Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On the Morality of Hypotenuse Walking

As you can infer from the picture below, the groundkeepers at UC Riverside don't like it when we walk on the grass:

But I want to walk on the grass! In time-honored philosophical tradition, then, I will create a moral rationalization. (This is one thing that philosophical training in ethics seems to be especially good for.)

Let's start with the math.

One concrete edge of the site pictured above is (I just measured it) 38 paces; the other edge is 30 paces. Pythagoras tells me that the hypotenuse must be 48 paces -- 20 fewer paces through the grass than on the concrete. At a half-second per pace, the grass walker ought to defeat the concrete walker by 10 seconds.

This particular corner is highly traveled (despite its empty off-hours summer appearance above), standing as it does along the most efficient path from the main student parking lot to the center of campus. There are 21,000 students at UCR. Assuming that on any given weekday 1/10 of them could save time getting to and from their cars by cutting across this grass, and multiplying by 200 weekdays, we can estimate the annual cost of forbidding travel along this hypotenuse at 8,400,000 seconds' worth of walking -- the equivalent of 16 years. Summing similar situations across the whole campus, I find lifetimes' worth of needless footsteps.

The main reason for blocking the hypotenuse is presumably aesthetic. I submit that UCR is acting unreasonably to demand, every year, 16 years' worth of additional walking from its students to prevent the appearance of a footpath along this hypotenuse. Footpaths through grass are simply not that much of an eyesore.

But even granting that unpaved footpaths are a terrible eyesore, the problem could be easily remedied! Suppose it costs $10,000 a year to build and maintain an aesthetically pleasing concrete footpath along the hypotenuse -- at least as pleasing as plain grass (perhaps including even an additional tree or flowers if necessary for aesthetic equivalence). To demand 16 years' needless walking from students to save the campus $10,000 is to value students' time at the unconscionable rate of seven cents an hour.

These calculations don't even take into account UCR's costs of enforcement: The yellow rope itself is an aesthetic crime worse than the footpath it prevents!

In light of UCR's egregious moral and aesthetic choices vis-a-vis footpaths, I am therefore entirely in the right to stride across the grass whenever I see fit. Raise the pitchforks. Fight the power.

But I can't seem to do it while looking a groundskeeper in the eye.


howard berman said...

What would a Burkean conservative argue? (There was just a review in The New Yorker on said Burke)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Likely, the Burkean would, like me, have an emotional reaction and then concoct clever arguments post hoc to confirm it!

clasqm said...

But what is the motivation here? You start out by saying "I want to walk on the grass!" I can appreciate that. To walk across grass is a kinaesthetic experience that reconnects us to the natural world. Which would be instantly destroyed by the creation of a concrete footpath that your rationalisation proposes. So you don't actually want to walk across the grass. You just want to walk as little as possible.

Campus admin can now proudly use your calculations to claim that they have provided their students with 16 years worth of free exercise opportunities to combat the terrible plague of post-teenage obesity.

Anonymous said...

a better (more fun!) way to get around campus was to break into the underground tunnel system, though sadly, many of the best entrances were secured not long after some of my exploratory trips!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, Michel, if only they had the same attitude toward the food choices on campus, maybe I could believe it. Another possibility is to install moving sidewalks that one must always only board in the wrong direction.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Sounds fun! I should hold a class down there.

Anonymous said...

Creating defined walking locations can actually reduce travelling time by reducing traffic issues etc and sometimes these sorts of things have been taken into account by the designers. Of course sometimes they have not and the defined paths are in the wrong places, maybe your hypotenuse should be the path and the path should be the grass.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

GNZ: I can see your first point for a crowded hallway where time delays due to crowding are common. It is difficult to imagine that's the correct explanation of the current case, though!

Unknown said...

