Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13:2
I read a fascinating report recently that pointed out how driverless cars have accumulated more than twice the number of accidents as human-operated vehicles. But here’s the interesting statistic: in 100 per cent of those cases, the driverless car was not at fault. The reason for the higher accident rate? These cars always follow the rules.
Now it doesn’t take a philosopher to analyze the interesting ethical conundrum this provides (though it would help). The dilemma facing programmers is how to make the cars safer if the only way of doing so is factoring in lawlessness. You can imagine the discussion during a board meeting at, say, Volkswagen? “Do we put a regulator on the car that will allow it to exceed the speed limit when merging, even if it breaks the law?” Of course they’d say no!
One of the other difficult questions engineers and programmers have asked is what they should do if a car is in danger of running over school children. Is it ethically acceptable to program the car, in this situation, to swerve off a cliff and sacrifice the passenger of the driverless vehicle? Frankly I wouldn’t want to be the person making that decision, and certainly not by building in a universal program.
In reality all of us make complex ethical decisions throughout our lives, some with more at stake than others. We also always analyze the rules to see how binding they are, because not every one of these has the same value in different contexts. How many of us have told our children not to lie, but then urged them not to blurt out how much they hate a person’s clothes? Or what about the answer to: “Do I look fat in this?” Context matters.
I thought of all this recently when reading a recent interview with Pope Francis. Once again, the pontiff reiterates the value of flexibility when interpreting God’s laws. He stresses the importance of mercy and inclusion, even to the point of overlooking obscure teachings, urging us to “be surprised by reality, by a greater love or a higher standard.” Jesus broke Mosaic law and reached out to the lepers, who were forbidden human contact. Not surprisingly, the pope asks us to follow Jesus, and to extend our hospitality, to the margins. “Jesus goes and heals and integrates the marginalized, the ones who are outside the city, the ones outside the encampment. In so doing, he shows us the way.” Sometimes the way is not only difficult to find, but it’s also difficult to navigate. But only God’s grace and an open, merciful heart can help us to follow the path he would choose.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.