Philososplainin’ #1: Reclining Airplane Seats


Maybe it started with Thales falling into a well, helped along by the trope of the absent-minded professor, and reinforced by, say, the difficulty of the “prof or hobo” quiz, but there is the general impression that philosophy is impractical. Yet, philosophy professors are often keen to emphasize the practical value of the philosophical skill set in navigating the world: logical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and imagination, the ability to countenance alternatives and make needed distinctions, etc.

“Well,” the world might ask, “if philosophy is so practical, what has it done for us lately?” And so, a new blog idea–Philososplainin’–was born: take an issue that is being widely discussed by the populace at large and see whether philosophers can step in to help make progress on it. We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

Our topic for Philososplainin’ #1 is reclining airplane seats. Apparently, they are a problem. Most seats in commercial airplanes recline (except, on some models, the ones in the very back row). Reclining the seat can be more comfortable for the person in the seat, but invariably invades the space of the person seated behind, giving him or her less leg room and sometimes making the tray table difficult to use (especially with a computer). What should be done? Should passengers try to work out an agreeable arrangement as they take their seats? Should a new social convention of not reclining be adopted? Should passengers go rogue and buy the “knee defender“? Ought we do away with reclining seats altogether? Have reclining and non-reclining sections?  I don’t know, people. But perhaps, together, we philosophers can figure it out. And save the world. From this problem. “Problem.”

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Brock
7 years ago

I’m 6’4″, so if the person sitting in front of me reclines, the seat back literally presses into my knees.

But I’ve always found that asking the person in front of me not to recline has been successful.

If Josh Barro were sitting in front of me, however, and tried to extort money out of me on the spot, there would probably be an in-flight altercation.

Pace Barro, this is a perfect example of why the Coase Theorem is almost never applicable in the real world.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Brock
7 years ago

For those who do not know, Josh Barro authored an article in the NYT called “Don’t Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me.”Report

Sometime flyer
Sometime flyer
7 years ago

uh, less cramped seating?Report

Douglas W. Portmore
7 years ago

Given that reclining a seat can break someone’s laptop screen or bash someone’s knees, people should at least let those behind them know that they are going to recline their seats before doing so. And until this becomes common practice, it seems entirely appropriate to employ the knee defender against unexpected seat reclining.Report

Johann Klaassen
Johann Klaassen
7 years ago

This is perhaps not the first time that philosophers have addressed this issue. Here’s a gem from 2007: http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2007/12/23Report

RJ
RJ
7 years ago

The knee defender is appropriate only if you intend to remove it as soon as the person wants to recline. That is, it is appropriate only as a defense against *unexpected* reclining. It is wrong to use it as a way to prevent reclining altogether. (Best to mention to the person in front of you that you are using it, and that you are prepared to remove it on their request. This may have the added benefit of making it less likely that they recline. Using it without saying something first is inviting trouble.)

Of course it is true that you should be courteous and aware of the person behind you. And if the space is very important to you, politely ask the person in front of you not to recline so that you can use your laptop more comfortably, and offer to buy them a drink.Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
7 years ago

A possible background debate: how is the right to space distributed on the airplane? Some think it is divided equally within each seating section. Others think that space should be allotted by need. This issue regularly comes up with armrests. Smaller people rarely get access to the armrest (although this of course intersects with gender issues), and a commonly given reason is that this is because larger people need the armrest. Perhaps a similar story is in the background of the reclining seat: larger/taller people need the leg space, which trumps the right of the person in front of them to access a differently angled space. But smaller people may well insist that this is the space they paid for and that they have a right to it, regardless of their size. (Perhaps they are just less comfortable with a straight angled space and bought the seat assuming they could recline.) They may insist that larger/taller people who cannot fit in the seat provided (assuming the possibility of a change in angle), should ask for special accommodations from the airline staff. (I don’t think this was an issue with the first of these stories–the person is question was only 6’4″ and was seated in Economy Plus.) I am a stronger proponent of the equal space rule, with those who need more space having to ask the permission of those around them, rather than the other way around. But then I am a mid-size person and have not been squeezed out by airlines, so I am interested in hearing arguments for the space-based-on-need account.Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
7 years ago

