Gaining the road and losing our souls
What does it profit us if we have driverless cars but lack opportunities to develop virtue?
You may have heard that Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Although it’s apparently a misattribution, the quote captures something important: our personality and our character reflect the moral and practical choices we have to wrestle with. This was a theme of Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I reviewed last month. Now Crawford is back with a new book, Why We Drive, which has been reviewed in The New Atlantis by Adam White.
Here’s Crawford’s central argument, as expressed in that review:
“But in moving from the garage to the highway (and the desert, and the demolition derby), Crawford does more than simply illustrate the further joys that await your inner Steve McQueen. This new book makes even clearer the fact that our choice between driving and being driven, between making and being made, is ultimately a choice between republican self-government and administrative rule.”
Matthew Crawford, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (New York: HarperCollins, 2020)
Or, as Crawford argued in 2009, “confrontations with real things” are essential to developing agency, real knowledge, and community. So in an era where less and less is expected of drivers, even to the point where driving itself may not be required of them, we should expect to see less and less “human responsibility, and thus … human virtue”. Here’s White again:
“This is the crucial message of Crawford’s book. “Virtue is more like a skill,” he writes, “acquired through long practice in the art of living.” And that practice depends upon the choices we make, and the choices we make about which choices we make. When we choose to delegate choice to rational control outside our immediate involvement, we choose wittingly or unwittingly to shape ourselves accordingly. We “become a certain kind of person,” Crawford emphasizes. “As embodied practical skills, the virtues have to be exercised or they atrophy.” And so when we drive autonomous vehicles, or cede control to other forms of automatic convenience, “it is we who are being automated, in the sense that we are vacated of that existential involvement that distinguishes human action from mere dumb events.””
Indeed, the attempts to keep us safer may even be counterproductive:
“Crawford quotes a 2016 study published by the Association for Computing Machinery, which warns that “one unintended consequence of alerts and alarm systems is [that] some drivers may substitute the secondary task of listening for alerts and alarms for the primary task of paying attention.” We become complacent, ill-equipped to actually handle problems when they arise, and “the automation’s underlying assumption of our incompetence becomes progressively self-fulfilling.””
This isn’t an argument for a return to the days of high traffic fatalities in badly designed vehicles, but as we more and more often enter into arrangements designed to keep us safe, we should ponder what we might be giving up in exchange.