Kant and Crosswalks

In most cities I have been to in Germany, the majority of people who want to cross the street wait when the crosswalk light is red, regardless of if any cars or bikers can be seen down the whole stretch of the road or if it is late at night and no cars are expected to come. They just wait. There are even signs that say something like “Be a role model for children. Wait at a red light.” In contrast,  I would say the majority of people in America (at least in the East Coast) cross the street when they believe it is reasonable, even if the light is red. If there are no cars in plain sight, it is reasonable. If they are late for something, it is reasonable. While this difference between the two lands is seemingly innocuous, I can’t help but think that a deep philosophical difference underpins this phenomenon and others like it.

In broad strokes, there have been two big ethical traditions (excluding a third, Virtue Ethics, that I won’t cover here): Consequentialism, often realized through Utilitarianism, and Deontology. While big words and big ideas, they have relatively straightforward definitions:

Consequentialism is an ethical system where the consequences matter. For example, if someone asks me if a dress looks good, it may be ethically good to lie and say “yes”, because I believe that the consequences (in this case, that the person feels happy) are better than if I had told the truth (the person feels sad). In any kind of system where the consequences matter, we must necessarily make a calculation to determine if our decision is ethical or not. In any calculation, you need some way of valuing the things that are to be calculated. In other words, what exactly does it mean for something to be “worth it”? Utilitarianism is a concrete system of Consequentialism that answers this question through the notion of utility. Utility in this context is the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. Modern economics can be seen through this lens. Economic transactions are good because both parties are better off than they were before, or they wouldn’t have traded. It doesn’t really matter that much what they are trading, the fact that their respective utilities went up is a good thing and something we want to promote. This system is often intuitive, but like most things, can get into trouble at the extremes. While most people feel that it is ethically correct to divert a runaway train that is bound to kill 5 people two a track where it will only kill 1 person, thereby saving the lives of 4, many more people feel unsure when asked to kill 1 healthy person going to to the doctor for a regular checkup to save the 5 people there that each need one of 5 organs that the unlucky person could provide, even though the two cases appear to be logically extremely similar and it would be hard to point out any differences that should account for our change in attitudes.

The gut reaction in the doctor case is that people have a right not to be killed, even if the consequences are great. This view is much more deontological. Deontology, then, is an ethical system that has a set of rules that should not be broken no matter what. You have a right not to be killed regardless of the consequences. This system, while also intuitive in a lot of cases, runs into problems at the extremes as well. The most famous example is as follows: A person runs to your home in a panic, tells you that a killer is chasing them and asks for refuge. You oblige and moments later are met by another knock at the door. It is the killer and they ask if you have seen the refugee. In this case, it seems overwhelmingly intuitive that to lie is the correct decision. A deontological system that say lying is wrong, however, forces you even in this case to forget about the (huge!) consequences of your decision and to tell the truth, thereby directly leading to the death of the refugee.

In case this all seems abstract and typical philosophical hogwash, consider that according to German law, you can’t shoot down down a plane that has been hijacked by terrorists. From the article:

Germany’s highest court overturned a law Wednesday that had authorized the government to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners, ruling that it was unconstitutional to sacrifice the lives of passengers to protect potential targets of a terrorist attack. (my emphasis)

In hijacking situations, such as 9/11, there is a reasonable expectation that the people on board the airplane will be killed anyway, in addition to the people that will be killed by the plane crashing into it is intended target. For a Utilitarian, this decision is obvious: shoot the plane down, because Dead Passengers + Dead That Will Be Killed By Terrorist Attack > Dead Passengers. Germany, however, seems much more rooted in Deontology, which makes sense considering the modern proponent of Deontology, Immanuel Kant, was German.

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that, whether the average German is conscious of it or not, stopping at a crosswalk when the light is red because it is adheres to a rule that has been established to the society to which they belong and regardless of the consequences, is a result of the Kantian and Deontological ethical position and is just a tiny example of how ethics actually affects our daily lives even in the smallest of ways.

For a broad introduction to topics of ethics I highly recommend:

I am also interested in what people think about these issues, so please feel free to post something.


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