Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Post a Photo of a Bad Driver?“
During a torrential downpour one afternoon, my son and I were driving behind a dangerous driver who swerved very carelessly over the median and roadside lines several times. It was clear over the miles we were behind this person that he or she was distracted — and, I suspect, a teenager, based on the type of car. Before the driver turned off the road, I had my son take a photo, which I posted to a local forum on social media. The post said that this driver was dangerous and included the plate number. My goal was to alert others and hopefully let a parent know that his or her teenager was driving recklessly. A controversy erupted, split evenly between those for and against. The police won’t do anything unless they see it happening, so I did not phone them. I could never live with myself if the driver went on to cause an accident and I did nothing. Was my action justified? NAME WITHHELD
My response: You realize your question, “Was my action justified” only asks opinion, right? You believe you were justified. Half the responders on the forum disagreed. You can appeal to the New York Times, but the authority of a newspaper doesn’t make its writers’ opinions anything more than someone else’s opinions.
Would you like an absolute measure of justification so you can answer your question definitively? As you know, none exists. If there was, no one would have debated the issue. You and everyone else would have looked up the answer and found it.
As usual, I suggest the more relevant question is what the results of your actions are—in particular, how they affect others. The police’s policy sounds designed to rely on evidence and not hearsay. You wanted to avoid this burden since you saw what you considered dangerous. Saying you could never live with yourself if the driver caused an accident and did nothing, you felt compelled to do something, anything! You didn’t restrict yourself only to effective things, though.
Was posting the information online effective? It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t look likely. Avoiding the burden of evidence and all the other trappings of due process risks promoting vigilante justice based on mob psychology or something like that. The U.S. amended its Constitution twice to protect due process in part to avoid the outcomes you look like you were seeking. You knew you could rile up many self-righteous people—if anything, you seem surprised at people disagreeing with you. While it’s possible you could have identified the driver, the police already would not have acted so there was no chance at a fair trial.
What would be your options in your best case? Unless the other driver agreed with your version of the story, it would be your word against theirs. You say you’re right, but nobody but you knows what you saw and your memory changed since then anyway. You took a picture when you almost certainly could have taken a video.
You sound like you wanted a something like a lynching and are frustrated you didn’t get one. If I were you I would have accepted that things happen in the world I can’t do anything about. I’ve found great reward in that acceptance, even in celebrating it, as I described in “Audio interview: don’t just accept, celebrate!” and “Acceptance and Celebration.”
The New York Times response:
Kwame Anthony Appiah: There are two of you in the car, so it’s perfectly safe for one of you to call 911. Somebody really dangerous should be brought to the attention of the police immediately. Of course, they might not do anything, but you should at least give them the opportunity — though only if it’s serious. I do not think we want to live in a world in which people are constantly calling the cops because people are annoying them by driving at 33 miles per hour in a 35-miles-per-hour zone. But this guy does sound as if he was really dangerous.
Amy Bloom: Calling the cops makes sense. I’m not sure if posting on social media is going to help, although I understand the wish to alert people. If you were very narrow about just posting the facts and not jumping to conclusions — either that the driver was a teenager or that this was a pattern, because those are two things that you don’t know — maybe you could just say on your local neighborhood email list, ‘‘I saw this car being driven in this way, and I was concerned about the driver’s safety and that of other drivers.’’ Then you haven’t made any accusations. But when people post on social media in this way, they often open the door to major controversy.
Kenji Yoshino: You could ethically post the facts without going further. In fact, if you do go further, you run the very, very slim chance of being sued for libel. So just the facts, please. That’s also an ethical directive, because you have no broader understanding of the context: This could have been a one-time thing. I have mixed feelings about what has been called digilantism, or vigilantism through digital media, but a way to mitigate it is to also post positive examples of driving. The Internet is a place where negative commentary reigns supreme, but it might be encouraging to do the opposite as well.
Appiah: I’m not a big fan of using social media in this way. There’s no guarantee that there’s any filtering about which complaints are serious and which aren’t. So a lot of the commentary is therefore going to be unfair. Once you are accused of something on the web, nothing might happen or absurdly extensive abuse might occur. I’m just worried, because we don’t want to live in a world where vast quantities of accusations of this sort are circulating.
Yoshino: Does it make it better if you are willing to post your own plate? The issue is accountability: Here’s my plate, tell me how I’m doing so I’m not just criticizing others. That’s one mitigation tactic that has been employed. Another is suggested by a YouTube channel called Dash Cam Owners Australia, which involves putting an automatic camera on your dashboard and then uploading its video clips of how other people are driving. In fact, accident reports have been filed that include dashcam videos because they’re actually more reliable than eyewitness accounts.
Appiah: Those tactics are slightly different from what I imagine is being aimed for here, which is just ‘‘Shame the offender.’’ That is unlikely to be very effective: Shame works best within social groups, and the web is a world of strangers, by and large. I’m glad the police are introducing more cameras to record their own activity. When it comes to public activity on the highways, nobody has a reasonable expectation of privacy, so you should be perfectly free to record what they’re doing. Putting your own plate out there is a very interesting idea, because it’s a way of helping you constrain your own behavior in positive ways. We don’t want to be seen to be driving badly, so we’re helping ourselves behave better if we put ourselves under that kind of scrutiny.
Bloom: The dashcam is great for objectivity. But the idea of a website where there’s running commentary on one another’s driving makes me feel not only that I don’t want to live in that web-world, but also that the real world would be better if we dialed back anonymous comments.
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