Ethical Problems On My Daily Commute

When no one checks if you have a ticker, ought you still buy one? |

Let me tell you about the public transportation of Switzerland. It is fantastic. Almost anywhere within the country can be reached in hours through trains, buses, and a dozen minutes of walking. Tickets can easily be bought at every stop or station with touch-screen based machines that fulfill their duty with the talent and zeal of soulless automata. When going on a trip requiring several trains, a single ticket can be bought at any machine and used throughout the whole trip. The trains are fast and on time, and the buses surely would not disappoint any world traveler. The system is, in a word, modern.

Let me tell you about the public transportation of Switzerland. It is terrible. Those great ticket-buying machines are completely undermined by the lack of corresponding machines to check for the existence of said tickets. Instead, the much older technology of people with little hole punchers are employed to assure the machines did their job of extracting money from me. Except these people are few and are polite enough to only come by every hour or so, meaning I don’t ever get to meet them in the metro or on short train trips.

This is a poor partnership of man and machine. But worse than that, it is an ethical problem. Ethical problem in the simple but difficult sense of “what should I do in this situation?” Should I even bother ever buying tickets for my daily commute, knowing with full confidence that no one will ever check that I have done so? This question struck me, fiercely, as I was staring blankly at the door of the train midway through my commute home and thinking my one month metro pass would expire in a few days. Having felt the insult of buying expensive tickets that never got marked by a tiny hole, to a degree the question was about whether the rational action was to largely avoid buying tickets and thus minimize my expected spending. And the answer to that is: yes, it is.

But more significantly, I was struck by the deeper question of whether the only reason for me to buy the tickets is the threat of punishment, whether there is any moral basis for me to buy tickets if only I knew had I not bought any and rode on the train anyway. Certainly the train company wants me to pay for a ticket, and so not doing that is akin to theft from the train company. I thought I had closed the book on the post-Nietzsche “God is dead”-era morality question when I accepted the notion of moral systems as just a social phenomenon, the abstraction of there being things citizens of a society should and should not do (I’ll spare you the details). But, where does buying a ticket for a metro station that does not even bother to check fit into that?

Who cares? I can just take the metro with no ticket to save money. If the train company really wants to know I paid up, they should do just put in an electronic system to check tickets. My action even incentivizes them to do so, thereby making sure the many others taking the metro will pay up just like me. But, what does that imply concerning theft, murder, and so on? If not buying a ticket is a form of theft, and it is reasonable for me to act in my best self interest if the company does not punish me for my theft, then is the same true of other bad deeds?

Yeah, pretty much. The big take away is, once again, that I can’t come up with a justification for some innate social moral system that makes things bad or good. Rather, morality is established in society when enforcement as well as education and the oblique influence of culture bring it about. This means that theft is in the “don’t do” column because society’s threat of punishments, its subtly internalized values, the ever present directive to accept the requests of those in authority, and so on. It is certainly true that there are good reasons why those things put theft in the “dont do” column, but the point is that those things lead to theft being morally wrong for me rather than the other way around. Which makes sense really, why else would morality be so mixed up, variable, and contradictory all within the same society. The conclusion is somewhat bleak, possibly predictable, seemed interesting enough to write of, and may have just been curious enough for you to have read this whole thing up to it. Of course, people can philosophize about the normative way society’s moral system should be all they want, and they can perhaps even influence its ever continuing development, but I am still not going to pay for my optional daily commute ticket.