On Why Randy Cohen Is Wrong

Randy Cohen, the former ethics columnist for The New York Times, is just as susceptible to ethical rationalization as the rest of us. Ethical rationalization occurs when you attempt to justify your questionable behavior with ethically fallacious (and often sanctimonious) argument.

As a transportation bicyclist and a professor who teaches media ethics (meaning I know at least a little something about the philosophy of ethics), allow me to point out why I think Cohen’s thinking in his recent Times op-ed about scofflaw bicycling is wrong.

Cohen admits to disobeying traffic regulations when he deems it in his best interests. He justifies it this way:

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.

Two things leap out of this paragraph. First, he blithely brackets out other fundamental concerns — duty-based concerns, for example. Second, his faulty assertion that his behavior hurts no one ignores at least one other important way harm occurs other than by physical injury. I intend to argue here that he applies the wrong fundamental concern (consequences of his actions) given the context of traffic as an agreed-upon system. Cohen apparently thinks of traffic as a set of laws:

Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable. There aren’t enough cops to coerce everyone into obeying every law all the time. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.

Traffic is a system of regulations enforced by law. The regulations create the system of traffic. The regulations were adopted to create a system that might be safer given the introduction of the destructive automobile to city streets (see Fighting Traffic for a cogent description of the advent of traffic regulations). Cohen properly recognizes the destructive nature of the automobile and uses that recognition to bolster a claim that bicycles are a different kind of vehicle and, therefore, should not be held to the same regulations (or riders to the same behavior). He misunderstands what it means to be a part of a system.

I will not argue that our traffic system is perfect or ideal. And I do not claim that our current system is best for bicyclists in all circumstances. But I will claim that a system is necessary for the orderly and safe use of the streets by people using the various modes of transportation.

A fundamental purpose of a traffic system is to make human behavior predictable. The ability to predict the actions of other street users leads to trust, e.g. the system requires us to drive to the right, therefore that oncoming car is unlikely to hit me because the driver is subject to the same system. Subject to the system — i.e. I do not get to choose; I get to follow the rules if I choose to be part of the system. This is where Cohen’s teleological argument falls apart. His refusal (in certain circumstances) to follow the system makes his actions unpredictable and, therefore, a danger to those trusting the system to work — and not just a physical danger. He’s also setting a poor example to other users — something he should be especially cognizant of given his stature in the community of philosophers of ethics. Cohen wants you to think of “harm” in terms of injury. He does great harm in terms of social trust — the very product and purpose of the system of traffic regulations.

I contend that the proper fundamental concern of ethics to apply here is duty: We have a duty to our fellow traffic users to follow the system so that social trust — and the possibility of safety that follows — is maintained. We also have a duty to change the system if it is not working well. That’s a serious conversation we ought to have.

[On a personal note: I enjoyed Cohen’s column in The New York Times. I have great respect for him. I have used his column many times in my media ethics class. His leaving the column has left a big hole in my Sunday mornings.]

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Comments 23

  1. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. Nice to have an academician weighing in on this.

    First, Cohen’s rationale that bikes are not cars does not change established law. Bicycle operators are treated as equivalent to vehicle operators in most if not all jurisdictions. All the weight of deep philosophical justifications to the contrary in the pages of the NY Times Sunday Review won’t change that. Legislatures will.

    The rules imposed on me as a cyclist were not imposed by a deity. We impose them on ourselves by way of our own legislatures and their appointed professionals, our traffic engineers. To choose to ignore the rules is not only creating unpredictability, but seems to be an act of civil disobedience at best and arrogant disregard at worst. Hence why blatant violations offend others, although I suspect most everyone uses the same rationale Mr. Cohen uses, i.e., each violation is not seen as imposing a risk on others.

    Small risks add up to large risks. I’m not sure where one can draw the line on ignoring traffic laws, but as a society, we draw it with our laws and our courts. If the citizens of Idaho legalize rolling stops, that is their right–the system occasionally works.

    I think we should respect these laws, as imperfect as they are. Arrogance is not a strong suit, esp. for a small minority.

    I also have a hunch that there are more important roles for civil disobedience than one’s distaste for stop signs.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 9:27 am
  2. Kevin Love wrote:

    O, the ethics of traffic.

    Let’s start with the elephant in the room. That would be the harm done by car drivers with the lethal poisons in car pollution.

    According to Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown, every year in just the City of Toronto:

    *Car drivers poison and kill 440 people.
    *Car drivers poison and injure 1,700 people so seriously they have to be hospitalized.

