Chaos, the Categorical Imperative, and my morning commute

A few months ago, I read James Gleick’s Chaos. In it, Gleick provides several essays about what was an emerging field of research: chaos, complexity, and dynamic systems. Beneath the shiny surface of these fancy words are some genuinely shocking truths about our world. Even within the simplest and apparently deterministic systems are points where extreme complexity and chaos occur. In other words, in things that one might think are orderly, there lies a great propensity towards chaos. Although I truly enjoyed the book while I was reading it — it has so many of those “gee whiz” moments that make you put down the book and chew on what you’ve read for a while — I’ve grown to appreciate the book even more as time has gone on. The reason being is that each day I notice more the chaos Gleick described that exists around us, hidden in the various activities of our daily lives.

One such activity is driving. I spend roughly 2.5 hours in the car everyday — an hour in the morning, 30 mins at noon, and an hour in the evening. Having spent so much time driving everyday to/from work, or on long cross-country roadtrips, I’ve come to appreciate orderly traffic etiquette. CGPGrey and Vox both recently had YouTube videos about proper driving etiquette which I hold dear.


For instance, if you’re on the interstate, always stay in the right lane unless you’re passing. Make sure you’re using your turn signal BEFORE you actually turn (rather than, as some point use it, to indicate when they start turning). And so forth. Indeed, it is order that keeps us not only safe (the speed limits enforce a certain degree of order) but also maxmimize the efficiency of the system. When individuals on the road decide to break from an orderly pattern, they invite not only inefficiency but also danger. But it is more than just disorderly behavior on the road. It is the geography and distribution of daily traffic that invites chaos. Indeed, an area of application of chaos theory is traffic patterns.

As drivers, we all have an origin and a destination (but sometimes I wonder about this latter for some drivers…). We also often try to determine the most efficient route given where we’re commuting to. Over a fair amount of time, given the same origin and destination, we even may find the most efficient route for us, whether that be the short duration or distance. But as we merge with the flow of traffic, we create perturbations in its flow.

“So what’s this about the categorical imperative?”, you may be asking yourself. Quick refresher: Immanual Kant’s Categorical Imperative states (to put it crudely) that you should act as though anything you do were a universal law. This should govern what you do. For instance, when deciding whether an action is a good or bad action, consider, “what would the world be like if everyone decided to do this?” For instance, if you were considering stealing a candy bar from a grocery store, then let us assume that everyone did so. Suddenly, there are no candy bars to steal because they’ve all been stolen and perhaps the grocery store decides never to stock them or perhaps the manufacturer decides it’s not worth selling them at grocery stores. The categorical imperative is, therefore, a bit like the golden rule, “do unto others as you would others to do unto you” except that it goes a little bit further.

Obvious within Kant’s categorical imperative is order. This should be clear in acting as though one were universally legislating — order is part and parcel with universality. So, going back to rush hour traffic, how does the categorical imperative relate to my morning commute? Think about those moments in your commute (if you drive yourself) where unruly drivers can bug you the most. They wait until the last moment to merge into your lane before an important turn or perhaps swoop around traffic on a particularly trecherous part of your route? Maybe you do not experience any of this (in which case you are a blessed soul) but I have been considering a lot lately, “what if everyone tried to do that?” Certainly, a drive to work would seem more like an episode of Mad Max. Everyone would be swooping, cutting each other off, and driving like maniacs. We’d likely see more accidents, many more frustrated drivers, and slower traffic. As the Vox video (above) describes, even small perturbations in traffic flow can create significant traffic delays.

So think on this next time you are driving and feel the impulse to swoop around the person driving slowly in front of you: What if everyone did so?


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