On Undesignated Handicap Parking (and moral motivation)

coffee handicap
Today I pulled into a parking spot closest to the entrance of a coffee-shop. Realizing that it was probably reserved for persons with handicaps, I looked around to see if it was indeed reserved. Finding that it wasn’t so reserved, I concluded that I could legally park there. But was it morally right for me to park there? I had the thought, “this spot should be reserved for handicapped persons”, so being as I am not handicapped, it follows that my rational conclusion would be “I should not park here”. Is there a relevant moral difference, if not handicapped, between parking in a marked ‘handicapped-reserved’ spot and parking in a spot that should be reserved for persons with handicaps? Are not both actions equally unjust in denying beneficence to a person with a disadvantage?

That, upon vacating the spot, it is likely that the next person to take the spot will not be handicapped does not seem to have any relevance to the morality of my action. All that matters is that in keeping the spot, I deny a handicapped person a possibility for easier access to the store.

Admittedly, for me the really interesting question is in regards to what happened when I thought “this space ought to be reserved for persons with handicaps” but then parked there. Was it a moment of practical irrationality, or a moment wherein I didn’t have the necessary background desires to do what what I knew to be the right thing? In other words, why was the belief “this space ought to be reserved for persons with handicaps” not sufficient to motivate me not to park there? Was it because I didn’t have the necessary desires to be moral at the time, or some deficiency in the belief itself?

At the time, I was unsure whether the belief was true, it is only now, after reflecting on the matter that I see that, as a matter of justice, it is true that the spot should be reserved for persons with handicaps. At the time I wondered if the “should” in “this spot should be reserved” was a probabilistic rather than a normative “should”, such that background beliefs about what is common in our culture were causing me to think I shouldn’t park there, not normative facts. Still, I came to see a priori, after enough reflection, that as a matter of justice that that spot should have been reserved for persons with handicaps. As Robert Audi has argued, moral propositions known a priori through reflection need not be grasped immediately — the self-evident propositions of intuitionism are not necessarily obvious.

I have argued before for externalism in the theory of moral motivation, but this instance seems to fit better with internalism in moral motivation. After all, it certainly seemed to me at the time that I had the desire to do the right thing, if there are desires that fit the role of desires to be moral then surely they were in play as what compelled me to not immediately get out of the car and get my caffein fix. My lack of motivation to act in accord with that belief is best explained by the fact that it wasn’t a strong belief at all — I wasn’t sure of it. Of course, I see this case more as an opportunity to reflect on internalism and externalism in moral motivation — I don’t see this as being evidence in favor of internalism as I think that that debate will have to be settled a priori. Still, such experiences inform our empirically learned concepts, such that consideration of these moral experiences benefit our understanding of the concepts when we turn to a priori reflection.

Anyways, I’ve gotten off on a tangent. My initial purpose was just to initiate a conversation about the morality of what I did — I’m curious as to what other people think. Again: “Is there a relevant moral difference, if not handicapped, between parking in a marked ‘handicapped-reserved’ spot and parking in a spot that should be reserved for persons with handicaps? Are not both actions equally unjust in denying beneficence to a person with a disadvantage?”


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on April 20, 2014 - 9:24 pm

    I saw your tweet on this, started to respond three times, with three different answers, then gave up, although I do think your concern that it should have been marked does you credit. Of course, some would say that rather than buying a coffee, you should have sent that money to aid starving children in Africa. It’s a fact that our conscience responds to what is visible and local, a remnant of our evolution in small hunter gatherer groups.

    I doubt most people would viscerally condemn you for parking there, but would likely do so if you hastily parked there before a disabled person could, or if it had been marked (although last is almost certainly a conditioned reflex).

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on April 20, 2014 - 9:58 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, it might have proven difficult in 140 characters!

      I find it interesting that you think my concern that it should be handicapped does me credit. While it suggests my intentions were good in that I was set on doing the right thing, it also suggests that my intentions were bad in the sense that I saw a reason not to do something, and rather than just acting on that reason, as I assume a virtuous person would do, I had an internal dialogue as to whether it was a legitimate reason, suggesting a lack of virtue on my part.

      You get at an important point in noting that, all things considered, I should have donated that money to UNICEF, which is, how demanding can morality be? If I did vacate the spot, how far away should I drive so that there are enough spaces for other handicapped persons who happen to come by? Should I have driven at all? This has been a tricky spot for me recently in my researches on moral realism. When do the facts of the situation reach the threshold that the moral value changes from morally required, to so good that it is not required, a supererogatory act as it were, like the soldier who jumps on the grenade.

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