An Ethics of Biking? Really?

The other day, Kirsten raised a very good point: Why even talk about the ethics of biking? Why not talk about something like biking etiquette? As she saw it, talking about ethics suggested a moral dimension, and that she wasn't convinced that you could talk about morality and biking in the same sentence.

She is, to be fair, quite right.

My dictionary defines "ethics" as being that a set of moral principles, especially that relate to or otherwise affirm a specific group. "Etiquette," on the other hand, suggests the rules of polite behavior within a given society. Both depend upon specific groups, and it would be perfectly plausible to talk about proper cycling etiquette (i.e. "On your left", hand signals, and I'm sure there are a whole slew of manners I don't yet know).

That said, I'd still like to believe that it's possible to talk about an ethics of biking; or perhaps more appropriately, cyclists' ethics. The impulse to talk about ethics comes, I suppose, from its close echo of ethos. While the words have two very different histories (ethic and ethics coming, my dictionary informs me, from late Middle English; ethos a mid-19th century neologism, a bit like nostalgia), they are, I think, usefully paired.

If "ethos" can mean the characteristic spirit of a community "as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations", then I think it might be possible to talk about the ethos and ethics of the cycling community as a linked project.

Very simply, and perhaps naively, a possible ethics of cycling might begin from admitting a shared vulnerability. Of course, as Kirsten noted, looking at some of the people who do ride near us, there's a occasionally masculine and oftentimes aggressive image at work, an image which wouldn't seem to be all the amenable to arguments about a common vulnerability. It is, again, a valid point, but working in the realm of the hypothetical, if you do posit a shared vulnerability (shared between cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, people), then one broad ethic might be: Don't act in such a way that harms another. As a cyclist, this means that I expect drivers to give me space, to recognize and affirm my right to the road; but it also means that I ride in such a way that drivers can predict my actions and don't feel pressured into making a rash decision. And when it comes to making choices about the stop lights and street signs, I can take a long moment to wait at a red light late at night, long enough to realize that the road will not recognize me nor the weight of my bike, and as such, there's no issue with my crossing of Sunset at 1 a.m.. On the other hand, taking the time to stop at stop signs during rush hour traffic is a gesture to other cars.

Put another way, the issues of vulnerability and visibility are, I think, linked. To be seen and to see is a challenge not simply to cyclists but to people in general. At the risk of taking something very simple and turning it in a vague existential question, talking about an ethics of biking (maybe too broadly, an ethics of being in the city) might require that doubled sight.


As a small postscript, Alex at WSBS made a really good point: That any talk of "community" is always suspect, as what community of cyclists exists is at best a small fraction of the total number of cyclists in the city.


Anonymous said…
I've spent some time debating the ethics of cycling with myself as I ride; your comments captured most of my own conclusions very well.

To me, the bottom line is this: the highest responsibility of any cyclist is to ride safely; that is, to ride without causing undue risk to themselves or those around them. I suppose the same is true for drivers, as well, though that is a debate I'll have to have with myself another time.
Timur said…
Absolutely: To ride without causing harm. And I think the same should hold true for drivers, but you have the luxury to not worry about it as much when you do drive, as a function of being in a vehicle versus being on a bike. Thanks for the comment.

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