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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Urban Form and The Good Life

More often than not, talk of the ethics of metropolitan growth raises eyebrows. For many, ‘ethics’ and ‘metropolitan growth’ go together like ‘feathers’ and ‘bicycle’ . . . or ‘chastity’ and ‘brothel’.

For the moment, I’ll set aside the latter reaction, which seems to be based on the inference that since (1) sprawl is bad, and (2) ethics is a set of rules about what is good, then (3) there can be no such thing as ethical sprawl. As it happens, I am unwilling to assume (1), and (2) strikes me as a profound misunderstanding of ethics as a field of inquiry.

Rather, I’ll focus on the former reaction: the terms of ethics are simply irrelevant to decisions about what to build, and about where and how to live in the landscape. I address some of these matters in the Introduction of the book (p. 2-3). Ordinary residents just want to be left alone to pursue their preferences, and think that no one has the right to judge their preferences based on some (allegedly) rigid code of morals. Professionals in urban planning and policy want to appeal to ‘rational’ methods of decision making based on ‘objective’ measures, which seems to rule out the (allegedly) mushy concerns of ethicists.

In the past, I have responded to these reactions by appealing to a broader conception of ethics, one that has ancient roots. For Aristotle, I have pointed out, the central question of ethics is: What is the best kind of life for a human being?