by Robert Gressis
Today, I was dropping my son off at school when I saw a desirable parking spot. Like just about every parking spot near my son’s school, it required parallel parking. So, I rolled past the spot, put on my turn-indicator, and waited for the cars behind me to clear so that I could back into it.
What happened, though, was that a car drove right up to my bumper. I could no longer reverse. Since time was fleeting, I had to drive forward. This driver then pulled up to where I had initiated my parallel parking and proceeded to parallel park in the spot. My spot.
This was irritating, and it’s not the only irritating thing that has ever happened to me with regard to driving or parking. Here’s another example: many years ago, I noticed a driver making to pull out of a highly desirable parking spot near the movie theater. I dutifully drove up near to where she was going to pull out and put my indicator on. No one else was around. The driver opened her door, got into her seat, turned on the engine, and slowly backed out. Because of my position, and the direction in which she wanted to drive, she pulled out in front of my car and then drove away. As I was about to pull into the spot, a car sped up and took the spot. My spot. This also was irritating.
Though I think both bad parkers were annoying, here’s one thing I don’t think they were: immoral. And yet, I suspect that both Kant and utilitarians would describe them as immoral. Though some utilitarians might not think them immoral (let’s say the drivers who stole my spot both got a thrill from taking what wasn’t theirs, and that my irritation was comparatively trivial, maximizing overall utility), the ones who don’t think it immoral would think it morally obligatory! That also seems wrong; much more wrong than thinking it immoral.
Because I know Kant better than I know Utilitarianism, and because I think Utilitarianism is significantly easier to apply than Kantian deontology, I’ll explain why Kant thinks such bad parking is not just irritating but out-and-out immoral, and why Kant thinks that bad parkers are not just rude but out-and-out evil.
To oversimplify: on Kant’s view, morality is about universalizability. At least from the moral point of view, everyone is not only of great value, but also of equal value. Consequently, morality is not only about treating other people well, but also about not treating yourself or your in-group as though they’re deserving of more rights or privileges than others. Straightforwardly, then, on Kant’s view it seems like the two bad parkers acted immorally when they stole my spot. First, they didn’t treat me well: I was following social convention — conventions that are perfectly fine — and according to those social conventions, those spots were mine. Second, they weren’t treating me as being of equal value to them: if I had done the same thing to them, they would have been furious. (This is just a presumption on my part, but I’m confident that it’s correct.) But getting furious when I do to them what they do to me makes sense only if you think that, for some reason, you deserve special treatment and I don’t. I.e., it makes sense only if you think you’re my superior.
This gets to the next element of Kant’s theory. On Kant’s view, someone who thinks he’s morally better than someone else – someone who thinks that he is entitled to a kind of moral treatment that others aren’t – is “radically evil.” Now, ‘radically evil’ doesn’t mean very evil, as though you are Hitler, but rather, “evil at your root.”
Of course, clarifying radical evil in that way does make it look like you’re very evil. After all, if you’re evil to the core, isn’t that just what it is to be very evil? No, what it means is that your fundamental orientation to morality (Kant calls this your Gesinnung) is incompatible with being a morally good person. Someone who is radically evil is someone who sincerely believes, at least sometimes, or in some spheres of conduct, that advancing his self-interest outweighs respecting the moral law. Whatever, at the end of the day, morality amounts to, if you don’t sincerely believe that morality always takes precedence over advancing your self-interest, then you’re radically evil. That said, Kant does think that some people are eviler than others; e.g., Stalin is eviler than, say, Rod Blagojevich.
Given what Kant thinks it takes to count as morally evil (you sincerely believe that it’s sometimes right to advance your self-interest over respecting the moral law) and what it takes to count as morally good (you sincerely believe that it’s never right to advance your self-interest over respecting the moral law), it’s not surprising that he accepts a doctrine he called “Rigorism”: the idea that there are only two kinds of people: morally evil and morally good.
Now, Kant doesn’t think that someone who acts immorally occasionally is ipso facto radically evil. Acting immorally out of weakness of will doesn’t make you radically evil. What is crucial to being radically evil is that you sincerely believe that advancing your self-interest over being moral is, at least sometimes, OK.
So let’s go back to the bad parkers. It wouldn’t surprise me if the bad parkers sincerely thought that their taking the spot was ok. Maybe they think something like, “it’s just parking” or “all’s fair in love and parking” or “I was in a hurry.” Regardless, from Kant’s point of view, their bad parking was immoral (not only because it didn’t treat me well but also because they would vehemently object if it were done to them), and the bad parkers were radically evil.