Proposal: Eric recommends harming groundkeepers:

P1—When campus commuters walk on grass, groundskeepers must do more than work to maintain that grass than they otherwise have to.
P2 — Groundskeepers are not empowered to install sidewalks to abbreviate the travel time of certain commuters by mere seconds/commuter.
C1 — walking on the grass for the reasons Eric mentions causes gratuitous work for groundskeepers.
P3 — causing gratuitous work for laborers is a harm.
C2 — commuters like Eric recommend harming groundskeepers.

I would have trouble defending P3, but I think I am rather comfortable with P1 and P2.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not sure about P1, Nick. It's as easy to drive a mower across dirt as across grass.

I'm also not sure about the inference to C1. If the issue is that they need to plant new grass, my view is that the blame, if there is any, rightly lies on those who insist, unreasonably, that it be done -- so in the morally relevant sense of "cause" I submit that it is the UCR administration that is the cause of the needless work.

Finally: it does not follow from X's doing more work to maintain grass that X is doing more work simpliciter, e.g., if they already have a full day of work and firm rules about working hours.

Callan S. said...

But I can't seem to do it while looking a groundskeeper in the eye.

There's the little yellow rope of consent...

On the other hand you can philosophize around that that he doesn't own this ground, so you do not need his consent.

But in the old, old ways, who tended a patch of earth was its keeper. Little yellow rope remains, even as large fiscal entity, through martial enforcement, claims patch of earth as its own and groundsman as mere temporary implement in entities plan.

Also off topic, the other day my little 6 year old girl spontaniously reported to me that she could tell the difference between a dream and a 'not-dream' (her interesting words). She said the colours were lighter - perhaps she meant more faded. Or somewhat more like when you draw an object? She might dream in the medium she imagines in the most - a paper and pencil drawing medium?

It's just a sample size of 1, but I thought it might be useful to think about in regard to the what colour do we dream in subject you like to get into.

Mark Pharoah said...

1. To succeed in life requires discipline. Students need to become disciplined. Creating disciplined students demands making them do daft things for the sake of it - This increases their overall productivity over their lifetime.
2. What about the poor ants in the grass - That rope is their picket line!
3. The brain uses more energy than muscle - stop thinking about it and just do it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: The dream colors are lighter, or the waking colors? Interesting hypothesis, could connect with issues about the vividness of imagery.

Mark: Could you please sort this bucket of coins for me by mint year, then mix them again and sort by shininess? It will be good for you!

Callan S. said...

Eric: I'm tempted to leave it in ambiguity as to whether the dream or not-dream colours were lighter! There's a tricky see-saw to rock back and forth between either state!

But no, it was the dream colours that were lighter - like colouring something in with coloured pencils.

Actually that's a question - back in the black and white era of movies, were coloured pencils available for kids like they are today?

Mark Pharoah said...

Eric: Sorting coins is random!
You have to have a task that can be performed sensibly, but for no apparent reason, must be undertaken in a daft way. An example of this might be, if one has the usual everyday task to clean a floor, but are called upon to do it with a toothbrush because a mop is... blah blah (any crazy reason why a mop should not be used). There must be better examples, but I can't think of any.

Callan S. said...

Toothbrush is random.

I know, because I am the very perfect judge of what is random or not.

bon said...

I love this post (and its comments).

A serious question: why do architects (or someone else calling the shots) insist on making walkways that doesn't fit the very human shortcut tendencies? Is it wishful thinking ("But this time no one will cross over the grass!") or do they sincerely think that a square grid of walkways with worn down paths in the grass is more aesthetically pleasing than walkways mapping the shortest path? Think outside the grid, man!

F. E. Guerra-Pujol said...

I discovered this post in one of the chapters in Eric's book on robots, jerks, etc., and as soon as I read the chapter I decided to find the corresponding blog post (here) to post my comment. As a serial "hypotenuse walker" myself, I just want to note the tension between Kantian duties (our general duty to follow the rules, in this case the rule to "keep off the grass") and Eric's consequentialist reasoning (all the aggregate time lost spent in following the rules). When these two moral principles collide, how to do we resolve the resulting moral conflict in a principled way?