The above is one set of concerns. Another is which of two competing interests should trump the other: interest in 90-degree space and interest in 110(?)-degree space. Again, those for whom this goes beyond mere interest to necessity should probably seek special accommodations from the airline staff ahead of time (e.g. those for whom a reclined seat would damage their legs or those for whom an unreclined seat would cause severe back pain). For all others, it seems the implicit view of the airline that the 110-degree interest trumps the 90-degree interest. And now the 90-degree interest people are asking for a reversal–the 110-degree proponents must ask first, and may be refused. To examine this aspect of the debate I think I would need to hear more about what conditions might lead one to care more about 90 versus 110 degrees and how common and strong each of these interests are (I take it laptop use is a key element of the 90-degree arsenal, whereas sleep may be a key element of the 110-degree arsenal). The claim to leg space requirements I take to be separate (see above).Report

Yan
Yan
7 years ago

I’m always shocked by the fact that everyone dutifully lines up on side or the other, with rarely anyone pointing out that it’s possible to see the arguments on both sides as either equally strong/weak or, as I’d suggest, fundamentally misguided because it’s a shame debate.

Ought (in a moral sense) you recline or not recline or request to recline? There is no answer to that question, there is no moral substance to the matter, since the entire context of the choice (the airlines, the planes, the distance to the ground, the inevitable need to travel by air) is out of our control. Ought planes have such recliners or ought airlines make rules is a meaningful question. But this one’s not. It’s not a moral but practical question: which is the most in your interest? And it’s probably: don’t recline unless you ask first and if it’s a long flight and you need to to be able to sleep, so you won’t get into ugly fights with other people or have your flight ruined by a bad mood.

Now, I find more interesting the political psychology of the question. I wonder if there are general difference in, say, how Americans view this versus others?For example, I notice that the pro-recliners mostly appeal to broader social frameworks: 1) I paid for the ticket, which legally gives me the right to use the seat, 2) the airlines allow it.

On the other hand, I notice that the anti-recliners mostly appeal to a personal property perspective: your invading “my” “personal” space. There’s some overlap, since the former are implying they’ve made the seat their property, but they justify this propietary claim by appeal to a social, non-personal authority: the airline.

Both sides are, I think, argumentatively failures. That you are legally or by the consent of the airline permitted tells us nothing about whether it’s moral. And that recliners inconvenience or discomfort you tells us nothing about whether that space is morally “yours.” But I think it does tell us something about the psychology: one side sees this as a negative side affect of a basically acceptable social contract (where we all, Rawls-style, may end up the recliner or recline), while the other side seems to see it as a matter of natural, Lockean rights to a circle of inviolable space.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Yan
7 years ago

“Ought (in a moral sense) you recline or not recline or request to recline? There is no answer to that question, there is no moral substance to the matter, since the entire context of the choice (the airlines, the planes, the distance to the ground, the inevitable need to travel by air) is out of our control.”

The question of whether you morally ought to cannibalize the person in the seat in front of you arises in the same context. But it has a rather obvious answer.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Yan
7 years ago

Well, Yan has settled this one. Next?Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
7 years ago

One good argument for philosophers intervening in the public sphere is that if we don’t do it, economists will do it unfettered, and there are certain blunders of thought to which economists are far more prone than philosophers. From Mr. Barro’s article:

“[The Coase Theorem holds] that it doesn’t matter very much who is initially given a property right”
The Coase Theorem holds no such thing — to its credit, since distribution arguably matters.

“so long as you clearly define it and transaction costs are low, people will trade the right so that it ends up in the hands of whoever values it most.”
If Barro is going to write an article for non-economists, he needs to start using “values” to mean what every English speaker who is not an economist means by it.

“…if they really cared that much, someone would have opened his wallet and paid me by now.” This conditional is obviously false, and even if it were true, it would not be enough to support the comparative claim about who — the prospective recliner or the prospective victim of reclining — cares more.Report

trackback
7 years ago

[…] using the Knee Defender unethical? Should airlines prohibit it? Justin Weinberg challenges philosophers to use their analytical toolkit to think about the situation. Here’s my […]Report

Tall flyer
Tall flyer
7 years ago

People are such pathetic whiners. I’m in the 95th percentile of height for a man. I fly a lot, and don’t expect people not to recline because I don’t like it, it inconveniences me, or whatever. Flying sucks for everyone and it is not improved by people getting on their high horse and telling others how to behave. Although I know that philosophers can rarely refrain from that pleasure. I’m not a “victim” because someone in front of me reclines their seat. I’m just another yutz trying to get from point A to point B, like the person in the seat in front of me. Just suck it up. I am.Report

