On the (potential) Morality of Crowds

May 11, 2015

I reposted a video on my Facebook page the other day that shows a busy intersection without traffic signals in which the traffic somehow manages to flow, albeit in a way that to most of us seems haphazard and frightening. There are many such examples one can see, coming mostly from what we think of as “developing world” countries, where the infrastructure isn’t as “advanced” as we prefer: mainly in Asia and Latin America. Many people see such scenes and think “what chaos” and take comfort in their enlightened and civilized infrastructure, where everything is ordered and signals and signs tell us what to do. When I see these videos, I think how marvelous that somehow, and for the most part, traffic flows without more collisions. I am also intrigued by its moral implications. There is some interesting science as well behind traffic since it is so important in our modern world, and the studies that intrigue me most tend to show that there is actual danger in providing too many signs and signals, and that accidents (especially fatal accidents) may be reduced by use of more “passive” methods of traffic control such as roundabouts and other design decisions (as is increasingly being used in Europe) (skeptics should check out each of the links I’ve embedded before exclaiming their doubts).

There are a number of theories operating behind the move from active to passive traffic management. One is that too many signs are distracting to drivers. Another is that the feeling of safety afforded by traffic control devices causes reduced attention and situational awareness by drivers. I want to make a moral claim relating to it — namely that in the absence of “top down” traffic control, the responsibility for managing a potential conflict is in the hands of each driver. There is certainly a practical reason to want to reduce accidents, and especially fatal accidents, but there seems also to be a moral reason to put responsibility in the hands of drivers. One has to do with what we call “active” responsibility, and the other to do with “passive” responsibility. Active responsibility is the responsibility a person has at the moment for making choices, and we often think of moral responsibility coming from one’s freedom to make choices.  We should wish to enhance active responsibility. While driving, the more active responsibility a driver feels, the more one should carefully consider one’s choices (and thus, hopefully, make choices that avoid harm). After an accident, the responsibility one has for having caused the accident is often called passive responsibility, and we often evaluate that from the standpoint of their knowledge and choices at the time of the accident. We hold those people who had knowledge, yet made bad choices, more responsible than we do those who lacked knowledge through no fault of their own. By reducing the number of active, top-down controls, we force drivers to take more active responsibility, and reduce the excuses for those who in causing an accident might otherwise be apt to blame the signals and signs as opposed to their own bad judgment or negligent lack of knowledge. 

All of this is, of course, a metaphor. I’m interested in traffic but I’m not consumed by it alone. Rather, I see it as a sort of model of society at large, and I harken back to the excellent and intriguing book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod. Axelrod was interested in how cooperation might be a long term successful strategy in general, and studied it using the Prisoners Dilemma game in an “iterated” form (in which players play it over and over and their strategies become known to others – click through the link to learn more about it as I won’t use up space here to describe it). The important conclusion in a nutshell, though it is one that is still the focus of debate today, is that cooperators are more successful than defectors in the long term. I am interested in whether this is the phenomenon behind signal-less traffic’s ability to flow, and ultimately whether society in general might function similarly even absent top-down controls (laws). Yes there are defectors who game and cheat the system, and they sometimes cause accidents, but in general a subtle form of cooperation is involved in every forward movement of traffic (society) in which micro-negotiations that happen to work to each individual’s advantage allow the system to work even absent top-down controls. Without law, order may still emerge, cooperative behaviors evolve because they work to societal and individual advantage, and moral responsibility is taken by each player for the smooth functioning of the system. What seems like a recipe for chaos could well be the foundation for a beautiful form of freedom and order, where responsibility and cooperation are nurtured through necessity rather than dictate from above.