Being Decent is not Hard
The Stoplight Problem
There is a stoplight near my house where I almost always notice a certain pattern of behavior. Right next to a grocery store and a clothing outlet, the intersection is relatively busy. The wait times for the lights are long, and there is a good chance you’ll be stopped here. There are two lanes on the south side of the intersection, but immediately north of the intersection the lanes reduce to one. The intersection is mostly frequented by locals who know the layout of the intersection and know that there is only one lane on the other side. This means that the right lane on the south side of the intersection is best utilized by vehicles turning right at the red light. Individuals using this lane do not have a right to turn, but it is an occasional privilege to do so. They could easily wait for a green light, but by the decent nature of their fellow travelers, they might be allowed to turn during a red.
This intersection has always stuck in my head because there is a potential for all of the vehicles to cooperate for the greater good. Having two lanes of vehicles which need to merge past the intersection is inefficient. Therefore, the optimal use of the intersection looks as follows: the right lane of the south intersection remains empty for vehicles seeking to turning right on a red light. The left lane should be filled with vehicles waiting for a green light to proceed forward. With this setup, the vehicles that want to turn right are not held back by cars waiting to proceed straight. This is the most efficient way.
For the most part, the vehicles here do follow this pattern. It is generally understood by the local population that this is the decent thing to do; staying left in order to allow others to proceed efficiently. There is, however, a temptation for a car to proceed on the right side and wait for a green light. If they accelerate quickly, they can cut ahead of the rest of the vehicles, unhindered by others, and speed for the next mile and a half. There is a genuine dilemma here, where the nature of man is made self evident. The potential for benefitting others and creating order and efficiency is a strong incentive, but the possibility for selfish gain at the expense of order and civility is equally strong.
I often think about this, because almost every time I am stopped at this intersection, while I am waiting in the left lane and watching the cars that can proceed unhindered to the right, there is inevitably one car that decides to abuse the organically created system, and sleight the cars behind them who would like to turn.
In this scenario, the ability to turn right is not a dignity that the vehicles are owed. Nor is using the left lane to proceed straight a crime. Instead, these are good and bad human sentiments.
The foundation of these ideas is found in the concept of human decency. Human decency is similar to the idea of civic virtue. Civic virtue is construed in academia as the sacrifice of the self in favor of the common good, but I do not like this definition, because the idea of communal good is a flexible term which can be manipulated.
Instead, civic virtues as I intend them can be described as such: qualities of a person or persons (virtues) that are instrumental in developing a healthy, net positive society. While there is still some flexibility to this definition, the health of a society is more tangible a concept than simply ‘communal good’. Stalin committed atrocities for the ‘common good,’ but even his own people can agree that that their society was unhealthy at its core.
The Shopping Cart Theory
My analysis of the stoplight scenario is similar to a popular thought experiment called The Shopping Cart Theory. In this theory, the moral character of a person can be determined by whether they return their shopping cart to the corral after using it. There is no personal benefit for returning the cart. Instead, the individual must sacrifice two minutes of their own time (or less if there are nearby corrals) and exhibit personal responsibility.
As anyone who has visited a large grocery store knows, there are far too many people who neglect responsibility in favor of convenience. Some grocery stores circumvent this issue by requiring quarters or some coin be required to lease a cart. Then when the cart is returned the user gets their coin back. This success of this solution further demonstrates the fact that individuals are unwilling to do something simply because it is ‘good.’ Instead, there must be some sort of personal gain.
The Nature of Man
This illustrates a longstanding debate concerning the nature of man. The traditional thinking has been that people are inherently bad. In their natural state they act selfishly, in their own interest and often against the interests of others. The enlightenment and humanist philosophy began to shift this thinking towards the idea that people are inherently good, and will act in the interest of others.
Christianity follows the thinking that mankind is inherently sinful. The fall of man from his perfect creation means that man is inherently evil. There is still capacity for good in man, especially if goodness is cultivated, but there will never be a man who is divorced from his evil. The only man who ever was perfect and without evil was the son of God, sent as a living sacrifice.
There have been more good men than bad men, at least in some places at some times. This concentration of good people is generally dependent on how permeated a culture is with a certain philosophy. Ideas like humanism and the enlightenment are destructive to these good people; while they say that people are inherently good, they do not make good people.
Good people are made by other good people and a dedication to goodness itself. This originates from a Christian worldview. Without this, man will degenerate. This has happened through time immemorial. Separation from virtue and the culturally felt necessity for dedication to goodness will lead to a rise in evil and bad men.
Good times are created by good men. Without good men, chaos ensues.