Road Rage Is Morality

I just took a driver improvement course whose central organizing theory was that we can each drive with one of three kinds of persona in charge: child, parent, adult. While adult is the unemotional calculating persona who should be in charge, we are sometimes run by a child who wants to have fun and show off, or by a parent who want to punish or reward other drivers for driving the way we think they should.

Back when I grew up parents were the prototypical adults, so it would have seemed odd to contrast adults and parents – this suggests just how far respect for fertility has fallen. This also offers a vivid example of a problem of too much, not too little, morality.

Some folks say the main problem with the world is not enough morality – we act too selfishly and rely too little on our moral instincts. But in many areas of our lives, our main social norms mostly try to suppress natural moral instincts.

For example, my driving class tried to teach people to suppress their natural instincts to argue with police when they feel they are treated unfairly, or to punish drivers who cut in line, or cut people off, etc. The class also told folks to give an “I’m sorry” sign to drivers who seem mad at you, even if you don’t think yourself at fault. Since most “road rage” is due to people feeling morally indignant about other drivers, authorities mostly try to discourage these moral feelings.

The modern world has similar social norms in other areas of life. For example, where once people felt they should personally enforce moral rules about sex and marriage on the people around them, modern norms tend more to tell people that other folks sex and marriage is mostly none of their business. This started surprisingly early in Britain:

During the civil and religious unrest of the 17th century, however, the public disciplining of sexual miscreants began to collapse. The stringency of the Puritans — who reintroduced the death penalty for adultery — gradually backfired. Their overharsh principles appealed only to zealots. Instead of a culture based on neighbors watching neighbors and calling them to task when necessary, sexual policing was outsourced to paid professionals and mercenary informers. Inevitably, complaints arose that regulation had grown inequitable: The rich and the aristocratic were flouting the laws and codes of conduct, while the poor were being unduly punished.

Magistrates in their stead no longer felt it was their charge to correct the morals of harlots and scoundrels. They simply judged “particular actions, rather than a person’s general character.” By 1750, writes Dabhoiwala, “most forms of consensual sex outside marriage had drifted beyond the reach of law.” By then, too, England had come to accept a view of society that allowed for a diversity of beliefs about human behavior. (more)

As a third example, consider common business norms against too quickly imposing intuitive fairness norms on business deals. If a price you pay was lower, but is now higher, you are usually advised to not get too worked up about such price hikes violating your fairness norms. If you can’t find a better deal somewhere else, you may just have to take this one. It’s all “just business”, you see.

No doubt in some circumstances more expression of natural human morality would be helpful. But it is important not to over-generalize from those examples – in many other circumstances the modern world functions well mainly by suppressing, not encouraging, natural moral reactions.

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