    Children and the elderly are particulary vulnerable to being poisoned by car drivers. Every year, in just the City of Toronto:

    *Car drivers poison children and cause 1,200 acute bronchitis episodes in children.
    *Car drivers poison children and cause 68,000 asthma symptom days in children.

    Source (yes, this is an official government website):


    Needless to say, from an ethical point of view, poisoning innocent children with lethal poisons must be strongly condemned. To poison children on a mass scale with this level of deaths and injuries is a horrific atrocity.

    In comparison, anything a cyclist can do is completely insignificant. This leads one to question the moral compass of someone who would focus upon the insignificant while ignoring the horrific atrocity being perpetrated upon a mass scale.

    A far wiser man than I had a good description of people like that. He said they were like somone who carefully strained a gnat out of his food – then swallowed a camel!

    The point is that we should first deal with things like the massive death and injury body count of wholesale poisonings of innocent children. Then we can deal with something that is, in comparison, utterly insignificant.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 10:21 am
  3. Andy Cline wrote:

    Kevin… Yes, we ought to deal with cars as a part of that conversation I mention at the end of my screed.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 10:53 am
  4. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Bit of a red herring, Kevin?

    Auto based pollution apparently contributes to about a quarter to a third of all air pollution deaths and injuries in Toronto. I wonder what forms of pollution contributes to the others. Power plant, industrial, and home emissions, perhaps? I guess we can go back to farming.

    Cutting back on point and nonpoint source emissions, ie., reliance on dirty power sources, cleanup of industrial stack emissions, and reliance on single occupant vehicle use as transportation are all good things and obviously more important than me doing a yield as stop.

    But I don’t where these solutions somehow justify bicyclists disobeying the law, especially since, as I can assure you, whenever one goes to a public hearing to argue for measures to increase bicycle mode share, the response includes something along the lines of “irresponsible bicycling”. Then one tries to get a voting majority for one’s proposal after deflecting that criticism.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 11:00 am
  5. Keith wrote:

    “I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else.”

    A confluence of laws could bring this way of thinking to a swift and somewhat calamitous end. That would be those of Newton, Murphy, and Darwin!

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 11:33 am
  6. Ian Cooper wrote:

    Interesting post. I read Randy Cohen’s op-ed, didn’t agree with his idea that running a red light was not a breach of ethics, but since I don’t have any great knowledge in terms of ethics, I just kinda figured it was a difference of opinion and left it at that. This helps put the disagreement I felt into a context.

    I’ve been mulling over a different ethical dilemma during the past few months – it’s the one about what ethical duty transportation engineers and government officials have if they know that the cycling infrastructure they’re tasked with implementing will kill a few people through increased intersection conflicts, but will save many more by turning them on to cycling thereby reducing their risks for heart disease and reducing the world’s pollution. If you have time and the inclination to discuss it, I’d love to see what you have to say.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 11:33 am
  7. Andy Cline wrote:

    Ian … I have already called such behavior immoral. Just search for that term on Carbon Trace.


    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 11:49 am
  8. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Going back to Ian’s dilemma. I would be less likely to call this “immoral” if the facilities designers and facility advocates would somehow dissuade themselves from calling these facilities “safe”. As I said on my own blog, claims of “safety” are meaningless unless the definition is stipulated and quantified.

    A more quantitative treatment of safety and hazard analysis is more difficult (hence the numerous criticisms of the Lusk et al study) but forces facilities advocates to actually address specific hazards and hazard controls–something that might actually help improve facility design or at minimum, put real cost/benefit analyses into place. Lacking an approach that deals factually, some would rather throw the “safe” word around while glossing over hazard control, such as at intersections. In that regard, I agree this is immoral, because “safe” is being used as propaganda rather than as honest information.

    Fooling people into thinking they are “safer” on cycletracks so they can decrease pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while improving their health profile leads one to ask if the ends justify the means. I suppose that is the question Ian is asking. Likewise, does advertising aimed at getting gullible young men to join the armed forces justify itself because we need to staff an all-volunteer army?

    When, if ever, is propaganda justified? Who gets to decide? I refuse to watch FAUX news because I distrust I am ever being told the whole truth. Especially in a democracy, such is immoral.


