The Ethics of Least Action

I get a nice example of what might be termed a moral problem almost every time I go out in my car. The lanes round where I live are narrow, sometimes just wide enough for a car to go down. And quite often, going down these lanes, I come across someone coming in the opposite direction. And both of us come to a halt. And both of us wonder: who’s going to reverse back to a wider stretch of road where the two cars can pass? It’s a wordless negotiation about a small ethical dilemma.

What’s the right solution to this problem? Maybe some people would say that whenever you encounter it, you should always immediately reverse back. But if everyone did that, both drivers would reverse, and the hold-up would be prolonged. Or maybe people would say that people in small cars should defer to people in big cars. Or that people in old cars should defer to people in new cars.

I think that the right answer is: the person who should reverse is whoever needs to do the least reversing. That way, the delay for both drivers is minimised. Both are busy people, after all. And neither wants to spend any longer on the road than they have to. The solution is that of the option of least action.

Most times when I encounter this dilemma, the right decision gets made almost instantly. One person immediately reverses back down the road. And when they’ve reversed out of the way, the other car drives past, and in passing its driver acknowledges with a wave or a thumbs up the deference of the other driver, and gets a nod in return. Sometimes, when it’s not clear who should reverse, there can be a longer delay when neither driver immediately reverses.

But it doesn’t always work out quite so happily. Occasionally you come across one of those little old ladies who can’t reverse. My mother was one of them. And these little old ladies always expect the other car to reverse, even if they have to reverse half a mile. So I always check the sex and age of the other driver. If they’re female and elderly, I put my car into reverse immediately. Don’t ask me what happens when two little old ladies who can’t reverse encounter each other on a narrow lane.

The strangest thing about this dilemma is that everybody seems to know the answer to it. And yet as far as I know it’s not something that learner drivers are taught. There’s nothing about it in the highway code. Or there wasn’t the last time I looked.

Nor is the problem confined to roads. It’s encountered every day in passing through doors, or walking down narrow passages, or even along street pavements. Who is going to stop and step backwards or aside? Walking along a crowded street, hundreds of such accommodations are continually being negotiated and acknowledged.

The little old lady problem is encountered here too, in a slightly different form. The problem this time is that little old ladies can’t walk very fast. And that means that when a fit young man encounters a little old lady in a narrow passage, it’s almost always quicker for all concerned if he gives way to her, rather than she to him. The one who can move fastest gives way. And since fit young men are the fastest people on their feet, and little old ladies are the slowest, fit young men defer to everybody, and little old ladies defer to nobody. And men defer to women, because men are usually a bit faster on their feet than women.

And this is probably how the ‘Ladies First’ social convention arose. It was what emerged naturally from a least action principle. Particularly in a time when women’s mobility was hampered by long skirts and high heel shoes. But as soon as it was codified into the rigid rule – ‘Ladies First’ -, the least action principle became obscured. In fact, there are plenty of occasions on which it’s quicker for all concerned if ladies don’t go first. And so adherence to a one-size-fits-all rule like this is almost certain to result in unnecessary delay and obstruction from time to time. Rules like this are inefficient. It’s why rules usually have exceptions.

But in the case of roads sometimes the law steps in these days. There’s a narrow bridge not far from where I live which has a sign on one side telling drivers to give way to oncoming traffic, and another one on the other side telling drivers that they have priority over oncoming traffic. No negotiation is possible. The law has stepped in to tell drivers what they must do on this particular bridge. For the life of me I can’t see why this bridge has been singled out to have two large signs at each end, telling drivers who has to defer to whom. Maybe one day two little old ladies who couldn’t reverse met in the middle of it, and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.

And more and more, rather than leave decisions to drivers themselves, the law steps in to tell them what to do, and steps in with a one-size-fits-all rule, which is almost certainly bound to inconvenience everybody at some point or other. And there are more and more of these road signs, which make make decisions for drivers, and usually worse decisions than they’d make left to their own devices. In this manner, everyone is inconvenienced slightly more than they needed to be. And this puts a slight brake on the smooth operation of society. Everyone’s journey takes a little longer.

The worst example of this sort of legal intervention is the smoking ban. This is another one-size-fits-all rule, and which permanently inconveniences and obstructs fully a quarter of all people – smokers. It’s like telling occasionally-obstructive little old ladies that they aren’t allowed to drive cars anymore, anywhere, ever. And that they should just stay at home. A little old lady ban would mean a slight improvement in life for drivers like me. But it would be an enormous inconvenience for little old ladies. A total smoking ban offers a small benefit to people who are slightly inconvenienced by tobacco smoke, and an enormous inconvenience for smokers.

