The “vulgar” in vulgar morality stands for “conventional.” I believe in conventional morality, because it’s the only available kind. Divinely revealed morality works fine so long as everyone sings from the same hymnal; in a liberal democracy, which tolerates many religions and none, the appeal to God for moral justification becomes problematic. Similarly, attempts to anchor morality in reason or an entity called “nature” have reaped nothing but confusion. Such efforts often succeed in undermining our moral traditions, never at replacing them with anything of value.
Because morality consists of learned customary behaviors rather than the application of principles, it must evolve over lifetimes to absorb new situations. When technology and personal freedom generate more situations than morality can account for, we enter the great disruption that goes by the name of modernity. Life moves faster than judgment, and people suffer a kind of moral vertigo, a radical uncertainty about how to behave in certain times and places. The latter become, in effect, demoralized.
The Internet is a good example of technology and freedom outpacing morality. The Web, I have observed before, remains in a state of nature. Accepted behaviors don’t get traction there. Pornography is rampant. Politics are conducted at the most vicious, infantile levels. The default is to shout rather than listen.
Another example, which I want to consider here, is driving a car — an earlier technological breakthrough, which like the Web was responsible for a revolutionary increase in personal freedom.
Between work and chores, I probably spend an hour of every day behind the wheel. Rightly considered, it’s a remarkable experience. I speed about in a metal shell which insulates me from thousands of others who are doing the same thing. I listen to Beethoven, or Muddy Waters, or Bob Dylan.
Sometimes I reflect about life, the universe, and everything. Other times I’m in a mental daze. Often my life is in danger. Scenery passes by — captivating, ennervating, rain or shine.
Physically, I’m on a jagged line between two points. Morally, I seem to be in a kind of twilight zone between public scrutiny and private indulgence. I watch other drivers shaking and bouncing and shouting — but no, they’re just into their music, which I can’t hear. I see people picking their noses as if they were invisible. Others talk to fellow riders, or to cellphones, or to themselves. Still others turn to look at me with zombie eyes. Convertible owners, in fine weather, exhibit themselves to our envious stares.
Unlike the Web, it isn’t the state of nature. Rules of the road exist — we know what they are, and we abide by them by and large, even if the cops aren’t lurking. Americans are famous for stopping at red lights and stop signs when there’s nobody around to care. (I have travelled to countries where green means “go,” but red means “go much faster.”)
Yet even in law-minding Northern Virginia, where I live, the rules get interpreted in the most entitled, self-serving way. Morality demands that we experience the world from outside our own skins. That rarely happens while driving. Instead, I consider myself the standard of righteousness, and divide the rest of the human race among “maniacs” who drive faster than I do and “idiots” who go slower. I become judge, jury, and executioner — always forgiving my own tresspasses, never those of the jerk in the neighboring lane.
Childish and bizarre competitions are engaged in by putative adults who, bursting with grievance and anger, don’t like to be passed, or trapped, or cut off. Road rage stirs in the heart of darkness of normally responsible persons. They exhibit, publicly and in the light of day, behaviors that we associate with sleazy joints at closing time. Traffic always moves from point of origin to a nasty, demoralized place.
I want to make clear: this isn’t an anti-car rant. Like any red-blooded American, I would rather see my right hand lose its cunning than give up my SUV. Besides, the same violent demoralization can infect public transit. In The Lotus and the Robot, Arthur Koestler observes that the Japanese have evolved a ceremony to harmonize every aspect of traditional life, yet go berserk commuting in the Tokyo subway.
This isn’t about cars, but about driving: and it isn’t really about driving, but about situations opened up by technology and freedom into which our traditions of right behavior have failed to penetrate.
One can make the case that time is on our side. When I was young, drunk driving was held to be a kind of temporary insanity, excusing the driver, morally and legally, if he happened to hurt someone in an accident. In 1980, the mother of a 13-year-old girl crushed to death by a hit-and-run drunk driver began a campaign to hold responsible this type of behavior: in effect, to moralize it.
Thirty years later, we don’t think of drunk drivers as innocents beyond moral judgment. Far more impressive than the toughening of the law on this question has been the change in behavior: the rise of the designated driver, the proliferation of limo services that allow us to imbibe in perfect safety.
But to expect the inevitable conquest of demoralized spaces may be the equivalent of playing the glad game. Counterfactuals can be found. Northern Virginia, for example, used to be very Southern in its driving style: people worked out traffic snarls gracefully, and aggressive behavior like tailgating was frowned upon and rare. Today, our driving habits bring to mind Manhattan more than the Old South. The population has grown tenfold in a generation, and the clogged highways seem filled with desperate characters.
More than 39,000 people died in car crashes in 2008. The good news is, that was a record low. The bad news is, that’s more than 39,000 people, enough to fill a medium-sized town. So long as driving is a life-and-death proposition, I suspect that the survival instinct will ride roughshod over moral considerations. The road will remain a place of conflict and competition — the answer, a Dylan song reminds us, to anyone who asks about how to start the next world war:
Just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.