Why We Should Follow Ants’ Traffic System and Why We Can’t Do So
In a world where choosing one choice over the other is mandated, freedom – personal and societal freedom – is always contested. Economists and policy makers often resort to behavioral economics to extend a guiding hand to a society composed of individuals who put so much weight in their autonomy and freedom to choose. Quite ironically, law still remains to be undisputed because of the penalty that people receive upon breaking the law that is set forth by fellow humans. In this paper behavioral economics, particularly nudge theory, will be scrutinized in the context of law in a philosophical sense.
Law, the one that is set forth by a mere human, is often seen as very stifling because people are not given the choice to defy it because if they do, they will face a penalty to compensate for their criminal actions (De Leon and De Leon, Jr. 4). Before the practical and legal definition of law, philosophers talked about law, particularly natural law or Kant’s theory of justice as defined by Kantian scholar John Ladd defines it (xvii). Natural law is a universally and naturally acceptable set of moral principles followed by rational beings without exception (Gregor 25). This is the exact definition of categorical imperative in Kantian ethics. One of the three elements of categorical imperative is the act of regarding a fellow human being as an end rather than a mean. Philosopher Immanuel Kant illustrated this by giving an example wherein one person violates the rights of another person without taking into account that “as rational beings they ought always at the same time to be rated as ends.” (Paton 91)
We can see how Kant champion justice, but he did not end with justice as the topic at hand. He also talked about virtue which he differentiated from justice. According to Kant, “…duty of virtue from a juridical duty is the fact that external compulsion to a juridical duty is morally possible, whereas a duty of virtue is based on free self-constraint.” (Gregor 41) This explains why there are actions that came about because of the legitimate use of coercion (i.e. justifiable actions), while on the other side of the coin are actions that came about because of moral persuasions (i.e. virtuous actions). Kant explained that justifiable actions are caused by externals, whereas virtuous actions are caused by “good will” or one’s duty to act according to what is morally right (Kant and Gregor 380).
The way ants interact with each other illustrates perfectly how good will and justice coincide in their system. It is a wonder how ants are able to perfect their traffic system to a point where it seems like this perfection is instinctively acquired, while humans, considering the presence of traffic rules, are having a hard time synchronizing each other’s actions on the road. Ants, particularly army ants, have established a spatial organization wherein each ants leaving the nest to gather food follow a single path while the other ants that are already set to carry food back to the nest are on a separate path (Fourcassié, Dussutour and Deneubourg 2359). They form three lanes – two outer lanes for the ones leaving the nest and one inner lane for those who have already gathered food (Fourcassié, Dussutour and Deneubourg 2358). This program-like mechanism is due to their blindness that they are not capable of processing visual cues (Fourcassié, Dussutour and Deneubourg 2359). On the other hand, leaf-cutting ants have intermingling lanes because of their slower speed and better sense of sight that enables them to assess visual cues (Fourcassié, Dussutour and Deneubourg 2359). If we are to make an analogy between humans and ants, we will see that we have more similarities with the leaf-cutting ants – possessing good sense of sight which allows us to react to stimuli although sometimes this produces a reaction too slow. On the other hand, if we look at the differences of ants and humans, humans are not programmed to cooperate with each other and this makes social optimum harder to attain (John 2).
Army ants are programmed to reach a social optimum and this mechanism is applied in traffic systems wherein self-directing cars are programmed using an algorithm that is patterned to game theory, another economic theory (John 2). Game theory is “the analysis of a situation involving conflicting interests (as in business or military strategy) in terms of gains and losses among opposing players” (“game theory”). One classic example of the demonstration of game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoners are given the option to confess their crime or not (Faldini and Yu 4). If one prisoner chooses to confess his crime, he bears all the consequences leaving the other prisoner unharmed; if both of them confess, they bear the consequences together but on lighter weights; finally, if no one confesses, both are freed (Faldini and Yu 4). Game theory demonstrates that even greedy players have to “at least partially cooperate” to reach an equilibrium where everyone is better off (Faldini and Yu 5). Game theory works under the assumption that the players of the game are interdependent and autonomous, capable to benefit or hurt others by deciding on their own.
