What is a Deontological cycle helmet I hear you ask? Or not. Would you like to read my homework?
I’m studying a degree in ‘Theology, Ministry and Mission’, and one of the modules is “Christian Faith and Ethical Living”. The following 1,500 word essay was written and submitted in response to an assignment… so let’s be clear: I am not a qualified ethicist, and I have only had two lectures on Deontology. I also haven’t received the marks back yet, so it is quite possible that my arguments are flawed and my conclusions are incorrect. Let’s face it, even if I get a good mark – I’m unlikely to get a perfect mark! However, I found the thought process has moved me forward in my understanding of a dilemma I faced as part of work. In a sense, I be delighted to receive feedback because I feel dialogue is the way we move forward together in understanding.
This version of the essay has the references removed for ease of reading, but a full version is available here.
The Moral Dilemma:
I ride a bicycle as part of my ministry as an Anglican priest, and my preference is to not wear a cycle helmet. Should I change this practice when near primary school children who are being taught to ride safely, who are wearing high visibility clothing and cycle helmets? UK law does not require cyclists to wear high visibility clothing or cycle helmets.
I have chosen ‘Deontology’ as the method of reaching an ethical decision because the sense of guilt I feel comes from questions of duty in a community setting. Morality is derived from the Latin ‘mores’ meaning ‘customs’ so ‘there will always be tension between rights of the individual and the good of society, an individual’s morality has to be worked out in the context of a community morality.’ Deontology, unlike Utilitarianism, holds that a moral value cannot be determined by an analysis of what the outcomes might be but instead that the moral principle is ‘a priori’: self-evidently true .
Working towards an ethical decision:
There are two principles of deontology which I must consider:
- it is my duty ‘so act that I use humanity, whether in my own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’
- to act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law
There is also a hierarchy of duty; to God, to myself and to others. Then also a duty of gratitude, immediacy and justice.
Duty to God:
Kant writes, ‘the Bible dates the first crime, through which evil entered the world, from the first lie and the author of all evil, the father of lies.’ As a Christian, I have a duty to God’s commandment, ‘You shall not bear false witness’ (Ex 20:16) and Kant expressed this maxim as a universal law. Based on this, I cannot misrepresent safety studies and scientific data to suggest that my position has objective authority.
Duty to self:
‘Telling the truth’ is not just a duty to God, it is a duty to myself as a moral being: ‘the greatest moral transgression of duty to myself is lying, for the dishonour that accompanies a lie also accompanies a liar like his shadow.’
Considering ‘safety’, and the universal principle to ‘not harm myself’: I have read conflicting studies which claim that cycle helmets may or may not be safe. In applying the information to my own circumstances, I currently hold the opinion that a cycle helmet would not improve my safety. This decision includes these subjective experiences:
- My experience is that when wearing a cycle helmet, I feel less safe. My perception is that motorists pass me less carefully when I look like a ‘cyclist’. When I look like a human on a bicycle I feel more considered.
- My perception is that wearing high visibility clothing contributes to the ‘otherness’ of me in motorists’ minds, and reduces the empathy required to treat me considerately.
- My sport is endurance cycling, and one of the possible fatigue injuries is ‘Shemer neck’. Expensive cycle helmets may weigh as little as 200g, but they also increase aerodynamic drag on the head. I choose not to burden my neck with these additional forces.
- High visibility clothing needs to be highly visible against the background, but with 24-hour events, the background can change dramatically. Highly visible clothing also does not help if a motorist is not looking.
If I were to change my behaviour in front of these children, I would be working against the maxim ‘to do myself no harm’ and therefore, with all else equal, I should maintain my current practice.
Duty to others:
GR Dunstan argues that ‘we cannot do without a sense of guilt, and that it is wholly inappropriate to adopt a guilt-relieving moral individualism at home that simply transfers the guilt to a distant social concern.’ It would be morally corrupt to avoid addressing this question, however moral decisions are often held in contextual tension, does my duty to myself conflict with my duty to others?
There are studies that claim the introduction of mandatory helmet laws in some countries have resulted in a decline in cycling, and the loss to society of the public health benefits this activity brings. It could be argued that it is my duty to normalise an activity which has benefits to society, this is seen in countries such as The Netherlands where cycle helmets are rarely worn, and bicycles are used in preference to motor-vehicles.
Wearing cycling helmets ‘in case you are hit by a motor vehicle’ has been likened to giving American school children bullet proof vests, rather than introducing gun control. It represents a power imbalance between the ‘might’ of the motor-lobby against the weakness of the fragile human body. It could be argued that it is my moral duty to justice to challenge this authority. Additionally, if I believe my safety is compromised by wearing a helmet, it is my duty to speak out against the authority imposing false teaching on these children. In practice, I consider my decision to ‘not wear a helmet’ to be non-transferrable, because it is based on a subjective assessment of my own safety. I intuitively expect children’s safety to be improved by wearing a cycle helmet due to the types of accidents they may have while learning, but I have not studied this.
A different view on ‘authority’ is found in Christian tradition, where those in authority have been put there by God. So is it my duty to uphold ‘all put in authority’, and not visibly challenge them by behaving contrary to their teaching? This is not a deontological argument as there is no universal principle that requires authority to be supported in whatever action it takes, especially where authority may harm humanity.
The Utilitarian, John Locke, has an interesting ‘duty’ to consider: ‘The job of parents, educators, and society at large is not to shape children in society’s or even God’s image but to train and discipline each child to “submit to his own Reason, when he is of an Age to make use of it”.’ In light of this argument, it is my duty to challenge children to think for themselves. By not wearing a cycling helmet, I’m demonstrating there are different opinions about safety and cycle helmet use. Even though they are children, ‘they have the same aversion to falsehood and a relish for truth’ as adults. I anticipate that the integrity of my behaviour will communicate truthfulness and nurture ‘reasoned thinking’, these maxims are consistent with the statement that ‘humans are the end not the means’ and are therefore universal principles.
Unlike Utilitarianism, which would allow me to decide whatever made me happiest, the deontological methodology leads me to the same conclusion, but through reasoning based on ‘a priori’ principles.
I will continue my current practice to not wear a cycle helmet or high visibility clothing regardless of whether these primary school children are being taught to or not. This decision is based on universal principles of ‘not lying’, ‘not doing myself harm’ and ‘encouraging others to reach their full potential as human beings’.
However, this practical result is based on a subjective starting point, that I believe cycle helmets do not improve my safety. If I held the opposite subjective perspective, the practice would be different. Therefore, my action is not a categorical imperative, which obliges me to act, instead it is morally indifferent , it is an action that is neither commanded nor prohibited.
I fear that this novice exercise in deontological methodology would invite Kant to declare my ‘reason rests on a pillow of sweet dreams, that my morality is a bastard patched up from limbs of quite diverse ancestry but does not look like virtue in her true form’.
More on this debate may be found on yet another cycling forum.
As mentioned at the beginning of this page, this essay was my response to an assignment. Essentially I’m sharing my homework, and it had a strict word limit (1,500 words). I am interested in the ongoing discussion of the ethics of wearing a cycle helmet.