Dale Miller
Dale Miller
7 years ago

I wonder whether airlines might offer both reclining and non-reclining seats, possibly on different sides of the aisle, so that passengers with a strong preference might be able to guarantee that they’re satisfied.Report

aynrandonlyonplanes
aynrandonlyonplanes
7 years ago

There is no more appropriate context for the most pure egotism than mass transit. No one – other passengers, the transit-provider, the operators of the transit – seems to care about you, and it would be silly to make oneself the sucker that actually gives a damn about others.Report

John Schwenkler
7 years ago

Sometimes when I go to the grocery store, I have just a few items that I am purchasing, and the person in front of me in line for the register has LOTS of items in her cart (there is no “10 or fewer” lane in this particular store). It seems pretty clear to me that in such a case the person in front of me isn’t doing anything unethical if she simply keeps her place without checking to see whether I’d like to cut in front of her, despite the fact that switching places would bring a large benefit to me at (presumably) a small cost to her. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be nice for her to ask if I’d like to cut ahead, or that in certain circumstances (say, if I am badly needed at home or have a squirming child in my care) it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to raise the possibility of doing so. Most often, however, such things wouldn’t be appropriate. Why not? My hunch is that this is because of the social conventions governing behavior in check-out lines, which include keeping your spot except in extraordinary circumstances and refraining from anything more than minimally polite conversation with strangers. And I’d say that the same applies in the case at issue: the social conventions entitle you to recline your seat, without asking permission, at least unless doing so will cause pretty significant inconvenience to the person behind you. And those conventions work very well, not least because of the way they seem to minimize the chances of verbal disputes between perfect strangers in close quarters.Report

Clayton
7 years ago

In lots of cases if you recline the benefit you get is less than the cost you impose. When you’re in that kind of situation, you’ll probably realize it. And when you realize it, you’ll probably see that a reasonable person could really go either way here.Report

Avi
Avi
7 years ago

If you don’t want the person in front of you to recline, you can choose a seat in the exit row where the seat in front of the exit row (and often the exit row seat itself) does not recline. If you cannot do this, you could purchase a first class seat. If for some reason you simply must sit behind a seat that reclines in economy, you have no right (either legal or moral) to insist that the person in front not recline her seat. You are not a victim. You are not being treated unjustly. The person reclining her seat is using the seat as the airline intended. Your beef is with the airline, not with her. If you don’t like this situation, you can complain to the airline about the fact that its seats recline. There are lots of things about air travel I don’t like and there are lots of things people do that I don’t like. That fact by itself gives me no right and no expectation that others should change their behaviour to match my preferences.Report

Clayton
Reply to  Avi
7 years ago

This would be a very good argument if the issue was about rights.Report

Jean
Jean
7 years ago

I don’t think we can ignore the fact that the airline has built the reclining option into the seats, so being reclined upon is part of our mutual understanding of what will probably happen when we get on an airplane. In fact, the reclining button practically says “It’s OK to press me!” It’s another matter when passengers do things like leaning their arms on not just one, but two arm rests, or spreading out so they’re in physical contact with their neighbor. A harder case is opening the shades when others are trying to sleep, because you happen to enjoy looking down on Greenland. Airplane ethics (or is it just etiquette?)–definitely a topic whose time has come.Report

Christopher Pynes
Christopher Pynes
7 years ago

As someone who is 6’5” I am acutely aware of the reclining seat issue. There are some important facts that people who think that reclining is their economic (or god given as one woman on TV put it) right don’t understand, and I am going to clear that up for them. To be clear reclining should be eliminated given two important facts. Change the facts, and I am happy to change the conclusion.

(1) Airlines have reduced the pitch in seats to 31 inches (some down to 29!) from 36 and more over the years. Airline manufacturers recommend 35 inch seat pitch by the way. (This isn’t the space between seats, but the distance from one point on a seat to that exact point on another. So from the front of my back rest to the front of the back rest in front of me, which included the backrest. My back and leg distance is 29 inches. Subtract that and the width of the back rest and you get a negative number. Typically I have ZERO room between my knees and the seat in front of me, and have to take all the magazines out in the seat pocket.)

(2) Not all seats recline. The seats in front of the exit row do not recline. The last row of each section with a divider do not recline. The last row of seats on the aircraft don’t recline. And if there are two exit rows, the exit row in front of an exit row doesn’t recline. So there are seats that cannot recline on the aircraft.

So not everyone who purchases a seat can actually recline. With the reduction in seat pitch and the fact that not everyone can recline makes a strong case for the elimination of reclining in general. Reclining seats are a holdover from when there was more room between seats. It is no more and so the reclining should be eliminated. If all the seats can’t recline, then none of them should as a basic issue of fairness. Those people in non-reclining rows or the tall should not suffer the burdens of those who want to recline. Sometimes seats are randomly assigned. Sometimes there is only one seat left when purchasing a ticket. So now we are in a moral luck situation. This is neither fair nor just.