I think this is wrong. Bad parking is not immoral, and bad parkers are not radically evil. I don’t quite know why I think this, but I suspect the reason is that parking just isn’t that important.
I’m sure it can sometimes be that important: if you park in an ambulance’s spot, for example. But just the everyday, annoying parking behaviors we’re all subjected to (or engage in ourselves, from time to time) –- ensuring that someone can’t parallel park so that you can parallel park yourself; vulturing someone’s parking spot that they’ve been waiting for; double parking so that you can run into and out of a building –- well, they’re a drag, but they’re not that big a deal. They’re ill-mannered, but not immoral.
Funnily enough, I think Kant himself has a concept that could apply to bad manners: Spielraum. Spielraum — literally, “play room” — refers to that sphere of your life exempt from morality, even though it affects other people positively or negatively, sometimes noticeably. Kant thought this had to do with imperfect duties: whereas we all have perfect duties to not lie, steal, or murder, we all have imperfect duties to improve ourselves or help others. As it’s typically interpreted, what this means is that while we should never do what we have perfect duties against doing (we should never lie, steal, murder, etc.), we need only sometimes do what we have imperfect duties to do: just as long as we make it to a rule to occasionally dedicate ourselves to self-improvement or helping others, we’re in the clear.
In other words, from the perspective of morality, what Spielraum means is that we can occasionally let our hair down. We needn’t spend all our free time on helping others or self-improvement; we can sometimes do neither. Rather than work on my German or research what charities to give to, I can play mindless video games. (Not games like Bioshock, which arguably edify you. I’m talking about games like Monopoly, which objectively suck.) At least sometimes.
Why does Kant think we should have some Spielraum? Interpretations differ, of course, but a natural reason –- and one he actually gives –- is that we all have a need to be happy. If you can never relax, then not only will you not be able to be happy, but you will come to hate morality. In other words, what makes an overly demanding morality overly demanding is that it alienates you from morality.
If that’s why you need Spielraum, then perhaps you also need a different kind of Spielraum: the freedom to be a jerk. Why would you need the freedom to be a jerk? Well, you could give the same reason as before and say that people have a need to be happy; since, at least for some people, if they’re never allowed to be a jerk, then they can’t be happy, it follows that people need to be allowed to be a jerk or at least, within reason.
But I don’t think this will cut it: when it comes to Spielraum, it means not having to be sorry. You’re entitled to play stupid video games instead of improving yourself or helping others. You have space to yourself, because if you didn’t, you’d go nuts.
Yet I don’t want to say that the person who prevented me from parallel parking just so he could, or the person who snatched my spot despite my obviously waiting for it, doesn’t owe me an apology. Those people did me dirty. But I don’t think they acted immorally or are radically evil people because of it. And that’s because it’s just parking. I can find other parking spots, albeit ones that are farther away. I wasted some time, but not much time. Plausibly, this is almost always true when it comes to parking.
And this is the first reason why people should have the freedom to be a jerk. If you were to say that bad parking rises to the level of immorality, you risk alienating people from morality. Too many things fall under its ambit.
What about someone who is a bad parker, not because she was in a rush, or wasn’t thinking, or was just mad that day; what about someone who made bad parking a policy? Would that be immoral? Would she be evil?
I think even a policy of bad parking isn’t immoral, again, because it just doesn’t matter that much. Moreover, though I think someone who has a policy of bad parking is a full-on jerk, I doubt that such a person is radically evil.
But it really depends on why she has a policy of bad parking. If she has it because she truly think other people don’t matter as much as her, then bad parking is quite likely to be the least of her bad behaviors. She will doubtless do worse things: dissimulation, lying, manipulation, etc. But if she has the policy because she has the same attitude to parking that a lot of people have to Twitter — parking is not real life; it’s fun to see what you can get away with — then I can imagine her policy of bad parking coinciding with having a respectful attitude to morality (I think this may be true even if she loses her top when someone does bad parking to her, despite her constantly doing bad parking to others). I doubt treating parking as a small matter — because it pretty much is a small matter — would typically generalize to treating big matters with the same blitheness (unless it stemmed from the belief, not just that you are more special than others when it comes to parking, but from the belief that you are more special than others, period).
Long story short: jerks can be morally good people as well, and to the extent ethical theories don’t allow for that, so much the worse for ethical theory.