Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pedestrian Ethical Quandary

I sent the following letter to the "Ethicist" column of the New York Times Magazine. He didn't deem it worthy of publication; and who can blame him? So into the blog it goes …

My son and I are engaged in a seemingly trivial ethical argument about the etiquette of pushing the "pedestrian walk" button at an intersection. In some parts of the country, notably New England, where we've spent most of our lives, the "Walk" light will never come on unless some pedestrian pushes a button, usually big, round, and somewhat tarnished, but, with luck, functional. One then has to wait for the correct point in the cycle: If you're trying to cross at the corner of Broad Ave and Main Street, the pedestrians might get to go only after the cars on Broad have had their green.

Here's the ethical question: Is it okay to cross after pushing the button if there are no cars coming but the Walk light hasn't come on yet? I say No: By pushing the button you've made a back-up reservation for a time period when you can walk, just in case you don't get a chance earlier. It happens rather often that the opportunity arises to get across the street without the need for the Walk light, because there's a lull in the flow of cars. By pushing the button and then not using the time slot you've reserved, you've made someone else, the motorists who have to sit there watching a deserted intersection with brightly lit Walk lights, pay for your guarantee that you'll get a chance to walk.

My son says, Go ahead and walk! Once you've pushed the button, the motorists are going to have to wait, so what good does it do anyone for the pedestrian to be delayed? To add to the plausibility, suppose it's raining. How does it help the drivers for the pedestrian to get wetter?

Of course, the obvious answer is that one shouldn't push the button if the odds are that it's unnecessary. At some streets and times of day you know perfectly well that nine times out of ten you won't need the button. But sometimes one pushes it by habit or miscalculation, and then this ethical conundrum looms.

We realize that this question involves a trivial amount of inconvenience to the people involved, but if you multiply it by the many thousands of intersections blessed with these buttons, perhaps the issue may seem more pressing.


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