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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  • Joe

    “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.”
    Not sure when you “grew up” but 

  • Joe

    “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.”
    Not sure when you “grew up” but Transactional Analysis has been around for a long time.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_analysis#The_Ego-State_.28or_Parent-Adult-Child.2C_PAC.29_model

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Having the theory exist and having it be taught as fact to random citizens in government-required courses are different things.

      • Henrico Otto

        Come on, give him a point.  You are right that there is a difference between the two, but (i) I would put it at p=.8 that before the comments you had not made a connection between the framework of the driving course you took and transactional analysis; (ii) only slightly lower p that you had not heard of transactional analysis beforehand; and (iii) only slightly lower p still, that had you made the connection (i.e., (i) had been false) you would have written the post differently.  If you assess (iii) to be materially probable yourself, you should at least give Joe a nod and a thanks here.

      • http://www.selfishmeme.com/ The Watchmaker

        This is a very paternal comment.

      • lemmycaution

        Transactional Analysis was super popular in the 1970s.  

    • mtraven

      It’s also a sort of Americanized, cartoon version of Freudian metapsychology (id, ego, superego), FWTW.  In any case it’s absurd to say it “suggests just how far respect for fertility has fallen”.

  • gwern0

    I don’t understand the Puritan example. Mercenary informants sounds exactly like a market in information on fidelity, which should work.

    • david3368

      View it as a game of relative status. Policing is fun when you have a chance to vault yourself into role of self-righteous defender of the innocent. It’s not so fun when only the children of the entrenched upper class can do it; then you only get the downside risk of false positives but none of the upside of raising your own status. Employing a mercenary to do it raises the mercenary’s status, not yours, and the technology doesn’t exist for the mercenary to raise your status on your dime with his effort.

      So demand fell, precisely because market pressures shifted in favor of mercenary provision – think of it as an ‘income effect’, demanding less moral policing because nobody’s buying moral policing from you.

  • jhertzli

    “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!” — Salvor Hardin in Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

    That might sound cynical but it resembles the following non-cynical sentence: “Never let an optical illusion prevent you from seeing what’s there.” There are moral illusions as well as optical illusions.

  • kbear

     >This also offers a vivid example of a problem of too much, not too little, morality.

    Totally agree.  We’ve become a society where people feign heightened morality as a central part of their lives.  Just yesterday I came upon a piece where a woman derives her sense of importance by rehabilitating fighting roosters.  She teaches them to live “peacefully”.

    • AspiringRationalist

      We (ever since the first ape to pass moral judgement) have always been a society where people feign heightened morality as a central part of their lives.  It only seems like we’ve _become_ that way because the present is more salient than the past.

  • V V

     I think it’s a matter of protecting one social status rather than enforcing morality: we don’t usually get mad at motorists behaving badly towards other motorists.

    In the evolutionary environment, if somebody publicily disrespects you and you don’t immediately react in a hostile way (using anything from sarcasm and insults to threats or even physical violence, depending on the severity of the offence and the social norms about appropriate retribution), you’ll get a status penality while the other party gets a status bonus.

    Of course, in a modern setting, behaving submissively while you are driving alone among total strangers won’t lower your status, but our brain is wired for living in a society where everybody knows everything about everybody else.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_A4VNWL5SJ5TXC7NYQUGTNZGHSI Jim

    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.

    Bring the war on drugs to mind.  The punishments are so harsh that only a few would turn a person in so paid law enforcement are on their own. 

  • http://eradica.wordpress.com/ Firepower

    Back when WE grew up, our Parents drove amongst OTHER Parents.

    Now, no matter how much of the Parental/Adult mindset you adopt from your new training.

    YOU still will be driving amongst (mainly) children. 

  • Rikk

    The child/parent/adult framing sounds like it’s almost certainly based on Transactional Analysis, a type of neo-Freudian psychotherapy from the 1950s which is still surprisingly popular, especially in couples therapy.

    There’s a short and surprisingly entertaining book on the subject by its founding figure, Dr. Eric Berne, called Games People Play.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    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.

    Did they teach you a canonical “I’m sorry” sign for drivers?  I’ve always tried to do a shrug-and-a-wave, but I’m not sure how easy it is for other drivers to interpret that.

  • Robert Koslover

    I’m curious about why you chose to take a “driver improvement” course.  Are you a better driver now?  Do you now get a break on your car insurance rates, or something? 

  • Douglas Knight

    I interpret the evidence about sex differently than Dirda (and probably Dabhoiwala). It sounds to me that the Puritans tried to make actual rules match nominal rules and the reaction was to make nominal rules match actual rules.

  • JVA

    I wonder what this “I’m sorry” sign would be. I can’t think of any action you could take to calm me down after cutting me off. Except perhaps pointing an assault rifle at me.

  • Snapper

    As a “road rager” seeking to find a method to cope, I can hardly see what the comparison of enforcing some personal moral ideas about sex and marriage have to do with dealing with problems on the road. What people do with their genitals or in their personal relationships has nothing to do with me and ultimately has no effect on my life, whereas sharing the road with folks who feel they are the only ones there ex; cutting me off, slamming on brakes for no reason, driving 5 miles an hour on the fwy or 40mph zones in morning traffic on the way to work, does.

  • dmytryl

    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.

    There’s a lot of circumstances where a rational agent should want to self modify into an agent that will not pay above certain price (to limit the extent of / discourage exploitation by a monopolist or locked-in vendor).