I always pay more for extra leg room when available via an exit row or economy plus. But this debate about I purchased a seat and there is a button, so I should be able to recline are silly. Silly! Even the seats that don’t recline have the recline button.

The argument could be put the other way. We now that if you want more leg room, then paying more makes sense. But how about, if you want to recline, you need more room to do it, so pay more. Just like if you want to check a bag now, you have to pay. Just because reclining seats was how it all started doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be a luxury now, just like extra leg room is now a luxury. Reclining takes extra room just like leg space. Pay for it!

And while you are all debating the morality of the seat defender, riddle me this. Is it permissible to physically prevent the seat in front of you from reclining not with a gadget, but with your knees? Once my legs actually prevented the seat from reclining. I told the man in front of me that my legs were preventing his reclining. He was unhappy, but I can’t make my legs shorter. You can, however, not recline, and that’s is the state that all passengers who have reduced seat pitch should be placed — in the full and upright manner unable to recline.Report

Pamela
Pamela
7 years ago

(1) Why is the this being treated as a question of etiquette between passengers? The problem was created by the airlines’ decision (maybe 10, maybe 15 years ago) to add more rows to the plane, reducing the space between rows (without re-engineering the seats), creating this conflict between passengers. The solution would be for the airline to remove rows of seats, making it possible for one person to recline without landing in the teeth of the person behind. The airlines leave the problem in place, because they believe people care more about the price of the airline ticket than about comfort or avoiding conflict or being polite.

(2) It seems to me that airlines should be required by law to provide enough space for people to adopt the “crash landing” posture depicted on the safety card. I could not do so, in a standard airline seat (and, I couldn’t do so whether or not the person in front of me remembered to bring his or her seat-back to the full and upright position before the emergency landing). Perhaps it should also be possible to exit the window seat without climbing over the person in the middle and aisle. Airplanes would have fewer rows — but, if all airlines had to come into compliance, it would not create a competitive disadvantage. All airline tickets would be a bit more expensive. But we could be both comfortable and polite at the same time.Report

John Schwenkler
7 years ago

I think we should distinguish several different questions, which clearly can receive divergent answers. Leaving aside matters about paying extra for wide rows, etc., here are a few:

1. When, if ever, is it okay to recline your seat on an airplane (when someone is sitting behind you)?
2. When, if ever, is it okay to do this without first checking with the person you’re going to inconvenience?
3. When, if ever, is it okay to ask the person in front of you in an airplane not to recline their seat (before or after they’ve already done so)?
4. When, if ever, is it okay to use a device like the Knee Defender that keeps the seat in front of you from reclining?
5. When, if ever, is it okay to tell someone who asks you not to recline their seat that you are going to recline anyway?Report

Seat Pedant
Seat Pedant
Reply to  John Schwenkler
7 years ago

My answers:

1. On any non-redeye flight shorter than, say, 5 hours, it is rude to recline your seat. Seriously. Why do you need to recline your seat? Unless you have some medical condition requiring you to recline your seat, then there is no reason other than your own comfort. But, the transition from not reclining to reclining is not a transition from discomfort to comfort. It is a transition from comfort to more comfort.

That more comfort comes at the cost of someone else’s comfort. That is, by reclining your seat, you make yourself more comfortable by making someone else suffer appreciably. That is not cool.

So, don’t recline your seats, people.

2. Don’t ask the person behind you. That puts them on the spot. You force them to remind you to act morally. But, that is not a pleasant thing for a stranger to have to do. Since it is only a small wrong to recline your seat, and most people behind you will prefer to avoid the disapprobation usually heaped upon those (like me) who moralize about small wrongs, the person behind you will probably say, “Sure, go ahead.” But, what really is happening is that you forced that person to say that.

In short, your request amounts to the following implicit threat, “Either let me recline my seat, or tell me to my face that I am a jerk.” Most people will go prefer to avoid conflict and will therefore choose to suffer. Don’t do that to people.

3. It is always ok, except when that person has a medical condition requiring them to recline his/her seat. But, what condition is that?

4. It’s a jerky thing to do. But, against jerks, I suppose it is permissible to deploy jerky devices.

5. Never (unless you have that mysterious medical condition that requires reclining).

These answers do not apply for red eye flights or long haul flights.

