“Dear Neighbor: A Dialogue on the Kantian Ethics of Your Loud Motorcycle,” by Ryan Whalen

Nov 30th, 2016 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Your motorcycle is a badge of freedom. Those leather and chrome accoutrements accentuate just how free you are. Free to reject the mainstream and ride your own path. Admittedly, it is a path crowded somewhat by all the other aging leather-clad weekend warriors refusing to conform, but it is your path nonetheless.

To announce your presence on the freedom path you remove the baffles from your mufflers. They muffle no longer. Those chrome pipes that once limited your motorcycle’s utterances to a legally-prescribed 80 decibels or less, now gloriously trumpet forth your fanfare wherever you ride. Brackabrackabrackabracka!

As you sit at the stop light you blip your throttle, like an elk in rut announcing your presence to all within a three block radius. Brackabrackabrackabracka! When you ride down Main Street your freedom-noises echo off walls, drifting into open windows and demonstrating to the sleeping children within just how free you are. Brackabrackabrackabracka! Sunday afternoon visits from your in-laws begin and end with you showing off your freedom ride, and just how loud it can get as you sit in your driveway opening the throttle wide. Brackabrackabrackabracka!

“Loud pipes save lives” you respond when your freedom-hating neighbor asks why your motorcycle is so loud. On its face your empirically unsupported claim seems reasonable. Lives are important after all. And listening to Brackabrackabrackabracka! all summer long seems like a small price to pay if freedom-loving lives are at stake.

“But, many things could save lives” responds the freedom-hater. “If we’re concerned about car drivers not noticing motorcyclists, we could mandate that they drive around with their horns constantly engaged, and lights atop their heads. Surely, that would save even more lives?”

“I suppose” you respond. “I mean, it wouldn’t sound as cool, but maybe you’re right. Wouldn’t it be too much though? How can we possibly know where to draw the line?”

“Well, we can just look to the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals!” exclaims your neighbor, sounding like an even bigger pussy than you thought he was. “Immanuel Kant’s deontological moral philosophy provides a framework that will help us answer once and for all just how much noise is too much noise for a motorcycle to make.”

“Really?” you ask. “How’s that?”

“Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, Kant’s categorical imperative provides clarity where other moral philosophies might leave ambiguity. According to Kant, when determining duties or obligations one should ‘act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’” responds the freedom-hater.

“Is Maxim even still in print?” you ask.

“No.” replies your neighbor. “Or, maybe. I don’t know. Maxim like rule. It means you should act according to rules that would work if they were universal. That is, ask yourself: if everyone followed this rule, would society work?”

“Oh” you respond. “I see. So, like, if everyone drove motorcycles, how loud should they be?”

“Precisely!” he exclaims. “Imagine everyone drove a motorcycle just like you. How loud should we make them to save the most lives?”

“Well, let me think a minute” you reply, pondering. “I guess pretty loud. Probably as loud as mine, maybe even a bit louder.”

“But, if we all rode loud motorcycles, would we be able to hear them?”

“Oh. I suppose not. I guess they’d need to be even louder, because of all the noise from the extra people on loud motorcycles.” you respond.

“But wouldn’t that just make the problem worse?” replies the freedom-hater.

“Maybe.” you reply. “I guess if everyone drove loud motorcycles, it really would be loud pretty much everywhere all the time, huh?”

“Yes, I suppose it would.” says your neighbor, pointing towards your busy residential street. “It would probably be so loud that all those people driving over there would completely drown out the dialogue we’re having right now.”

“So, does the categorical imperative mean no one should drive loud motorcycles?” you ask.

“I don’t know” he responds. “What do you think?”

“Well, I guess if everyone drove loud motorcycles, society wouldn’t work very well would it? It’d be hard to sleep. Conversations would be difficult. Even just walking down the street would be hard to tolerate. We’d probably need to wear earplugs all the time, especially kids and dogs.”

“So?” asks the freedom-hater.

“So, I guess that according to Kantian deontology, loud motorcycles are unethical.” you answer.

“Precisely!” says your neighbor. “If everyone drove motorcycles like yours, life would be miserable for all of us. So, what will you do?”

“Hmm. What will I do?” you wonder. “I mean, I suppose I could put the baffles back into my mufflers so that my vehicle emits a reasonable and legally-compliant amount of noise. But, I’m a freedom-loving American and not some kind of Kantian communist, so I’m going to install some sweet red, white, and blue lights and a new stereo with a bitching subwoofer.” Brackabrackabrackabracka!


Defenestration-VikingRyan Whalen is an academic who rides a motorcycle and appreciates not unduly infringing on everyone’s right to quietly enjoy their lives.

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