Most likely, you did some driving last Memorial Day, and if you did that, you almost assuredly got caught in bad traffic that was bad for no obvious reason. Depending on your temperament you may have tried to figure out how it got to stop-and-go traffic in a 60mph zone for no apparent reason; you may or may not have ever found any possible reason for it, but odds are that if you looked, the only evidence you saw was “people doing something foolish.”
Usually, someone slammed on the brakes when the vehicle in front just slowed slightly. From where you are, you have information that they lack, that the front car is slowing, but it has room in front of it. It is unlikely that they are going to do anything but slow down. Slamming on your brakes makes the entire line of cars have to adjust around you.
If you were sitting in the second car — rather than way out of the situation — you would have only the information that traffic is heavy, and that the vehicle in front of you is abruptly slowing. You cannot know if it is going to stop, or if it’s just slowing down to keep some distance, or if another car cut it off and you’re about to be in a pileup.
If you were the front car, whose braking startled the second car, you didn’t know what the person behind you was thinking, but you were likely watching the car to your left, which had been trying to change lanes without signaling, or maybe the people inside were drunk, as evidenced by how much they were weaving across the center line. You had to keep enough room between yourself and the car ahead of you so that people had a place to go if the driver that neither of the other two cars I’ve mentioned could see, or simply had not noticed.
Let’s say the weaving car, by the way, was only trying to avoid obvious weak spots on the edge of the road.
Human knowledge has some severe limits on it, not just in how much we notice, but in how much we can know, and how much what we do is based on our attempts to apply solid principles to the known knowns (the car ahead is braking) and known unknowns (there’s something wrong with the car next to me, because it’s weaving across the lane lines, I don’t know what is wrong, so I’ll make sure there’s room).
Or, to quote the CCC: Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.”
There’s a perennial argument (no, not the one about prudential judgment itself) about the death penalty. It’s somewhat related to the seamless garment family of arguments, but is probably mostly related to this part of the catechism: Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’
Now, I don’t want to re-fight that battle– it’s always ugly. I’ll just note that, compared to the days when capital punishment was exercised for theft and political opposition, validly so, from memory, it would take a near-automatic death penalty for convicted assailants for the cases to be anything but practically non-existent.
That’s not my point. I’m trying to point at the weighing of different knowns by a more local power.
One of the things that drew me into learning more about Catholicism is how practical it is — there are binding teachings, but they are pretty clean cut; it’s applying them where things get iffy. If you run into something that sounds crazy, it’s either being phrased oddly or — a really big problem among the “I was born Catholic, but” folks I talk with — someone has been teaching their prudential judgments as binding ones.
From the car that’s way back and has a broader field of view, it’s obvious that the problem is being caused by the second car. From the second car’s view, it’s obvious that they’re applying good sense in a possibly deadly situation. From the front car’s knowledge, the problem is the car next to them that is behaving oddly. From the swerving car’s view, what idiot didn’t fix the edge of the road before a big travel weekend?
They’re all applying sound judgment from the facts that they know, however any one of them having control of the others without also having their information would probably cause an accident.
Alright, let’s imagine the guy in the back knows that the slams-on-brakes car can’t see around the front car, and that the front car is watching the swerving car, and the swerving car is avoiding a hazardous edge of the road; that driver is paying attention to that information and has an accident himself, because he’s paying attention to three cars that aren’t even near him rather than to his own driving. People can’t make sense of too much information, we have to focus. For added confusion, some of the information is simply not available; with the car story, we don’t know when someone’s wheel is going to explode, or if a deer is about to slam into someone.
That’s why we both have civil authority being able to make life-and-death decisions — it can’t survive very long when it’s too big to function across its entire spread — and the notion of subsidiarity: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”
A trellis, rather than a casting form.
Oddly enough, it helped me stay calm in traffic to think of it that way…
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