The concept of “good will” is not agreed upon by economist Adam Smith when he said that individuals care for their own sake (Wight 46). He believes that this self-interest and greed promotes economic efficiency when guided by an “invisible hand” (Wight 48). We have this predilection to put more importance on ourselves (Pajares and Schunk 7). Especially in traffic control, men act according to their greedy nature, and this human nature is one of the reasons why we get stuck in traffic. Autonomous vehicles navigate their way to the fastest and shortest route because of this greedy approach (Moran and Pollack 265). This is probably the reason why drivers are reminded during their acquisition of driving license to not force their rights when on the road. We have to be nudged to do the right thing and to do what will benefit the greater good. By programming the cars using game theory’s algorithm, drivers that do not interact cooperatively can still lead to a solution in which everyone is better off by taking advantage of this non-cooperative behavior (Faldini and Yu 5). Humans have the tendency to engage in either cooperative or non-cooperative strategy and given our human nature, we always have the tendency to choose what we think will be better for ourselves and not for everyone (Faldini and Yu 5), but mobile applications like Waze make it possible for drivers to travel in the shortest time possible and for everyone to reach a social optimum where routes are synchronized.
Another reason why we cannot just simply follow the pattern of the ants is because unlike ants and all other invertebrates that do not possess a complex central nervous system, humans value their autonomy (Garner 29). Humans act individually as expected from us by our society. To generalize each individual and to think that everyone acts the same way will hamper our sense of autonomy. Because of this autonomy, we demand for absolute freedom from any coercive and directive forces that might prevent us from acquiring said autonomy (Cochrane 8). There is a danger of falsely viewing autonomy as a privilege that is free of any law when, ironically, autonomy requires self-direction. Autonomy cannot be attained without self-direction or self-control because autonomy is defined as “self-directing freedom and especially moral independence” (“autonomy”). In fact, Smith also backed up greed with self-control to attain an equilibrium. Greed is defined as “an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs.” (Wight 46) This greed should be moderated and converted into a healthy self-interest to attain an equilibrium (Wight 56). With a very diverse set of autonomous people, there would be no personal freedom without self-control.
More choices entail more sense of autonomy and this leads to increased happiness (Gorton 3), and having freedom of choice is one thing that nudge theory, an application of behavioral economics, is able to provide. Nudge theory is a form of behavioral economics that is defined as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (Thaler and Sunstein 6). Sunstein explained how freedom to choose is preserved by not merely giving mandates as compared to when someone is stifled with rules (Sunstein 449). Despite the ability of nudge theory to provide people the freedom of choice that they want, autonomy remains to be in question because of the presence of default choice (Sunstein 424). This default choice is chosen because of the incentives that people will get upon choosing the default choice (Baba and HakemZadeh 851) and people’s self-interest. Another possible reason not mentioned by the exponents of nudge theory is the “good will” that people have to act on a manner that does not categorize humans as means. The very purpose of nudge theory is to direct our biases to bring a positive effect on the society (Sunstein 450) – to nudge and remind people of their “good will.”
Law, the one that is set forth by legal institutions, serve as a rule of action that becomes our basis of how we live and interact with people. This came about because humans are different in many ways and the way we make the most out of our lives would probably be done at the expense of others (Turocy and Stengel 11). Law protects individuals and it establishes boundaries to utilize the freedom that was given to us. The intention of law is to serve man and to maintain co-existence harmoniously (De Leon and De Leon, Jr. 6). Even the law of gravity exists to help humanity put things in order. People seek spatial borders when looking for a space to reside in because of the danger that may be present on the other side of the border (Roessler 83). The possibility of posing a threat to one’s security is the reason behind the law that punishes the act of trespassing (Parchomovsky and Stein 1834). Being within the borders provides people the sense of safety and assurance and perhaps this is because of the egoistic nature of humans, fear of infinity, and the perception that we should guard ourselves from other elements that are not within the borders (Roessler 86). Philosopher John Stuart Mill said that “The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.” This only shows how we are capable of taking someone’s right when we put ourselves first just so we can practice our right.
