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The Ethical Gulf from the Car to the Human

Pedestrian The moment we get behind the wheel of a car, we become something different, a new form of life we are so familiar with it doesn't even register as strange on any level. Yet the cyborg we become when we are augmented by the car is no longer solely human, and is so distanced from the human as to possess an entirely different ethical perspective.

When we think of ethics in the context of cars we might be inclined to talk of the way one driver behaves towards another, or the moral dimensions of building these environmentally damaging devices. I don't wish to deny the relevance of these ethical scenarios, but what I am trying to draw attention to is subtler and more pervasive.

Imagine a visitor to your town from a remote hill tribe who has never seen a car before. What must they learn just to avoid injury or death? You must teach them to stay out of the way of the cars on the road, to cross only at designated areas on the major roads, and also that there's a risk of death for not behaving in these ways. How do they understand such instruction? Might it not seem to them that the car (or the driver of the car) has higher status and must be paid deference, and possibly also that the penalty for transgressing this custom is death?

We treat our strange dependence on motorised vehicles as natural because we have lived with it our whole lives and see the trade off between pedestrian and driver as symmetric: we are all drivers sometimes, pedestrians other times, and so this arrangement seems equitable. But this story obscures the way that the car driver is afforded additional powers and privileges that come at the expense of the pedestrian.

Ivan Illich made the point that the driver of the car is complicit in a theft of time from those around them. By blocking access on foot, humans must walk further to reach destinations; they must wait for permission to cross roads, and are flatly denied access to large tracts of land where cars rule supreme. The faster vehicles always have higher status - cars wait for trains, for instance. There is a hierarchy of traffic and the human possesses the lowest rung on the ladder. Illich made the point that motorised transport has a radical monopoly: there is no possibility of questioning its use, so communities become committed to infrastructures that make the car necessary. The car is not inherently essential – but the way we lay out our settlements makes the car unavoidable. This is the radical monopoly.

We thus live in cultures where despite our commitment to ideals of fairness and equality, we are neither fair nor equitable when the car encounters the human. The human is inherently lesser in this encounter, an inequity we stomach simply because we expect that soon our roles will be reversed. The individual committed to foot travel is a second class citizen, the person who cannot afford a car is a mere peasant next to the driver. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States where the pedestrian can be physically denied access to even adjacent plots of public land, and arrested for jaywalking if they cross between them on foot. If they do not have a license to drive a car on their person they can further be charged with vagrancy. The drivers license becomes an essential component in a person's status as a legitimate citizen, and the car a required cost of true citizenship since without one much of the nation is literally forbidden to them.

In the ethical gulf between the driver and the pedestrian, we value the cyborg above the human, and in the process place a high hidden cost on equal status, thus undermining any claim to equality. The driver is not equal to the pedestrian in our societies, but a lesser form of life who must obey the dictates of the wheeled cyborgs or risk disapproval, incarceration or even death. The cars are our masters, and our only choice is between collaboration and submission.


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I suspect reality is a bit more prosaic. Even the most primitive tribes understand the concept of "get out of the way of something larger than I am", usually relating to large animals. One doesn't have to give deference to an elephant to not want to be trampled by one!

In day to day life, the reason for separating cars and pedestrians is because of physics. A heavy, fast-moving object cannot stop as easily as a lighter, slow-moving one. So, we have laws where the momentum of a vehicle generally determines its right of way (where cars have to stop for trains, etc.)

My thoughts.

Psychochild: "...the reason for separating cars and pedestrians is because of physics"

I totally disagree with this claim. The physics is utterly subordinate to the situation itself - in order for the physics to even be in play, you must already be committed to using the faster moving transportation as the basis of your infrastructure, and this is neither inevitable nor required - and certainly does not depend upon physics! :)

"One doesn't have to give deference to an elephant to not want to be trampled by one!"

Neither does one assign elephant paths such high infrastructure priority that pedestrians have to constantly give way to elephants. :) Prior to the car, roads were equally accessible to pedestrians as they were to wheeled transport - the horse and cart did not present the same problem as the motorized car.

It is the rising speed of transport which has banished the human from much of our urban land, while simultaneously trapping a large number of people in their cars during peak transit times. Building more roads doesn't alleviate this problem - making cars the mandatory basis of infrastructure guarantees an ever growing crisis of access. Some cities (particularly in Europe) alleviate this by providing excellent provision for cyclists, for instance, but where this hasn't been done the traffic problem continues to worsen, and nobody benefits but the corporate concerns who profit from the radical monopoly.

