In his recent book Civility, Stephen Carter made some observations
about the American railroad phenomena of the mid-1800s. It's hard
to believe, but not so many years ago travel by railroad was the
preferred mode of transportation. Horses were slow and automobiles
had not yet been invented. America in the middle of the nineteenth
century was in love with railroads.
Passengers, of course, were divided into classes and the cars were
often crowded but, on the whole, people behaved respectably. In part
this was due to books that were bought and read by passengers. Books
like Politeness on Railroads by Issac Peebles which laid out rules
and guidelines for proper behavior as a railroad passenger:
* "Whispering, loud talking and immoderate laughing and singing
should not be indulged by any passenger."
* "Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing
* "No one should indulge in personal preferences at the expense of
These principles were laid down to make traveling in groups more
civilized. Those who violated the guidelines were dealt with
strongly by the conductors. People knew the rules and knew they had
to abide by them if they were all to make it to their destination,
comfortably, in the company of one another.
Carter contrasts this cooperative "group friendly" behavior with
that of a 1990s airline traveler in Houston's Hobby airport. The
passenger was apparently late for a flight and simply ran through the
metal detector without waiting for his bag to be X-rayed, setting off
alarms. In a flash he was gone, lost into the crowd. He probably
thought he was simply bending the rules a bit, but the airport
security thought differently. As a result of this passenger's self-
centered behavior the Continental Airline terminals had to be
evacuated -- about 7,000 people -- and the result was 40 flights
delayed by four-plus hours. All because of the self-centered
behavior of one passenger.
Carter declares this passenger was "uncivil" in his behavior. Not
because his action was illegal (although it was) and not simply
because people were inconvenienced (although they were). His actions
were uncivil, says Carter, because they were done without thinking of
the ramifications of his behavior on others. Thus, self-centered
behavior is uncivil. And uncivil behavior is unethical. Therefore,
ethical behavior must be civil and to be ethical we must take into
account the impact our decisions have on others.
When examining the ethical aspects of an issue or dilemma we must
ask, "What will be the impact on others? …