Thomas Aquinas might cycle on the footpath (but Immanuel Kant wouldn’t)

Bike commuters in London; Credit: Paul Kubalek; Licence: Creative Commons

My mother taught me that it was ok to steal.

The nuns taught my mother that it was ok to steal.

Thomas Aquinas taught the nuns that it was ok to steal.

I suspect that some context is needed here.

In the Summa theologiae 2a2ae, q66, where Aquinas deals with the morality of theft and robbery, he considers whether it’s lawful to thieve in a case of necessity.

Aquinas argues that:

In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common (2a2ae, q66, a7, co)

He gives qualified acknowledgement to property rights (albeit in a way that would make most red-blooded capitalists blanch). But he argues that in cases of “manifest and urgent” need, when no other remedy is available, a Christian may take the property of another in order to help him or herself or neighbours in need. It is clear from the context that Aquinas isn’t thinking of poor people robbing each other, but of those who have more than they need forfeiting their surplus to those who don’t have what they need. Here he quotes Saint Ambrose’s reproach to the wealthy:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

What the mediaeval church thought happened to our “wealth creators,” Chartres Cathedral, South Portal; Credit: Nick Thompson

This is what the nuns taught my mother and what my mother taught me. As a theologically minded child, I engraved it upon my heart.

I mention all of this to draw attention to a broader point: that Aquinas is always sharply aware of the distinction between the letter and spirit of laws (as well as other rules and regulations).

When lawmakers make good laws, they do so with the intention of promoting the welfare of their subjects – i.e. of upholding the common good. But lawmakers can’t foresee all of the individual circumstances to which those laws will be applied. This means that in some cases, a law may have to be “bent” or even broken in order for the original intention of the lawmaker to be fulfilled. In other words, the spirit of a good law must always take precedence over its letter.

This in its turn is a round-about-way of coming – at last! – to an ethical dilemma I contemplated on my bike-ride into work this morning: all other things being equal, would Thomas Aquinas approve of biking on the footpath?

Dear reader, as you have probably already guessed, I am no ethicist, and I seek your judgements on this matter of great import (to me at least).

Most mornings I bike to work along Ash, Rata Street and Great North Road. If I travel in rush hour, the traffic is chaotic. Because of the geography of the Whau Estuary, I have little other choice but to take this road.

What worries me is not just the frenetic lane changing and sheer volume of traffic.  The route includes many “pinch points” (it’s narrow) and it’s easy for a cyclist to be hemmed in against the gutter, because traffic can’t pull out far enough to pass you safely.

For both reasons there are a few places where it seems safer to bike along the footpath for 100-200m during rush hour.

But if I do that, I’m breaking the law.

(I should say that I’m not alone in this; school kids and the elderly cyclists in that area also use the footpath; for their sake, I’m glad they do)

If the kids, the elderly cyclists and I were to observe Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (crudely put: don’t do anything that’s not universalisable) none of us would be on the footpath. That’s because a footpath full of cyclists would be dangerous to pedestrians. And in general, that’s sound advice. As a pedestrian, I get a bit antsy if I feel hemmed in by a cyclist on the footpath – especially one travelling at speed. It’s not safe, and the intention of the lawmaker is that everyone – pedestrian, cyclist, motorist – should be able to travel in a way that is as safe as possible.

(Photo credit:; Licence: Creative Commons)

But, what if it is clearly safer to ride on the footpath – especially in the case of school children? What if there are no pedestrians on the footpath, or if I dismount and walk while I’m passing pedestrians? Is the intention of the lawmaker not better fulfilled by a bit of judicious law-breaking?

In general New Zealand public discourse about any kind of rule-breaking is crudely and savagely Kantian. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even dignify it with that term. Anyone reading the letters to the New Zealand Herald would be hard pressed not to conclude that New Zealanders – religious or heathen, conservative or liberal – are on the whole self-righteous, censorious and punitive. Not for us the humane casuistry and good sense of the tradition that Aquinas represents.

So I feel sure that New Zealand public opinion would gladly see me heavily fined for meandering along the footpaths of west Auckland during rush hour.

But I’m not sure what Aquinas would say.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Aquinas might cycle on the footpath (but Immanuel Kant wouldn’t)

  1. cedar51 March 5, 2014 / 8:21 pm

    Having been knocked down by a cyclist – when I still had 23 seconds on the cross-walk clock because she chose to ride a red light – the cars where still back across the road stationary. The cyclist was angry that I had fallen and was hurt, but did she stop, help me up or say sorry. No, she insisted that she had the ROW…got on her bicycle and cycled away! The bystanders picked me up…

    I know you are riding to work and the footpath is inviting you, but I’m sorry you must get off your bike and walk beside it. Even if you believe no one is walking, they might like me come innocently into your ROW & can you stop!

    I know it is difficult for those who cycle, with not many cycleways that you will get you directly to where you want to go. But the same goes for footpath users who might be also walking for reasons of just getting to a public transport stop/station. Or just out walking…

    I’m not sure how much of your argument fits into ethics, let alone stealing a right to use. I see it as more in being polite when using a ‘pathway’ that is designated for quite different reasons.


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