Episode 134 – “You Drive”

Moral philosophy, or ethics, concerns norms of right action.  One way to try to characterize actions that are right, or morally permissible, is as actions that don’t violate the norms of right action. This characterization is empty, unless we can say more about what makes an action right, or more about what counts as a violation of our norms. Rather than starting with a positive characterization of what is right, it is sometimes easier to begin with recognizing things that are wrong. If we can say why they are wrong, we maybe able to begin to articulate the norms that they violate. “You Drive” provides us with an excellent starting point.

Oliver Pope is a distracted driver. That’s clearly his first wrong action. As a driver, he is responsible not only for his own safety, but that of everyone in the vicinity of his moving vehicle.  Oliver violates the norms of good driving. But are the norms of driving moral norms? Is Oliver doing something wrong in this stronger sense, or is he just a bad driver?  Suppose Oliver was not distracted, but was driving with just one hand on the steering wheel, rather than having both hands on the wheel, as he ought? Would he be doing something morally wrong, or is this just a violation of driving etiquette?

These questions reveal that we talk about norms or standards of behavior in different ways, that there are different kinds of norms. Often we can keep these differences in their own corners. There are norms of bread baking, but violating those norms doesn’t make one a bad person. Driving norms may be different. If violating the norms of good driving leads to dangerous behavior on the road, then we might characterize such behavior as irresponsible. If driving with one hand on the steering wheel leads to an accident that wouldn’t have occurred if both hands had been on the wheel, we might conclude that the driver indeed did something wrong, that is, he put another person in danger unnecessarily.

Oliver’s distracted driving is the cause of the collision of his moving vehicle with a teenage bicyclist. The act of hitting the teenager is not a separate act from the act of driving while distracted, and so while it is correct to say that Oliver hit the teenage bicyclist, we shouldn’t say that he undertook the act of hitting the cyclist. That’s not because he didn’t intend to hit the cyclist. He certainly didn’t have that intention, but he also didn’t intend to drive while distracted. We don’t assess the collision as a separate act because it is the consequence of a prior act, and it is that prior act for which we hold Oliver responsible, regardless of his intent or lack of intent.

Immediately after the collision, Oliver does something right: He parks the car and runs over to the stricken boy.  But then he immediately does something wrong: He runs to his car, gets back in and drives away. Serling doesn’t mince words. He describes Oliver Pope as a “businessman turned killer.” Oliver’s new status as killer may not even depend on his distracted driving. Even if the cyclist is at fault, Oliver’s abandonment of a gravely injured person is a clear violation of our moral norms. Olivier is morally (and legally) required to seek medical attention for the fallen teen.

The requirement of seeking medical aide for the injured party may not hold for mere bystanders. There is a bystander in this case, and it is clear that she does assist. But she’s may not be morally or legally obligated to do so. Her action is right, and even laudable, even though her failure to act as she does might not could as morally wrong.

Some would disagree. How could a bystander to such an event fail to render assistance? If our intuitions take us to requiring active assistance in events where we’re not directly involved, what are the limits of such obligations, and what are the reasons supporting those limits? Some would say that the beneficent bystander goes above and beyond the call of duty, that her act is supererogatory. It is the goal of moral theorizing to figure out where obligation begins and ends,  at both “ends,” at the junction of right and wrong, and at the junction of right and the supererogatory.

Once he has resolved to abandon the scene, Oliver is faced with the task of sustaining that resolve. It is this phenomenon, that of sustaining and nurturing a decision to do something morally terrible, that is the subject of the episode. Sustaining the terrible decision entails lying to family and colleagues, changing other aspects of his behavior and demeanor, and even worse. The good Samaritan who witnessed Oliver’s vehicle leaving the scene of the crime misidentifies Oliver’s colleague as the hit and run driver. Oliver chooses to do nothing. It is in his self-interest to see the colleague whom he views as a threat at work, convicted of the crime Oliver committed.

Can Oliver get away with it? Can he sustain the deception and live with it? As it turns out, Oliver can’t, but that doesn’t mean that no one can. Oliver transfers his conscience to his car, or better put, he imagines that he is engaged in a dialogue with his car, also causally implicated in the accident. The car knows right from wrong, and eventually wins the argument, but not without a struggle, and ultimately, not without some degree of mercy for the accused. The story presents an ultimately rosy picture of human nature. Our psychic constitution is incompatible with sustained evil. Conscience will eventually win out. Again, that this can be generalized beyond the case of Oliver Pope is suggested, but not proven.

We’ve noted that the eye-witness at the scene testifies with certainty that Pope’s colleague is the hit and run driver, and that this is incorrect. Epistemologists and psychologists have, in the last few decades, begun to study the phenomenon of testimony closely, and to attempt to assess its role as a source of evidence both in everyday and scientific knowledge claims, and in legal contexts.  Cases like the one represented in this episode are more common than we previously thought.

Further Reading:

Gert, B., (1966), The Moral Rules: A New Rational Foundation for Morality, Harper Torchbooks.

Hardwig, J., (1991), “The Role of Trust in Knowledge” The Journal of Philosophy 88, 12, 693-708.


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