drive. Public policies promoting biking instead of driving, such as creating bike lanes, are therefore commendable. But public support for these policies is undermined by bikers who threaten pedestrians, and even come up with ridiculous justifications, such as Cohen’s, for doing so.
If Cohen really wants to promote biking, he should obey the law, and urge his fellow riders to do the same.