Finally, Some Theory!

The word on the street is that my blog is turning into a biking blog.

Time to mix it up. Time to put some “Street Theory” back into this Street Theorist’s m.o.


I recommend Appiah's book
I recommend Appiah's book



This story begins with trash. I love my little cul de sac in the hinterlands of Iowa City. But I often find lots of trash in the street. I never see anybody littering, so who does it?  I don’t sit on my stoop all day, so I can’t tell. Maybe kids are littering, or maybe the wind just blows it towards my house. One theory I had was that my neighbors’ kids were secretly littering. Yesterday I was pondering what to do about this trash problem, when I spied my neighbor walking on my portion of the sidewalk. Then I saw him bending down. Then I saw him pick up some litter and put it into a plastic bag. He went up and down both sides of the street. He stopped in my yard and looked at me. I waved. He waved. Then it dawned on me: he was glaring at me because he thought that my kids had been littering on his street.

Oh, a street theorist loves it when the tables are turned.

This brings me to a short excursion into ETHICS. 

From my computer’s dictionary we find this explanation of the differing ways of interpreting ethics as a moral code of behavior:

Schools of ethics in Western philosophy can be divided, very roughly, into three sorts. The first, drawing on the work of Aristotle, holds that the virtues (such as justice, charity, and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit both the person possessing them and that person’s society. The second, defended particularly by Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: humans are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings. Thirdly, utilitarianism asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness or benefit of the greatest number.


Below are some ideas (mixed with my own) from a recent book on ethics titled Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Harvard University Press, 2008.

1.  What we do depends upon how the world is–therefore we must understand how the world is–and so our everyday decisions can and must draw from many different spheres of knowledge. Based on this, I can reflect that I decided to get angry about the litter, but I did not decide to pick it up. What sphere did I draw from? The sphere that says blame the other dude, blame the government, blame big business, blame my parents, but above all else, do not blame myself. Wait! is this also called The American Spirit? Or, is that too sardonic?

2.  In making choices we must start with a vision, however, inchoate, of what it means for human life to go well. This is via Aristotle in case you were wondering. What this means is that we do not make choices without some prior knowledge. In rather stark terms: we do not make decisions without some theory guiding it. Leave it to a to a street theorist to write that.

3. Not just politics, but also arts and sports are engaged in illuminating the present by drawing on the past. We make the future worth hoping for through frames of reference. If I am a biker, my frame of reference might be safety versus fun. I might stop during a ride to remove a tree branch from the bike lane because of my own past experience with tree branches. I put myself into the world of the future by remembering my place on the ground when I once went cartwheeling over a tree branch. What this means is that ethics are based on my desire to put myself into the possible event of being affected by the tree branch. Past and present are “smushed” together. I can decide to not stop and remove the tree branch–but that would mean that I have to pretend that I am not a biker, and not affected by tree branches. Basically, for me to decide to not remove the tree branch I have to pretend that I am not human. [Oh please, Street Theorist! This last one is too much! Perhaps.]

4.  Our evaluations of the world around us are made through passions and emotions, not despite them. Feeling is thinking. When someone asks you to take your emotions out of the picture, they are asking you to think without thinking. Sure it may be best to not pull your hair out over every decision, but dispassionate logic is really thinking calmly, not thinking without any emotions. What this means is that you might be well served to bring your personality into the picture when making important decisions. When you hear someone say “it is not my problem that there is a tree branch in the bike lane,” you can respond in many ways. You can even decide to not respond. But by remaining silent, you have made a decision. And that decision, to be silent, is not an ethical choice. Why not? It does not pass the test. Not removing the branch may hurt you or others (Aristotle). It is not rational to your well being (Kant). And not removing the tree branch does not benefit the greatest number, just a small number, like maybe the clinic or bike shop that has to repair the damaged body/bike (Utilitarian).

Finally then, do you litter, pick up litter, or think about blaming somebody for the litter? Do you bunny-hop the tree branch, stop and pick up the tree branch, or write a blog entry about picking up a tree branch?

Aristotelians, Kantians, and Utilitarians all have points in their favor. But nobody has a lock on ethics. You must navigate through the litter and the tree branches.

Good luck.


One Comment on “Finally, Some Theory!

  1. Hi Sean!

    I am the “unemployed person” that met you at the Gold Pointe Fitness Criterium in Cedar Rapids. Thanks for sharing the book on ethics. I will add it to my summer reading.

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