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Utilitarianism invades the window seat

Jack LB Gohn

We can all agree that the airport police officer did the unpopular thing when he yanked Dr. David Dao out of his window seat Sunday night on the Chicago-Cincinnati flight. But I believe that United Airlines and its regional partner Republic Airline are run by Benthamite Utilitarians who acted on principle, and that we all ought to stop being so horrible to these fine companies.

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham is best known for his dictum that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” To discern how he would have applied it to this complicated situation takes some thinking. Did you do some thinking? Or did you just say: “Oh, how dreadful to see them manhandling that poor doctor?” How superficial of you!

Try sorting through these five Benthamite propositions instead, if you’re so smart.

Proposition 1: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured if it were agreed that, once one has run the gauntlet of purchasing tickets, checking baggage, enduring the indignities of airport security, finding the gate, waiting patiently to be seated, stowing things in the overhead bin (if lucky enough to locate one with actual space) and wedging oneself into a seat that may be too small for comfort, one should have a proprietary interest in one’s seat that can only be divested if one has seriously misbehaved, or some dire emergency is taking place.

Proposition 2: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured if all flights departed on time or as close thereto as possible, and hence, if by one’s requested departure from a plane one can speed the plane’s departure, it is fitting and proper that to deplane. (Sort of a companion to Horace’s line, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”: it’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)

Proposition 3: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured if airlines never bumped passengers for supernumerary crewmembers that the airline had neglected to make arrangements for before the plane boarded, and instead the airlines made use of vans, general aviation (which must be plentiful at large fields like O’Hare) and the like, to transport late-identified supernumeraries to wherever they need to be next, even at significant cost.

Proposition 4: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of air travelers would be secured when the greatest number of flights depart on time or as close thereto as possible, and if the system will not deliver that number of departures unless supernumeraries may bump a few already-seated travelers, so be it.

Proposition 5: The greatest happiness of the greatest number of humans could be preserved by airlines knowing in advance whether the patients of a physician they wish to deplane might die or be gravely injured for want of care in the morning, because human life and patient safety is a paramount value that trumps the happiness and convenience of many, many airline travelers, and airlines care far more about that than about mere profits. (They do, don’t they?)

Not so easy, is it, Mr./Ms. Smartypants?

A sterner duty

Clearly, the deep thinkers and committed altruists who run United and Republic were persuaded by the philosophical rightness of Propositions 2 and 4. This took some bravery, because even if you agree that it is sweet and fitting pro sociis exponere (to deplane for one’s fellow-fliers) and, moreover, that an airline possesses the right and in fact the duty to deplane passengers who seem oblivious to how sweet and fitting it all is, well, there’s still the little matter of how you go about it.

Naturally, being a deep thinker, you’re not going to be concerned about the mere optics, about how it looks when paying passengers are dragged out of their seats and their faces bloodied. No, if you’re United and Republic, organizations which only seek the greatest good of the greatest number, you will not be distracted by public relations consequences at all. You will do the philosophically right thing, no matter what. And bully for you! (Okay, maybe that’s not the right word. But anyway…)

Granted, if you do not resort to market mechanisms, you really have no alternative to the use of force should you come up against an unfeeling wretch like Dr. Dao, who thinks only of himself and of his patients waiting for him in the morning.

Market mechanisms could resolve the matter. You could auction off the right to deplane. It might cost more than the $1,350 that is the current limit on what airlines are supposed to pay for the privilege of booting passengers involuntarily. Markets being what they are, however, in an aircraft like the Embraer 170 that carries 80 passengers (the model that was used for Flight 3411), there will be travelers whose noble inclination to sacrifice for the greater good will be activated at some price. And there is no limit to what can be paid to volunteers.

But United and Republic are above all that. Concessions to the market are not for them. They have a sterner duty. The important thing is to preserve their right to assault passengers whose views are less enlightened than their own. Paying passengers more than $1,350 would only encourage defiance. And in an airline run by philosopher kings (uh, philosopher CEOs), defiance must be suppressed.

How little money matters compared to philosophical principle! Who cares if you end up refunding the fares of all passengers (as United did), or if you have to pay fees to lawyers to participate in hearings in multiple state, federal and local venues (as United likely will), or face legal action by the person you caused to be dragged off the plane with a bloody face (as United is). Only by maintaining your monopoly of violence undefiled can you assure that proper philosophy prevails in your friendly skies.

Thank you, United and Republic, for being so committed to your priorities. And shame on those who would question you!

Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at

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