Furthermore, as more and more laws are introduced to govern more and more behaviour, people cease to govern themselves. Why should they govern themselves if somebody’s already doing the governing for them? And so the more rules and regulations that are introduced, the more personally irresponsible people are bound to become. Why should I make personal decisions about what is the best speed to drive at if some big sign tells me “30 mph”? Why should I make any personal decisions about where to smoke if there’s a big sign saying “No Smoking”? The personal decision-making has been overridden. So the more laws there are, the more irresponsible and inconsiderate everybody must become, because the law is taking the responsibility for considering other people away from them.

But the more irresponsible and inconsiderate everybody becomes, the more laws are demanded. And these laws result in even more irresponsibility and lack of consideration. So everything actually gets even worse.

But also, because the laws are always at very best only approximations for optimum (in terms of least action) behaviour, laws always obstruct people to some extent. The law that says that people must drive on the left hand side of the road is a law which makes everybody’s drive anywhere a little bit longer than it would have been if they’d had the use of the whole road. On the other hand, it’s also a law which minimises obstruction and delay through encounters with other vehicles. And on balance, it’s probably a law which expedites journeys more than it delays or slows them. Good laws are laws which, on balance, make everybody’s life easier for them. Good laws speed things up. Bad laws are laws which make everybody’s life harder for them. Bad laws slow things down.

People claim that seat belt laws save lives. This is disputed. But let’s suppose that it’s true that seat belts save 10 lives a year, and that a ‘life’ is the remaining time that anyone can expect to live, and that it’s about 30 years on average (more for young people, less for old people). Now let’s suppose that there are 20 million motorists in the country who put on and take off their car seat belts twice a day, and that it takes 5 seconds for them to perform each action. That’s 20 seconds per day for 20 million motorists, or 400 million seconds per day. Over a year, that’s 146 thousand million seconds. With about 31 million seconds in a year, that’s 4636 years. But the seat belts only saved 10 lives of 30 years remaining duration, or 300 years. So you gain 300 years, but lose 4636 years. So seat belts are a net drain on everybody’s precious time. This is just a guess of course. But what’s true of seat belts is probably true of almost all other health and safety regulations. And the more of these regulations there are, the more everyday life is slowed and hampered and delayed. And the worse life gets.

It always looks like more laws and more government will make people behave well and societies to flourish. The knee-jerk reaction to any new problem is to make a new law. But, for the most part, exactly the opposite is the truth. There should be less laws, not more laws.

About Frank Davis

smoker
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Ethics of Least Action

  1. margdurrance says:

    Frank- go to Helium & post your articles==damn good. all should see & critique. A writer with your talent should be seen by all!

  2. margdurrance says:

    Frank- go to Helium & post your articles==damn good. all should see & critique. A writer with your talent should be seen by all!

  3. Frank Davis says:

    Helium? Never heard of it.
    I did try a balloon full of it once though, and my voice went squeaky and high pitched.
    Frank

  4. Frank Davis says:

    Helium? Never heard of it.
    I did try a balloon full of it once though, and my voice went squeaky and high pitched.
    Frank

  5. Anonymous says:

    From Junican. Having suffered before from the ‘character limits’ of your site, Frank, I have split this post into two parts.
    I have been thinking about your ‘one-size-fits-all’ rule. I believe that this idea has been considered in the past. I certainly remember discussing this idea before, but not necessarily here. I seem to remember that it was generally agreed that there are circumstances where 1sfa (‘one (1) size fits all) is appropriate, and other circumstances where it is not. For example, we all agree to pay equally to the cost of having our bins emptied. By doing so, we have an efficient, least-cost system. The idea of having separate, individual systems is so cost-inefficient that it is hardly worth considering. But, in the UK, governments, whether national or local, just cannot resist meddling, can they?
    It is not easy to think of a 1sfa which is inefficient since they usually die out quickly, once people see the inefficiencies; but one that comes to mind is the stupidity of people queuing up to pass through a passport control at, say, Manchester Airport from a flight from Majorca. Why do we have to put up with it when our passports have already been checked at least twice? I will tell you. Immigration control have this brand new computer! On it, persons who are not welcome are identified. So we must all go through this procedure just in case……But would any reasonably intelligent terrorist try to go through immigration using a passport which can be recognised as ‘undesirable’? Of course not! In this case, we see a 1sfa which is nonsensical – and extremely expensive.
    This we have said before, but is it not true that the smoking ban is just such a 1sfa?
    We know that it is. But I was particularly struck by a sentence in the link in Rose’s post (under Catch That Buzz) about the American Indians. I will copy it below:
    “”Tobacco was cultivated in my tribe only by old men. Our young men did not smoke much; a few did, but most of them used little tobacco, or almost none. They were taught that smoking would injure their lungs and make them short winded so that they would be poor runners. But when a man got to be about sixty years of age we thought it right for him to smoke as much as he liked. His war days and hunting days were over. Old men smoked quite a good deal.””
    I am not sure that I need to go any further. The implications are obvious.
    Go on then, just a few words:
    1. A few little old men (and women!) gather in their favourite place to have a fag or a pipe or a cigar and a pint and talk about old times, or indeed new times. Very good for their mental health!
    2. As regards a person incarcerated in a Secure Mental Health Hospital. A judge found that the hospital was not out of order by forbidding him to smoke. But we must remember that the judge was not pronouncing upon whether or not he SHOULD be allowed to smoke – he was only saying that there is no LEGAL reason for the hospital NOT to be able to stop him smoking indoors. If one reads the Health Act 2006, one sees that there is indeed no exception for such places.
    To be continued…

