As I understand it, the driver who rear-ended the bus my wife was involved in, got out of his vehicle, stepped onto the bus, and asked, “Is anybody hurt?” He then said, “I’m going to go move my vehicle.”
He then got into his vehicle and drove off.
I am not going to say that this story is accurate. For the purposes of this essay, it does not matter whether it is accurate. The mere possibility is enough to illustrate the points that I want to write about today.
When I was in high school, I became distracted by some fire engines and police cars at a nearby house. When I turned my attention back to the road, I found that I had drifted, and was near to rear-ending a parked car. I hit the breaks, and stopped before doing any damage.
I can well imagine the driver of that truck suffering the same lapse in judgment. And because of that momentary lapse, he hit a bus during rush hour.
According to what my wife told me, he then got out of his truck and came up to the back door of the bus. He asked, “Is anybody hurt?” He then said, “I’m going to move my truck. I’ll be right back.” Only he took off.
Again, I can well imagine an individual in that situation, seeing how much harm was done, suffering an overwhelming panic. I can imagine myself in that situation – with all of the things that I wanted to do in my life, and all of the things that I have tried to do – undone, with a short lapse in judgment.
“It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this.”
Of course, neither did the people on the bus – and the only thing they did was seek a ride home on public transportation. This is hardly an act worthy of being tossed around inside of a bus.
The real universe is indifferent to our survival, or to the quality of our lives. It simply does not care if a momentary lapse of judgment causes so much harm. It does not care if its laws create tsunamis and plagues that wipe out hundreds of thousands to millions of people who have done nothing wrong. The universe does not care, so it is up to us to care.
As much as I can understand what this imaginary driver (I do not know if any of these statements are true of the real incident), it is still important to assign moral responsibility for these momentary lapses in judgment.
There is an important difference between that imaginary driver and me. When I suffered through these near accidents while I was a teenager, I learned a lesson. Driving was a dangerous activity. I asked myself whether driving was so important that it was worth not only the price of a car and the gasoline that fueled it, but the potential for hitting a bus full of passengers. I can easily imagine driving down a street, seeing a kid on a bike as he rides out in front of my car, the crunch, and the mangled body laying on the pavement.
Those types of thoughts convinced me that I did not want to drive. When my first driver’s license expired, I did not renew it.
My wife does not drive either, by the way – because medical problems prohibit her from driving. So, our household does not have a vehicle of any type (unless you count bicycles),. We make our way on public transportation.
I saw another story that is similar to the case of the hapless driver. This story was about an individual who picked up a rock and tossed it over the edge of a cliff, then leaned over, just in time to see the rock strike a comber coming up the hill. The climber was killed instantly.
Luke Rodolph, who threw the rock, did not run. He did not try to claim that this was an accident. He confessed.
Again, I could imagine the horror of somebody who was basically a responsible person, suddenly discovering that he had done something horribly wrong. I can well imagine it because, as a young teenager, I once threw a rock over a cliff into a fog bank below. The fog cleared after that, and I saw that there was a road below me. There was nobody on the road at the time. I learned a valuable lesson. However, people could have died, and I would have been responsible.
The universe does not care about the size of the price tag that it attaches to the lessons it teaches.
It take the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people caught in the middle of an ill-planned war, or vacationing and living on the shores of the Indian Ocean, or a whole planet full of people wiped out by a celestial impact that some foresight and planning could have prevented.
It is sometimes argued that if a particular type of mistake is common – if anybody can do it – that it is wrong to hold people morally responsible for those mistakes. However, if a type of mistake puts a lot of people at risk of great harm, then we need stronger barriers – internal and external – against making those types of mistakes, not weaker. We have reason to make those mistakes less common by putting up stronger psychological barriers to committing those mistakes, not more common by telling people “It’s alright. It doesn’t matter.”
I argue that this is a significant problem for much of what passes for moral philosophy these days. Philosophers test their moral intuitions against highly contrived and almost-never-going-to-happen-in-the-real-world situations. Morality is not a discovery of properties inherent in nature and nothing for a special faculty of ‘moral intuition’ to pick out. It is an institution that aims to manipulate the desires of individuals to prevent them from creating real-world harms to real-world people in real-world possible circumstances.
I suspect that there is a far greater chance that my life, health, and well-being will is more at risk from some driver’s momentary lapse in judgment than from some doctor needing to take five organs to save five patients. As a result, I have far stronger reason to inhibit others from suffering these momentary lapses in judgment, than from refraining to kill me to harvest my organs, or to need to kill somebody else to save me from death. (The ‘need to kill’ part is important here. If doctors have sufficient organs coming in from voluntary sources this diminishes the magnitude of the significant. Furthermore, I will have the ability to reduce the risk further by promoting the voluntary contribution of one’s organs.
We have reason to be paying far more moral attention to those who are guilty of momentary lapses of judgment in every-day circumstances that could get people killed, then those whose sentiments might cause them to behave in appropriately under circumstances that will almost certainly never arise.