The point of the hill tribe example was to try and give a basis for stepping outside of what we take for granted - this isn't easy to do, particularly in the context of cars. I almost mounted it with Wittgenstein's martian, but I don't think this would have made it any easier to get at the shift in imagination required to see the issue I'm flagging here.

You turned to physics to escape this issue - because the car has such kinetic energy it must be afforded safety concerns. This is correct as far as it goes - but it doesn't answer the question of why we have afforded such priority to these kinetically charged objects in the first place. It was not inevitable that our urban infrastructures would go this way, and indeed if city planners had even considered structuring these spaces with less priority given to cars we would be in a very different kind of world.

Thanks for sharing your perspective! I still think the ethical gulf I flag here is a genuine issue, although I admit to pushing the boat out a little far - largely to try and get someone to bite. :)

First, I agree that people tend to not step outside of their perspective to consider different points of view. But, we're game developers so we tend not to fall into that particular trap. Further, any role-playing gamer tends to be able to at least glimpse things from another point of view.

As for horses, people still got trampled by them. One shouldn't dash out in front of a horse-drawn carriage without considering the possibility of being dashed to pieces. As I understand it, the first traffic signals were used to moderate horse-powered traffic.

Also, the modern car didn't spring forth as the monster we're familiar with today. It started out as slow and cranky, something that was a novelty compared to reliable horses. The slowly improved, became a better alternative to horses, and eventually got fast enough to kill someone in a collision. At that point, it was better to create rules of right-of-way to reduce fatalities.

As for explaining infrastructure development, at least in the U.S. this is easily explained: it's motivated by profit. See the movie Who Killed the Electric Car for modern information, or take a look at to see how we got started on this road, so to speak. ;)

So, once we had the profit-motivated infrastructure, then we have people who just go with the flow because that's how modern society works. I still see it as a rather prosaic explanation, as I said before.

Some fair points you raise here, Brian - the carriage did cause fatalities... but then the carriage also embodied the wealth and ethical gulf I allude to here, so I don't think this necessarily weakens my arguments so much as widens it's historical scope. Perhaps the carriage marks the beginning (or accelerating) of this gap.

"So, once we had the profit-motivated infrastructure, then we have people who just go with the flow because that's how modern society works."

I certainly agree that this was and is part of the problem (and Illich would agree) but we didn't have to go along with it - we bought into the dream that was being sold to us willingly, without really appreciating what we were getting ourselves into.

Even now, it's striking that car manufacturers tend to produce advertisements in which their car appears on its own upon the roads, as if you really were buying the freedom of the road when you purchase an automobile. But as any city dweller knows, this is nothing more than a fantasy. :) For most automotive commuters, it's become a nightmare that you must pay handsomely to suffer.

Although this piece was an attempt to find an ethical dimension to car ownership, I think the basic argument generalizes to a number of different technologies - the internet-ready computer, for instance, has some similar ethical implications (as the British government and others have noticed in terms of the disadvantage those who cannot afford internet access suffer) - but at least in this case the infrastructure issues are reversible and non-disruptive, not to mention the cost of entry is comparatively low.

The Western lifestyle offers a dream of luxury, assisted by all our tools and robots - yet the ethical costs of this dream is seldom faced head on. I think we're almost unable to look at it directly. Like some kind of creature from the Cthulhu Mythos, it lurks just beyond sight in the corners of our minds...

Take care!

You may have been just trying to provoke with this post, but I have been saying the same thing for years and with complete seriousness. It saddens me that every modern country looks and behaves more or less the same because the entire world has welcomed cars as the dominant force. And as someone who enjoys a good walk in the rain, it saddens me that we've totally discarded our feet as a way of getting around.

Mory: although this was a deliberate attempt to provoke a response, it was not feigned. I do believe that the domination of the car is an ethical issue in the terms I have raised here, and one that we simply don't want to look in the eyes (or headlights).

As more and more cities grind to a halt as the untenable fantasies of 'cars for all' and 'cars for everywhere' collide, we may (I hope) reach a place where rethinking our infrastructure decisions becomes necessary.

All the best,


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