    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 1:34 pm
  9. Kevin Love wrote:


    The world is full of atrocities, mass killings of innocents and crimes against humanity. That doesn’t make them right.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 1:57 pm
  10. Kevin Love wrote:

    Khal wrote:

    “…whenever one goes to a public hearing to argue for measures to increase bicycle mode share, the response includes something along the lines of ‘irresponsible bicycling’”.

    Kevin’s comment:
    My favorite measure to increase bicycle mode share is concrete barriers to enforce the city’s car-free zone. Toronto has North America’s largest urban car-free zone. Guess what! There is very little irresponsible cycling there.

    Irresponsible cycling tends to be caused by car-oriented infrastructure that marginalizes cyclists. Eliminating cars not only stops car drivers from poisoning innocent children. It also mainstreams cycling and tends to provide adequate road space to remove any incentive for irresponsible behaviour.

    This is true not only in Toronto. I previously posted a link here showing how the 9th Avenue cycle lane in New York City almost completely eliminated sidewalk cycling.

    It should not surprise anyone to learn that people tend not to engage in irresponsible behaviour if the fastest, easiest and most convenient thing to do is also the responsible thing to do.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 2:41 pm
  11. Michael wrote:

    I don’t break any law on my bike that I wouldn’t break in my car. 😉

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 3:45 pm
  12. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… Good point re: safe. I use the word because it’s used by advocates who push for lanes and tracks — even ones that are generally known to create a potential for danger, e.g. a door-zone bicycle lane.

    I generally believe that it is ethically wrong to fool people in order to achieve a particular end — especially if the means somehow creates danger or disadvantage.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 4:19 pm
  13. Kevin Love wrote:

    Andy wrote:

    “I generally believe that it is ethically wrong to fool people in order to achieve a particular end…”

    Kevin’s comment:

    This is why I believe that cars should carry similar warning labels to cigarette packages. “If you drive this car, the lethal poisons in its pollution mean that you will give cancer, heart disease and lung disease to innocent children.” Suitable photographs of the child victims poisoned by car drivers should be on these warning labels.

    Some examples can be found at:


    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 5:15 pm
  14. Andy Cline wrote:

    Kevin… Which, yes, means I generally have a low regard for some forms of advertising 🙂

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 5:29 pm
  15. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Cars should carry warnings such as “warning: this car is vastly overpowered for its legal uses and can lead to your committing serious traffic crimes, emitting excess pollution, and killing innocent bystanders”. Further, I would add a horsepower tax inversely proportional to the vehicle’s zero to sixty time. You want to go zero to sixty in six seconds? Fine–you pay a whopping tax to be paid to those who deal with auto casualties and into a global change insurance fund. Finally, I would lobby to put more restrictions on driving stupid-high performance vehicles, e.g., if you drive it, you have to be certified to be responsible with it. Its tough to bring back a life after someone takes it.

    I’d much rather see those warnings on cars than to have to endure yet one more car advertisement prefaced by “warning: professional driver, don’t try this at home”.

    Kevin has a good point insofar as autocentric infrastructure and rules sometimes negatively burden cyclists. Where I differ is whether this means cyclists should ignore the laws. I’ve been cycling as transportation since 1979 in a variety of urban and rural locations.. The laws can be mild annoyances, but rarely a serious inconvenience. I’d prefer cyclists work to change the law, such as was done in Idaho, rather than ignore it.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 5:55 pm
  16. Kevin Love wrote:

    Khal wrote:

    “Finally, I would lobby to put more restrictions on driving stupid-high performance vehicles…”

    Kevin’s comment:

    Ontario passed a law putting speed governors on all trucks preventing them from being driven any faster than 105 km/hr. See:


    The next step is, of course, to extend this to private cars.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 6:11 pm
  17. Ian Cooper wrote:

    “warning: professional driver, don’t try this at home”

    Speaking of which, did anyone see those ads a few months back touting the Acura – “Aggression in its most elegant form”


    I mean, how much of a complete nutcase asshole does one have to be to think that it’s a good idea to sell a car based on the attribute that fuels road rage?

    The saddest thing is that I’ll bet they sold thousands of those cars to the exact type of driver who shouldn’t ever be allowed on the road.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 6:12 pm
  18. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Even Bicycling Magazine has sold such ad space. Car ad writers don’t feel any qualms about writing ads that encourage dangerous behavior, as long as that small print disclaimer is there.

    Can you imagine if gun companies (as opposed to electronic game companies) used similar tactics: the scenerio for a handgun company–an ex-GI who has joined a racist hate group shoots up a Sikh temple with his 9 mm automatic pistol. Warning–professional shooter, fictional scenerio. Don’t try this in your community.

