We open on a paved road – could be residential, could be in a shopping plaza. The roadway is wide enough for three standard size cars to drive parallel. Maybe there is a line painted in the middle, maybe not. Two-way traffic runs on this road, and two cars are approaching the same point on the road.
The wrinkle in this thought experiment is that a trolley parked itself on the side of the road, obstructing that third of it. The two approaching cars can still pass safely, but only if the car on the opposite side of the road moves over to accommodate the car partially obstructed by the parked trolley.
The question is this: what obligations do the two cars have? Does the obstructed car have an obligation to yield, or does the unobstructed car have an obligation to provide enough space?
I use this thought experiment often to highlight two things. First, the political difference between debatable and non-debatable concepts. Second, though related, my obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) frustration with how people approach these situations.
One thing that can annoy people is someone’s insistence that their take on the situation is the one and only valid position. It’s the difference between fact and opinion, and the vitriolic nature of public discourse in recent years highlights the widespread inability to tell the difference between those two categories. That is why we must begin with the clarification that the point of this thought experiment is not actually the obligation of the two cars. People with have different perspectives on it and may raise follow-up questions that are integral to the conversation. Is there a line delineating two halves to the road or not? What are the social mores, the unwritten rules, of the society that uses that road? Are there pedestrians around that might change the safety calculus of the situation?
That is the important thing here – this is a debatable topic. Even if the society has a specific law governing the situation (for example, local statute requires that the obstructed car yield right of way), that society may still debate whether that law is correct and change it if deemed inappropriate or outdated.
Where the situation fascinates me is that I have noticed a social tendency for the individual posed the question to determine two different positions depending on whether they identify with the obstructed or the unobstructed car. Someone in the position of the obstructed driver might be inclined to say, “The other car should move over to accommodate both vehicles,” while that same person, if approaching from the other direction, says, “Their lane is the one with the obstruction, so they have an obligation to yield.”
The problem I have with this is that it’s not a debate. The conclusion divorces itself from reasoning about the holistic situation to support whatever benefits the individual. That’s not a social contract – it defeats the very purpose of laws, mores, folkways, and the like. That is everyone out for themselves and weaponizing the social contract to enable it. It’s a clear inability to have empathy.
When it comes to these public occurrences the debate is to be had, the outcome needs to be the socially responsible one for the situation.