My mum taught me many things when I was young. A lot of them I can still recall clearly. One of these lessons always had a specific classroom, and that is on an MTR platform. When I was young, and that means in Stone Age, MTR stations didn’t have those glass doors as they do now to prevent waiting passengers from falling onto the rails. And the lesson is – stand not just behind the yellow line, but stay way behind it (my mum would say the person in the picture is not standing far enough).
Yes you know exactly where the boundary between the platform and the rail is. But the thing is, you never stand as far as that. Everybody can make sense of the yellow line drawn on the platform. Once you stand close to the boundary it’s dangerous even when your feet are indeed on the platform. If you knowingly cross the yellow line, all it shows is that you don’t care about your safety. If you care at all about not falling onto the railway, you stay behind the yellow line. But, as my mum insisted, even that may be dangerous. You’ll never know if someone will push you down even from behind the yellow line. To be safe, stay way behind the yellow line, where you know no one can push you. You’d rather sacrifice convenience, you’d rather not being able to get onto train before other passengers. All that matters is that you are safe.
And all these are even more important if, for any reason, you can’t see where the edge of the platform is! You don’t argue where it is. Where it is is irrelevant. You just stand where you know for sure you are safe, way behind the blurred edge.
Now that MTR has installed safety gates, these precautions may be outdated.
But can we still draw a lesson from them?
Yes even if you know exactly where the boundary between right and wrong is, the thing is, you never go as far as that. The most important question is perhaps not where this boundary lies, but where you draw the yellow line. Once you stand close to the boundary it’s dangerous even when you turn out to be doing something permissible. If you knowingly stand close to the boundary, all it shows is that you don’t care. If you care at all about not doing the wrong thing, you draw a line to keep yourself away from that boundary. But, for those who actually care, you may even stay way behind where other people take as the yellow line – you’ll never know if someone will push you down. Stay where you know no one can push you. You’d rather sacrifice convenience, you’d rather not being able to do what you want. All that matters is that you are safe.
And all these are even more important if you can’t see where the boundary between right and wrong is! It’s just funny how philosophers and non-philosophers alike spend all their energies arguing where this boundary lies. Is abortion permissible? Is homosexuality permissible? But, just as in the MTR case, you don’t argue. Where the boundary actually is is irrelevant. You just stay where you know for sure you are safe, way behind the grey zone.
At the MTR, safety is not about having your feet on the platform – it’s about how far you stay away from the rail. So in ethics, being virtuous is not just about not doing the evil things, it’s about how far you stay away from them. The question to ask in ethics is not where exactly lies the boundary between right and wrong. This is just irrelevant – you are not meant to go as far as there anyway. What matters is whether you actually care about doing the right thing. The moral person will care. And once you care, it’s only where you draw the line which matters.