Cars, morality and Latour

kill your speedSimple question: What is a human life worth?

Answer: Around 3000 people die every year on UK roads. Therefore, the mortality of 3000 people is worth an expansive road network and unlimited card usage nationwide. This may seem like a vulgar calculation, but it is a principle of the collective. Thus the ‘golden rule’ seems to be forsaken in the name of automobile use.

Bruno Latour discusses this phenomenon in his ‘Politics of Nature’:

Eight thousand people die each year from automobile accidents in France: no way was found to keep them as full-fledged-and thus living!-members of the collective. In the hierarchy that was set up, the speed of automobiles and the flood of alcohol was preferable to high-way-deaths… No moral principle is superior to the procedure of progressive composition of the common world: for the time being, the rapid use of cars is “worth” much more in France than eight thousand innocent lives each year.

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2 Responses to “Cars, morality and Latour”

  1. Jacob Russell Says:

    Is the word ‘innocent’ the unintended joker in the deck here? Though used in a summary catch phrase, it clearly is significant in this context, as it suggests a level of value different from.. whatever the alternatives to ‘innocent’ might be. What does it mean? How does that effect the questions posed here?

  2. avoidingthevoid Says:

    No one is innocent in the collective. The word ‘innocent’ has a lingering tabloid ring to it that Latour seems to be well aware of. The irony of the innocent becomes all too obvious in a calculation like this. The collective works on a principle of utility that not only allows for but factors in these consequences. The ‘we get this, but…’ being the normal state of affairs. There is constant work being done to slim down the numbers of deceased: speed limits, law enforcement, TV advertising, speed bumps, traffic lights, and so on, but this is to appease the collective by focusing on the message of the medium, not the medium of the national road network itself as something that should be brought into question.

    New technologies bring hazards and risks that are not anticipated due to negligent research or unmoderated lies – such as product recalls and old fashioned cigarette advertising. In ‘Politics of Nature’ Latour wants the moralists to continue to bring before the collective hazardous cases of concern. Road accidents and deaths are things that must be brought continually forward by the moralist who should be ‘freed from the obligation to be politically, scientifically and economically reasonable’ (p.159).

    There is some wonderful research on the internet concerning new ‘bendy buses ‘ that are being introduced into Brighton soon which flashes up statistics concerning accidents, cost and risk assessments to the public (this article is my favourite dramatic warning HERE ). It seems that the obvious profit incentive of bendy buses must fight with the moralist’s questioning of these new ‘actors’ in the collective. What is most interesting is how the buses continue to operate, continue to be used and will be expanded across the country even when it is shown there may be some serious problems with this actor. Is this denial or calculation or a bit of both?

    In terms of ‘new actors introduced into the collective’, I loved it when the self-service counters at supermarkets were introduced. People were at first vocal with their socialist sensibilities and shunning these foul machine in favour of a human face. Yet now they’re ubiquitous all over the country and everyone eagerly uses them. The supermarkets are testing the water for what will be a gradual full-scale replacement of staff with automated systems and electronically tagged food. The moralists will surely bring these non-places into question. The question is, will the collective care?

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