  6. Anonymous says:

    From Junican. Having suffered before from the ‘character limits’ of your site, Frank, I have split this post into two parts.
    I have been thinking about your ‘one-size-fits-all’ rule. I believe that this idea has been considered in the past. I certainly remember discussing this idea before, but not necessarily here. I seem to remember that it was generally agreed that there are circumstances where 1sfa (‘one (1) size fits all) is appropriate, and other circumstances where it is not. For example, we all agree to pay equally to the cost of having our bins emptied. By doing so, we have an efficient, least-cost system. The idea of having separate, individual systems is so cost-inefficient that it is hardly worth considering. But, in the UK, governments, whether national or local, just cannot resist meddling, can they?
    It is not easy to think of a 1sfa which is inefficient since they usually die out quickly, once people see the inefficiencies; but one that comes to mind is the stupidity of people queuing up to pass through a passport control at, say, Manchester Airport from a flight from Majorca. Why do we have to put up with it when our passports have already been checked at least twice? I will tell you. Immigration control have this brand new computer! On it, persons who are not welcome are identified. So we must all go through this procedure just in case……But would any reasonably intelligent terrorist try to go through immigration using a passport which can be recognised as ‘undesirable’? Of course not! In this case, we see a 1sfa which is nonsensical – and extremely expensive.
    This we have said before, but is it not true that the smoking ban is just such a 1sfa?
    We know that it is. But I was particularly struck by a sentence in the link in Rose’s post (under Catch That Buzz) about the American Indians. I will copy it below:
    “”Tobacco was cultivated in my tribe only by old men. Our young men did not smoke much; a few did, but most of them used little tobacco, or almost none. They were taught that smoking would injure their lungs and make them short winded so that they would be poor runners. But when a man got to be about sixty years of age we thought it right for him to smoke as much as he liked. His war days and hunting days were over. Old men smoked quite a good deal.””
    I am not sure that I need to go any further. The implications are obvious.
    Go on then, just a few words:
    1. A few little old men (and women!) gather in their favourite place to have a fag or a pipe or a cigar and a pint and talk about old times, or indeed new times. Very good for their mental health!
    2. As regards a person incarcerated in a Secure Mental Health Hospital. A judge found that the hospital was not out of order by forbidding him to smoke. But we must remember that the judge was not pronouncing upon whether or not he SHOULD be allowed to smoke – he was only saying that there is no LEGAL reason for the hospital NOT to be able to stop him smoking indoors. If one reads the Health Act 2006, one sees that there is indeed no exception for such places.
    To be continued…

