Category: Philosophy

Autonomous Trollies: Ceding Ethics to Economics

Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly precipitate an unparalleled reduction in traffic fatalities. And as someone who is deeply disturbed by the sheer magnitude of carnage our society is willing to tolerate for the sake of motorists’ convenience, I absolutely welcome this change. However, while Voltaire cautions us to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, we are at the precipice of an incredibly troubling convention to be embedded into the state of our transportation system. I am of course referring to Mercedes-Benz’s announcement that they will be prioritizing the lives of vehicle occupants over all other people using the street. I wish to explore the disconcerting implications of elevating the value of customers’ lives over those of bystanders, and moreover, the general decline in our collective ability to distinguish between moral and economic philosophies.

In order for autonomous vehicles to be successfully integrated into the urban environment, they must account for the vulnerability of people outside of the vehicles as well.

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The Fallacy of Neutrality

It is difficult to pinpoint a single idea or experience that led me to believe that our current allocation of street uses is inherently unjust. There was no epiphanic “a-ha!” moment, nor a sudden catalyst which concretized my convictions. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult to explain my perspective, which is admittedly quite distant from the conventional viewpoint. In light of this, any attempt to boil down the essence of my beliefs into a satisfactory starting point has proved to be quite challenging.

In my attempts to do just that however, I kept returning to this one point which is necessary to understand my views. That is, there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Now, I don’t just mean this in the obvious sense, in that a person can never fully remove their own self-interest and personal experience from consideration in pursuing true impartiality. What I mean is that all systems, by their very nature, harbor implicit biases which favor some things over others. All systems have incentives and disincentives woven into their very fabric. Moreover, there is an implied balance of power in any given framework. To claim that something is neutral can only be true relative to a given system, not in any absolute sense.

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Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn illustrates how the lack of consideration for the inherent differences between modes creates a hostile environment for non-motorized transport, rather than a neutral environment.

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