My opinion regarding long haul flights is that you shouldn’t recline your seat. Most healthy adults can manage to sit in a non-reclined seat for 7 – 8 hours without ill effects. Suck it up. But, this view requires a different line of argument.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

I still think there’s no overriding moral reason on either side. Both sides should stop whining and suck it up. Makes most first world problems start to look serious.

But in my experience I have *never* been significantly made uncomfortable or inconvenienced by recliners. I’d say half the time people in front of me recline, and most of those times they don’t recline all the way. Usually I get caught a little off guard when they do it suddenly, and have a momentary ‘WTF, you asshole’ moment. Then I get a grip and realize it’s just a chair closer to me and I’m fine. If I’m using my laptop I pull the tray closer to me and adjust the angle and I manage fine. If I’m reading a book, I change how I’m holding it and I’m fine.

Again, this is allowing for exceptions where someone cannot sit in any way without it causing significant discomfort because of, say, height. But I’m above average height that’s not *even close* to a problem for me. I’d either have to have my legs crossed or my feet raised on the bar or be slid down the seat for my knees to be seriously discomforted by a reclined chair. So, I bet those exceptions are rare, and they shouldn’t define the general moral rule. And I absolutely don’t believe anyone’s claim that their laptop has been “smashed” in the sense of damaged by a reclining chair.

I do find it difficult to reach for things under the seat, but I find that really difficult either way, so it’s not a morally significant inconvenience. (And the other side’s argument applies here: adults can go for 5 hours without rummaging their things or can prepare by putting what they need in the seat pocket ahead of time, so suck it up.) So, I don’t know what, in the average case, is the discomfort caused by a recliner, most of whom, on average, don’t even recline all the way.

My best guess is that this is psychological: when I already feel stressed and uncomfortable and crowded from the basic conditions of overcrowded planes, *seeing* my space lessen might drive me nuts. And that’s why we seem to care so much about the space *in front* of our faces, even though technically it is no more “ours” than the space behind our backs. If you are sitting normally, you do not need *either* space and so neither space morally belongs to you.

It might also have to do with how resentful a personality has. I always get pissed off at first, then realize it’s not really affecting my comfort and get over it. But resentful types probably spend the rest of the flight stewing and nursing a grudge, so they feel more put upon than they really are.

I’ve already speculated wildly about the political psychology, with anti-recliners being classical liberals about personal liberty and property.

I think we might wonder if there’s a class element, too. For example, anti-recliners may be more likely to belong to the class of people who work on planes for business travel, or who have nice laptops that they care deeply about (i.e., Apple users), or who are very overprotective of their property being touched by other (probably gross, fat, poor) people, and who in most of their daily life and dignified employments have the luxury of well protected personal space and don’t have to get too close to the poors because they don’t ride buses or live in neighborhoods with bad schools, etc.

The problem with the new coach class may ultimately be that the formerly solidly middle or upper middle class have been demoted to back of the train with the rest of the riffraff, and they’re pissed.Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

I am surprised that so few commentators have identified the airlines as the main culprits here (Pamela is one exception). It goes to show just how successful the airlines have been in displacing blame for passenger discomfort from themselves onto our fellow passengers. Passengers are now focused mainly on complaining about each other, thus diffusing the anger about the situation that might otherwise be concentrated into consumer activism directed at the airlines to fix the situation (perhaps by having reclining and non-reclining sections). It is truly ingenious. I am reminded of this scene from Brazil:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mS5WLkb_Cxk&w=560&h=315%5D

It’s just one of the many divide and conquer strategies.

That said, even if the airlines are to blame for creating these circumstances, there is still the question of what we should do in them. Here, I urge (against Seat Pedant) that we talk to each other. Sure it can be a little awkward, but how hard is it to have a brief conversation? Start by acknowledging the situation the airline has put you in: “The airline has given me the ability to recline my seat, but I realize that invades some of your space” or, “the airline has given me this tray table on which to place my laptop, but if you recline your seat all the way it becomes unusable.” And then proceed from there, having a polite and reasonable conversation.

We often rely on institutions, policies, and conventions to avoid interactions with strangers, passing responsibility for our actions to the social mechanisms which make them permissible (hence the misplaced discussion, above, of “rights”). Reliance on social mechanisms, sometimes, can be great, but they sometimes are absent or broken. When they are, and when the costs and benefits of the relevant alternatives are unclear or ungeneralizable (as the discussion here and elsewhere suggests), then we need to step up and talk it out. You can buy your way out of doing so, but the price of that, it seems to me, should be not getting your way.Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

The economists take a turn here.Report