October, 2009

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The Lotus and the Miata

by Thomas G. Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's blog "Single Doubt"

I was standing on the sidewalk the other day admiring a Lotus sports car parked at the curb. While I watched, a man hopped in and drove away. Into his spot pulled a Mazda Miata. I thought, wow, here’s two vehicles; both have the normal stuff that identifies a car: four tires and a steering wheel, headlights, brakes, engine and transmission. Both are two-seater convertible sports cars. Both use the same fuel. Aside from the fact that one goes a little faster than the other – okay, a lot faster – the only quantitative difference between the two is about $44,000.00. (The Lotus Exige list for about $66K while the Miata will only set you back around $22K.)

For all intensive purposes, these two vehicles are the same in all ways that matter. And yet qualitatively, (and monetarily,) the value that humans place on them is wildly different.

Fast forward to later in the day. I am riding on a city bus. It is a bus that travels from a well off section of town through the middle of downtown so as I look around I see a broad range of wealth, class, and ethnicity. But again, it occurs to me, what actually separates the people sitting around me? They all have the normal compliment of stuff that identifies them as human beings. They all have two arms and two legs, they all have eyes, ears and noses, they all, eat sleep, and defecate the same. They all walk upright – except for the fellow in the wheelchair. Again, like the Lotus and the Miata, they have differences but for all purposes that truly matter, they are the same. They all run on the same fuel (food, water, and fresh air.) The chief differences between them are the value that society (that means you and me) places on them. The Lawyer in the pinstripe suit earns substantially more than does the woman dressed in the McDonald’s uniform. And both of them earn more than the unemployed homeless guy sleeping in the back row.

The lesson I draw from these two examples raises the following moral and ethical questions:

1) When you ride a city bus do you believe that everyone sitting on the bus is as human as you are?

This is not a trick question. The answer is a simple yes or no. When you look around you can you honestly say that every person you see equally fulfills your definition of what constitutes a human being? Or, do you believe that some are less human (or more human.) If you believe in the latter – and some people do – I do not hold you in contempt. But ask yourself, can you justify your position by some other means than personal desire (or revulsion) or by referring to some authority outside yourself, (i.e. a religious scripture?)

The ethical question for those who believe that we are not all the same is: who decides? That is, who gets to decide what criteria are used to define a hierarchy of humanity and further, who gets to enforce it? Even if you abdicate your responsibility to a religious dogma or civil ordinance, ultimately, somewhere down the line, a human must make the decision.

The second question is equally straightforward.

2) If you accept that all humans are fundamentally the same, do you feel that all humans have an equal claim to the basics necessary for a quality life?

Here again, not a trick question. If the bus in the above example is the much vaunted lifeboat that ethicists like to trot out, do you believe that the lawyer, the pregnant lady and the guy in the wheelchair and you are all equally worthy of survival? There are no qualifiers here. No extenuating circumstances. It’s simple yes or no. If you have any kind of a “yeah but...” You fall into the no category. And like the previous question, if you do not believe that all humans are equally worthy to receive an adequate share of the stuff of life, who gets to decide who is more worthy and who is less worthy? Who gets to decide who eats and who starves? It’s no good just sitting back and putting it in Allah’s hands, or even leaving it up to the invisible hand of the marketplace. In the end, humans decide.


Simple. Because we can.

In an ant colony, by their behavior, ants seem pretty hardwired. There is little you can point to that would indicate the same level of self awareness and freedom that humans are capable of. In many other examples from the natural world it is much the same. Plants and animals have little choice where survival is concerned. Behavior in a room containing six dobermans and one T-bone steak is probably pretty predictable. The dobermans are going to fight each other for the steak, an alpha dog will emerge who will then gorge itself till the food’s gone. In a room containing six humans on the other hand, behavior is anything but certain. Why? Because humans possess free will. Humans possess abilities the dogs do not. They could produce an alpha leader who hordes the steak for himself, they could divide themselves up into teams or tribes, or stab each other in the back ala “Survivor.” They could even work co-operatively to come up with a “McGyver” type solution and think their way out of the friggin’ box. The point is, most animals don’t have a choice in how they behave. Humans do. Humans have options. That is why it is so tragic when governments fail and humans starve and die because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Obviously, as a progressive liberal I tend to be one who believes in the fundamental sameness of humanity and the fundamental right (sorry Jonathan) for every human to receive at a bare minimum, enough of the basic stuff necessary for a quality life. This is not to say I wish to have six families of refugees camped out in my garage sharing my dinner. But philosophically I can come up with no good rationale why humans should not be able to arrange their affairs so that everyone on earth has access to food, water, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, and meaningful work.

Listening to the current "debate" on healthcare is truly a truly nauseating example of what I'm talking about. Wealthy Senators who argue against health-care for all sound like the Lotus driver who rails about the cost of premium gas to people who don't even have bus fare. I believe that humans should stop wasting time dreaming up reasons why everyone in the world can’t have these things and start spending more time on thinking of ways of providing these things for all.

And if it means I have to drive a Miata instead of a Lotus, I for one am willing to make that sacrifice.