Law comes in different subjects; there is the state law, natural law, and moral law – all of which follow law as a “rule of action” (De Leon and De Leon, Jr. 1). In nudge theory, law of nature and physics were used to nudge us to the right direction. Even nudge theory is governed by another form of law that does not appear to be as constricting as the state law (Jolls 186). The way we are programmed to have a default answer remains a threat to our autonomy (Sunstein 424). When the drivers in Philadelphia slow down as they approach a nudge which is a three dimensional speed bump put in the middle of the road, nudge theory relies on our instinct and human nature to spare ourselves from whatever might harm us and from whatever might penalize our actions (Allen 51), and to get as much incentive as we can receive by doing something. With or without rules, and being forced or being nudged, we cannot escape the reality of the existence of law.
Humans’ perception of freedom was tested when several cities in Europe implemented shared space in their streets wherein pedestrians interact with cars by observing their directions (Hamilton-Baillie 163). This traffic design came about by studying “behavioral psychology with a changing perception of risk and safety” (Hamilton-Baillie 161). Cars, people, all sort of vehicles freely move without any boundaries or lanes that will suggest a direction to them. If absolute freedom would be demonstrated in roads and traffic rules, this is what it will probably look like. When the European Union funded researches on shared space they had equality in mind (Hamilton-Baillie 163). This new way of solving traffic, however, raised issues on providing the same equality to persons with disabilities. Drivers’ and people’s satisfaction and confidence increased when shared space was implemented on the streets but this does not hold true for persons with disabilities (Hamilton-Baillie 164). This revolutionary traffic design was temporarily banned to make further research on how persons with disabilities can also partake in using shared spaces. This absolute freedom was dismissed to respect some communities that are marginalized because of their physical disabilities. Absolute freedom, therefore, is just another way to strengthen social cohesion that can be dismissed just like any other way. While it is true that some assume that law exists to regulate the greed of humans and turn it into a healthy self-interest, the very existence of law is an evidence of our “good will” that is manifested through the desire to protect each other’s rights by exploiting each other’s biases.
In an attempt to alleviate traffic, ways such as implementing shared space in streets, applying nudge theory, implementing state laws, following ants’ traffic mechanism, and utilizing technology that is patterned to game theory’s algorithm, society and self-control or autonomy play a big role. Shared space in streets failed to address the special needs of persons with disabilities in that while its intention is demonstrate equality in the road (Hamilton-Baillie 163), it hastily assumes that everyone has equal abilities and way of thinking, hence dismissing the autonomy as one of the criterion. Nudge theory, a theory that brags about giving people freedom of choice by not merely mandating rules on them (Sunstein 449), relies on the law of nature, a law that we are forced to follow. Implementing state laws, one of the reasons why we are coming up with all these creative ways to alleviate traffic, works but only to some extent. Following ants’ traffic mechanisms, particularly army ants, violates our autonomy and human nature (Garner 29). Using game theory to alleviate traffic and by thinking of the common good only makes sense when applied to technology as an algorithm.
Nudge theory, although it takes advantage of the laws of nature and physics by constructing a default choice, acknowledges that we are humans capable of choosing other choices aside from the default one (Sunstein 424). Its intention is to nudge people to the right direction by giving them cues and by banking on human nature and individual’s biases (Sunstein 422). This human nature may be good in the form of good will, or bad in the form of greed, but regardless, the acknowledgement that there is a bad side of human nature is already a signal that people see the importance of nudging them and reminding them of their good will. We may try to devoid ourselves of the constraints imposed upon us by moral laws or state laws, but we still cannot escape the fact that our bodies are governed by laws of nature. If a cell in our body suddenly decides not to function according to the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, cancers develop and affect other cells or worse, the whole body (Gupta and Massague 679). Like the cells in our body, we are also governed by laws of nature and customs. After all, law’s intention, no matter how stifling it seems, will always be to protect each one’s right. To define autonomy as the ability to direct oneself should not be seen as a stifling concept because without it the very purpose of freedom in a society is defeated. I believe that these laws, when implemented properly and when followed by every individual, provide us the security so that we can fully experience the freedom we all want.