Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Car Seats and the Absurd

Copyright © 2002 by Joel Marks
Originally published in Philosophy Now magazine, no. 38, October/Novemeber 2002, page 51

The extra minute you take to secure your child into her car seat could be just what it takes to bring your whole family into the path of a Mack truck half an hour down the road.

But that is obvious. It is the cruel, rueful, and ironic face of the contingency of existence. And of course it can work the other way around: Had you not taken the extra minute to secure your child into her car seat, you might have driven right into the path of a Mack truck. What does this tell us? Only, one might suppose, that we do not know the future. It doesn't change the fact that the only rational way to conduct one's affairs is to consider the odds: Children in automobile accidents are more likely to survive if they are strapped into a car seat. Therefore it is rational, not to mention morally obligatory, to do this for your child, even though it is within the realm of possibility that there will be a freak coincidence of circumstances, which converts your caring action into a contributing cause of the very catastrophe you were attempting to avert.

Only ... further reflection leads me to make a more bizarre inference. Put aside for the moment our epistemological situation and consider the metaphysics. Do you grant the following? Most accidents where there is a child passenger and an adult who has been responsible enough to purchase a car seat and secure the child into it, will not be due to some such aggravating factor as the driver drunkenly weaving in and out of traffic or drag racing or the like. Rather, the scenario will more likely be one of encountering some other car which has such a driver, or of the first driver's doing something foolishly spontaneous, like miscalculating when the light was going to change, or of his being momentarily distracted, as by the family dog wagging his tail in the driver's face at a bend in the road, etc. In sum, I assume that the typical accident involving a child in a car seat occurs because the car was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accidents are the thing of a moment, and moments are conditioned as delicately as a house of cards.

But if that is so, then do we not arrive at a rather startling conclusion, namely, that it is not the freak coincidence, but in fact the norm that accidents involving a child secured into a car seat would not have happened at all if the child had not been secured into the car seat? The logic of my argument is that everything else would have remained the same ... ceteris paribus, to use a logician's term. And I think that is a reasonable assumption in most cases. For instance, your not taking an extra minute with the car seat (because you were rushed, say) would not in any way affect whether the driver of the Mack truck takes another drink, or runs the stop light, etc. So that truck would still be at the very spot it would otherwise have been had you taken the extra minute. Except that because you didn't, there would be no accident: Your car and the Mack truck would pass through the same space but at different times.

In other words, although your alternative behavior would indeed affect the whole universe given enough time, the vast majority of the universe would remain the same in the short term. It is like the ripples in a pond after you plunk the pebble in: They will eventually reach the far shore and make the frog croak, but at first a nearby fish will not even notice anything has happened. Just so, the fate of the Mack truck and its driver, and of all who would be affected by them in turn into the indefinitely far future, would not begin to alter until later, after the moment at which the accident would have occurred. Up until then, all else with the truck and driver would be identical, so the accident won't occur provided you are careless about the car seat.

Singing the praises of car seats because your child's life has just been saved by one seems, therefore, as odd as extolling the virtues of kidnappers because your child has just been released by one. It is understandable, of course; there is a certain psycho-logic to it since your relief makes you feel grateful. But in strictly logical terms ... it ain't, is it?

Nonetheless, it is still true that it is rational (and, again, surely also ethical, even morally obligatory) to strap the child in. That is because the epistemology of the human condition leaves us with no rational option for deciding what to do other than relying on known, general probabilities. And in this case they presumably tell us that in otherwise matched populations, the one employing car seats will suffer fewer casualties. This is because*, all other things equal, we would expect approximately the same number of accidents in a society with and a society without car seats, since the number of accidents owing to the extra time taken to strap in the child in the former would be offset by the number of accidents owing to not having taken extra time in the latter. But obviously a child stands a better chance of escaping serious injury or death in an accident where a car seat has been employed. You simply cannot outwit Mother Nature on this one.

I conclude that ... life is absurd. (Although it is perhaps also absurd to employ logical argument to arrive at such a conclusion. But then ... life is absurd!) For the summation of the above is that it is rational to use a car seat for the safety of your child, even though on any actual occasion when the car seat shows its effectiveness for that purpose, it has likely also occasioned the risk to which your child has been exposed. In short, the car seat (in any given case but not in general) brings about the need for itself. It sounds like a marketer's dream ... or a metaphysical wizard's "perpetual justification engine" ... or the answer to a theologian's prayers for a Necessary Being ... but it is really a kind of joke, akin to: "Why am I hitting myself on the head with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop!" Also, this realization seems to have no practical import, and yet it changes everything, like a Gestalt shift (as from the contour of a vase to two facial profiles).

* I thank Ian Smith for this gloss (3/23/2011).

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