No rights, no rules can be absolute

Published February 1, 2003

I am celebrating a 50th anniversary of a great moment in the process of becoming an adult – receiving my driver’s licence. At the time I was learning to drive, I was in university taking Psychology 100.In those days much psychological research was conducted among what were called “the higher primates” (I wonder what they would have made of research among us “other primates”?).One piece of research concerned the process of teaching a chimpanzee to drive a car. Evidently, these primates could be taught the rules about red and green lights. The problem was that they learned the rule as an absolute, and the presence of another vehicle in the intersection when the light was green made no difference. They drove through anyway. The project was abandoned, perhaps because adding the caution “only if the intersection is open” to the message of the green light, was beyond the capacity of the teachers to teach or the learners to learn. Another key learning came from my instructor (my father) about intersections not governed by traffic lights. The rule of that time was that the right of way at those intersections belonged to the vehicle on the right. But my father felt that this was a rule, like red and green lights, which was not necessarily absolute, and he taught me a verse to make the point.

“Here lies Jonathan Jay who died while defending his right of way; he was right, of course, as the day is long, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.”

On this anniversary, two simple reflections occur to me. The first is about automobiles and decision-making. In the 20th century, automobiles became the scene of a lot of decision-making. One area is “road rage,” a phenomenon which appears to be on the increase. Another is alcohol and driving, a phenomenon on the decrease. But the word “automobile” tells us a lot. It has the same prefix as, for example, “autonomy.” “Auto” means “self.” When I got my licence, my “self,” my capacity for autonomy and self-expression, took a great leap forward. The point when age forces people to give up that licence is a moment of diminution of autonomy. No wonder so much self-esteem is invested not only in automobiles but also in the way we perform as drivers. And my second reflection follows from that, namely, we are tempted to claim our rights on the road as absolute, and see any concession of right (or right of way) as a defeat. The result of that mindset can be disastrous. We have much to learn from the Jewish tradition of the “law” and the “commentary” on the law. The law is often phrased in absolutes. The commentary is the millennia-old rabbinic tradition of interpretation of the law in the circumstances. Even the Ten Commandments, among the most absolute material in the whole Bible, have undergone this process of interpretation. For example, what does “keeping holy the Sabbath” mean in our time? When we contemplate the prospect of war, what does it mean to say “thou shalt not kill”? If these ancient, timeless and binding claims of God upon us need reflection in each circumstance, what about my claims on others, my rights vis-a-vis others? But even more important, will these lofty reflections actually improve the quality of my behaviour on the road? Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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