  7. Anonymous says:

    Part 2.
    The above are perfect examples of where 1sfa falls down. It does not matter that a survey by ASH or whoever shows that the majority are in favour of the ban since the ban does not affect the majority at all. The vast majority do not frequent pubs in such numbers as to ensure the viability of pubs as businesses. Even if they did, that does not mean that the minority cannot be accommodated, the minority being the little old men as described above.
    It strikes me (as a result of reading the quote about the American Indians above) that the American Indians had absolutely the right idea. Young men were discouraged from smoking. Old men could please themselves. Second hand smoke was irrelevant.
    The beauty of the quote is its simplicity. We note the emphasis on AGE.
    I have been casting about in my mind how it is possible to reconcile the ‘bad’ things about the enjoyment of tobacco with the ‘good’ things. This paradox applies also to alcohol, playing football and eating jam butties. By referring to age, as a general rule of thumb, we can see a way forward. Essentially, of course, this means that young men should not go to pubs! Is that not stupid? Erm……But the idea means that people who are ill (having asthma, for example) should not go to pubs. Pubs do not exist to cater for people who are ill.
    Essentially, then, the reason that the Smoking Ban is wrong is that it is aimed at helping the wrong people! It is aimed at people who do not go to pubs and who do not enjoy tobacco and do not enjoy alcohol! The law, essentially, bans THE MAJORITY of people from doing what they do not want to do!
    Is it any wonder, therefore, that people are extremely confused? Is it any wonder that a situation can exist which pits intelligent people against each other with no possibility of reconciliation? I speak in particular about the big discussion which has recently taken place on Snowdon’s blog re ‘The Elephant in the Room’. The fact is that all the people arguing on that blog were arguing about the wrong thing! They were arguing in very GENERAL terms when, in fact, the argument should be SPECIFIC – little old men (and women).
    Is it possible to persuade the likes of Clegg and Cameron that the ONE SIZE FITS ALL argument does not apply in the case of smoking in enclosed places because of age differences? On the face of it, one would say that not. But one might ask how much effort has been made by ‘age related charities’ to press the interests of their ‘clients’? IT IS POSSIBLE!
    “”It is the old men who tend the tobacco plants and smoke tobacco. The young men are discouraged””
    I wish that I could work out a way in which the benefits of the enjoyment of tobacco for old men could be recognised. In the ‘one size fits all’ scenario, it seems to be the case that we all equally ill.
    Surely, there must be a way?
    By the way, Frank, when you used the phrase ‘least action’, were you deliberately conscious of Richard Feynman’s ‘Essays on Physics’? I have volumes 1 and 2 scanned into my computer!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Part 2.
    The above are perfect examples of where 1sfa falls down. It does not matter that a survey by ASH or whoever shows that the majority are in favour of the ban since the ban does not affect the majority at all. The vast majority do not frequent pubs in such numbers as to ensure the viability of pubs as businesses. Even if they did, that does not mean that the minority cannot be accommodated, the minority being the little old men as described above.
    It strikes me (as a result of reading the quote about the American Indians above) that the American Indians had absolutely the right idea. Young men were discouraged from smoking. Old men could please themselves. Second hand smoke was irrelevant.
    The beauty of the quote is its simplicity. We note the emphasis on AGE.
    I have been casting about in my mind how it is possible to reconcile the ‘bad’ things about the enjoyment of tobacco with the ‘good’ things. This paradox applies also to alcohol, playing football and eating jam butties. By referring to age, as a general rule of thumb, we can see a way forward. Essentially, of course, this means that young men should not go to pubs! Is that not stupid? Erm……But the idea means that people who are ill (having asthma, for example) should not go to pubs. Pubs do not exist to cater for people who are ill.
    Essentially, then, the reason that the Smoking Ban is wrong is that it is aimed at helping the wrong people! It is aimed at people who do not go to pubs and who do not enjoy tobacco and do not enjoy alcohol! The law, essentially, bans THE MAJORITY of people from doing what they do not want to do!
    Is it any wonder, therefore, that people are extremely confused? Is it any wonder that a situation can exist which pits intelligent people against each other with no possibility of reconciliation? I speak in particular about the big discussion which has recently taken place on Snowdon’s blog re ‘The Elephant in the Room’. The fact is that all the people arguing on that blog were arguing about the wrong thing! They were arguing in very GENERAL terms when, in fact, the argument should be SPECIFIC – little old men (and women).
    Is it possible to persuade the likes of Clegg and Cameron that the ONE SIZE FITS ALL argument does not apply in the case of smoking in enclosed places because of age differences? On the face of it, one would say that not. But one might ask how much effort has been made by ‘age related charities’ to press the interests of their ‘clients’? IT IS POSSIBLE!
    “”It is the old men who tend the tobacco plants and smoke tobacco. The young men are discouraged””
    I wish that I could work out a way in which the benefits of the enjoyment of tobacco for old men could be recognised. In the ‘one size fits all’ scenario, it seems to be the case that we all equally ill.
    Surely, there must be a way?
    By the way, Frank, when you used the phrase ‘least action’, were you deliberately conscious of Richard Feynman’s ‘Essays on Physics’? I have volumes 1 and 2 scanned into my computer!