    I quit the NRA over less stupid shit than that.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 8:25 pm
  19. Mighk Wilson wrote:

    The primary source of anger among motorists towards cyclists is fear; fear of hitting a cyclist. The primary source of that fear is the general unpredictability of bicyclists.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 10:47 pm
  20. Mighk Wilson wrote:

    Oh, and thank you Andy for writing this.

    Posted 06 Aug 2012 at 10:48 pm
  21. Ian Cooper wrote:

    I agree with Mighk that motorists are angry at cyclists because of fear of hitting them, but I disagree that the fear comes from cyclists’ unpredictability. In my opinion, the fear’s source is their own lack of confidence in their own driving abilities.

    Motorists might claim that they worry about cyclists’ unpredictability, but I reckon this is a cover for their true fear.

    Posted 07 Aug 2012 at 5:12 am
  22. Khal Spencer wrote:

    The only anger I’ve ever gotten directed at me is the “Get the F off the road” variety. I’m generally pretty predictable, so I avoid the rest.

    Getting back to speeding and horsepower. I would wager that most crashes don’t involve supercars or extreme speed. Most crashes that are the fault of the motorist, I bet, involve lack of attention, minor speeding, failure to comply with a traffic control device, incompetent behavior, and failure to control a vehicle.

    I think the general notion of ceasing the idea that a car is a toy rather than a responsibility–a responsibility that will be enforced– is the bottom line. We could get rid of all the 400 HP cars and still would have a serious crash problem. What is silly is that with all the improvements in vehicle efficiency, MPG standards are still dreadfully low because power trumps the environment. That’s really not a bicycling issue, insofar as it is tangential to actual bicycling.

    Bicycling incompetence is a different issue. But an incompetent cyclist is a Darwin Award contestant. An incompetent driver is a risk to the community.

    Posted 07 Aug 2012 at 7:47 am
  23. Lance Jacobs wrote:

    My Letter-to-the-Editor didn’t get run in the Times. Here it is for ya’ll. -Lance

    Dear Mr Cohen,

    Unlike you, I stop my bicycle at every red. I wait in line with the cars until the light turns green. Drivers who see this odd behavior immediately understand what I am – I’m a vehicle on the road. I’m not a car, but I behave just as predictably. By using the street in the same way as other road users, I project a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. I am never forced off the road, I am never honked at. Most days, after a successful interaction with another vehicle such as a lane change negotiation, we part, with a thumbs-up or a nod, as friends.

    The smooth flow of traffic is enabled by the concept of predictability. In traffic, drivers quickly incur the wrath, if not the front ends of other vehicles if they; stop without warning, make turns from the wrong lane, make rights-on-reds in NYC (also legal in Idaho). Why the anger?  Because these unpredictable behaviors violate the contract, broadcast a sense of disregard, and off-load responsibility onto others.  

    You state that you’re ok with rolling through red lights if it will not endanger yourself or anyone else. I don’t trust your ability to make that judgment. Cars, who you may not perceive as being “in the intersection”, may unexpectedly pull away from the curb. Pedestrians run to cross when the light is about to change. Stealth-colored urban cyclists glide silently into the intersection. Things happen suddenly and without warning. And there you are, doing something unexpected and unpredictable too. After the collision – what will you do, apologize?

    You started your essay stating that you routinely run red lights. You wrongly assume that I do too. So clearly, your comments are not addressed to me. So in response, let me speak not to you, but to other NYC cyclists; to beginners who are unsure of just what rules, if any, they are to follow. Let me address even those who bike routinely, but start each ride as if preparing to enter a war-zone. Bikers! – it doesn’t have to be that way! You can earn the respect you deserve as a legitimate roadway participant. Drivers do not hate us. But they do resent our unpredictable behaviors. They didn’t ask for, nor do they accept the burden of responsibility for our safety.

    Cyclists – You should not ride like Mr Cohen, in spite of his admonishment that you do so. When riding amongst roadway users you should behave as a full member of that community. Assert your legal rights. Work with the flow of traffic to reduce friction. Signal to, and thank drivers who let you move into their lane. Respect your fellow road users and the respect will be returned to you. Your daily ride will be stress-free, 5 minutes longer, and truly ethical.

    Lance Jacobs
    LCI 3507

    Posted 10 Aug 2012 at 8:18 am

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