  9. Frank Davis says:

    Interesting observations about Indians. And yet in war, which is surely a matter of continual vigorous exercise, our armed forces are provided with tons of tobacco even now. In WWI the generals deemed it essential. So there seems to be some contradiction there. So I wouldn’t want to exclude young people from pubs on those grounds.
    we all agree to pay equally to the cost of having our bins emptied. By doing so, we have an efficient, least-cost system.
    That’s how it used to be. But even there the state has intervened to mess things up. Round here we had a recycling system introduced a few months ago, in which everybody is supposed to sort their rubbish into glass and metal and so forth, and put them in different bins. There’s a veritable book of rules that comes with the new scheme. And these bins are no longer collected weekly, but fortnightly.
    As I see it, in doing this the council has turned the county’s residents into an unpaid labour force doing work for the council which it used to do, while offering a reduced service. My response has been to start to burn my rubbish, and to dispose of glass and metal periodically on trips to Tesco.
    when you used the phrase ‘least action’, were you deliberately conscious of Richard Feynman’s ‘Essays on Physics’? I have volumes 1 and 2 scanned into my computer!
    The Principle of Least Action is much older than Feynman. I have several of his books, although I don’t think I’ve read Essays on Physics. He’s very readable and lucid.
    Frank

  10. Frank Davis says:

    Interesting observations about Indians. And yet in war, which is surely a matter of continual vigorous exercise, our armed forces are provided with tons of tobacco even now. In WWI the generals deemed it essential. So there seems to be some contradiction there. So I wouldn’t want to exclude young people from pubs on those grounds.
    we all agree to pay equally to the cost of having our bins emptied. By doing so, we have an efficient, least-cost system.
    That’s how it used to be. But even there the state has intervened to mess things up. Round here we had a recycling system introduced a few months ago, in which everybody is supposed to sort their rubbish into glass and metal and so forth, and put them in different bins. There’s a veritable book of rules that comes with the new scheme. And these bins are no longer collected weekly, but fortnightly.
    As I see it, in doing this the council has turned the county’s residents into an unpaid labour force doing work for the council which it used to do, while offering a reduced service. My response has been to start to burn my rubbish, and to dispose of glass and metal periodically on trips to Tesco.
    when you used the phrase ‘least action’, were you deliberately conscious of Richard Feynman’s ‘Essays on Physics’? I have volumes 1 and 2 scanned into my computer!
    The Principle of Least Action is much older than Feynman. I have several of his books, although I don’t think I’ve read Essays on Physics. He’s very readable and lucid.
    Frank

  11. Anonymous says:

    Officials fell trees inscribed by US soldiers who fought for France
    Historic ‘name trees’ bore thousands of carvings
    “The beech trees of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest bore a poignant testimony to the D-Day landings for more than six decades. Thousands of American soldiers stationed there after the liberation of Normandy spent their spare hours with a knife or bayonet creating a lasting reminder of their presence.
    Although the trees grew and the graffiti swelled and twisted, this most peculiar memory of one of the 20th century’s defining moments remained visible – until now. Amid bureaucratic indifference and a dispute between officials and the forest owner, most of the trees have been felled, chopped up and turned into paper.
    Claude Quétel, a French historian and Second World War specialist, was horrified when he discovered what he called a catastrophe and a shameless act.”
    “The trees surrounded land in the heart of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest, near Rouen in Normandy, which was once home to a US army camp named after the Twenty Grand brand of cigarettes.
    It was one of nine cigarette camps – along with Pall Mall, Old Gold, Philip Morris, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Home Run, Wings and Herbert Tareyton – used by troops needing treatment or waiting to be sent elsewhere.”
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article4124354.ece
    Strange how quickly tobacco fell from grace shortly after.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Officials fell trees inscribed by US soldiers who fought for France
    Historic ‘name trees’ bore thousands of carvings
    “The beech trees of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest bore a poignant testimony to the D-Day landings for more than six decades. Thousands of American soldiers stationed there after the liberation of Normandy spent their spare hours with a knife or bayonet creating a lasting reminder of their presence.
    Although the trees grew and the graffiti swelled and twisted, this most peculiar memory of one of the 20th century’s defining moments remained visible – until now. Amid bureaucratic indifference and a dispute between officials and the forest owner, most of the trees have been felled, chopped up and turned into paper.
    Claude Quétel, a French historian and Second World War specialist, was horrified when he discovered what he called a catastrophe and a shameless act.”
    “The trees surrounded land in the heart of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest, near Rouen in Normandy, which was once home to a US army camp named after the Twenty Grand brand of cigarettes.
    It was one of nine cigarette camps – along with Pall Mall, Old Gold, Philip Morris, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Home Run, Wings and Herbert Tareyton – used by troops needing treatment or waiting to be sent elsewhere.”
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article4124354.ece
    Strange how quickly tobacco fell from grace shortly after.

No need to log in

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.