United’s protest passenger: Hero or Zero?

oreilylaughsatunitedpassengerMuch has been posted in just 3 days about the United Airlines incident in which a passenger refused to give up his seat and was dragged off by law enforcement. Most are outraged against the airline, while others defend it, such as a pilot’s wife (https://thepilotwifelife.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/i-know-youre-mad-at-united-but-thoughts-from-a-pilot-wife-about-flight-3411/) and esteemed colleague Utpal Dholakia (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/201704/in-defense-united-airlines?platform=hootsuite). As a socalled president just found out about diplomacy, “it’s complicated”.

What appears to be missing is WHY so many of us ‘take the side’ of the passenger. No, it is not just because we are more likely to also be passengers versus airline crew or management. WE WOULD HAVE GIVEN UP OUR SEAT when asked repeatedly, at the latest after being threatened to be handcuffed and kicked off (as told in so many stories that since surfaced). Also, many of us rationally understand that it is best for the common good to comply – as detailed by the airlines’ defenders. So why do we take the side of a man who acts differently from us? My answer: because, even though we want most people to comply with authority for sake of order, we do want a few individuals to rebel and to defy at their own risk. This man took a chance we wouldn’t dare too – even though many of us find United’s rules and procedures unfair and inhumanely executed (see e.g. Delta for an alternative http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/how-delta-masters-the-game-of-overbooking-flights/). As a result, we personally may comply even faster with the objected policy (or something may happen, and now we know what) but also feel stronger about it being unfair (see the many stories of other mistreated passengers).

So is David Dao a hero? It all depends on your value system. A utilitarian perspective (the best net result for the largest amount of people) would maintain that David should have given up his seat for the greater good. Moreover, if we all behaved this way (Kant’s categorical imperative), airlines would have to raise prices because they would have to stop overbooking and start underbooking to allow crew to get around. Both perspectives point us to the ‘bigger picture’ and away from the specific ‘outlier’ incident, which they still consider deplorable. In contrast, Bill O’Reilly laughed at the video, while the NY Post digged up the dirt on David’s past (http://nypost.com/2017/04/11/doctor-dragged-off-flight-convicted-of-trading-drugs-for-sex/). The implicit message: this guy is ‘not like you’: he is impure and went against social order – so he does not deserve your sympathy. However, for the popular majority who value Care and Fairness over Authority and Purity, violence against a passenger who paid for his seat and ‘did nothing wrong’ is simply UNFORGIVABLE. This appears to put the passenger in the same emotional category as the hero protesters against racists or authoritarian presidents (https://www.facebook.com/gopakpbusters/) – even though his motivation was purely personal and not for the common good. Such emotion explains the shocked reactions of friends to both prof. Dholakia’s rational blog and my sharing of the NY Post article. In the face of such unforgivable violation, complex airlines operations management and the passenger’s troublesome past appear completely irrelevant. The cornerstone of liberal ethics is empathy for people unlike you and in situations you have not yet encountered. YOU or your family may/would never get an abortion, but can understand circumstances and people for which that is the best option – and you will defend their right to choose. YOU would comply with an airline’s request to give up your seat, but believe it unfair that someone who doesn’t is violently removed from his. At the same time, you understand that United employees were not empowered by management to make different choices, and thus refuse to #BoycottUnited, as that would be unfair to its employees. Instead, you work towards expanding choices by paying a higher price for airlines who have better policies and you encourage United employees to push for such reforms or switch companies.

It’s quiet now…what do YOU say?

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2 thoughts on “United’s protest passenger: Hero or Zero?

  1. An interesting read. However, I would suggest you keep your political and social issue bias out of such articles so readers can focus on the ethical analysis. No one is going to defend the right of another to “choose” if they believe that choice results in the taking of an innocent, helpless and viable human life and perpetuate the same (i.e. utilitarianism). And few are going to be impressed with your academic integrity or “objectivity” when you reference a “racist and authoritarian” President with your “citation” being a Facebook page full of cartoons with vapid ad hominem attacks and no facts or basis in reality. In fact, the protestors you describe as “heros” have in too many cases been rioters and looters committing crimes and attempting to suppress free speech with behavior that could fairly be characterized in some cases as hateful, bigoted, authoritarian, intolerant, etc. You even challenge us to believe in your omniscience by stating matter-of-factly that you know the innermost motivation for certain political figures.

    Why couldn’t you simply write an article focusing on the valid and important values and ethical considerations without inserting so many…not even thinly veiled…attempts to enlighten and inform the rest of us? We are smarter than you presume and require some logic and facts if you are going to dive into the abyss of controversial political and social issues.

  2. Interesting post Koen! Nice work on a tough subject. I’m not sure Kant would agree with you. Duty ethics (if I remember correctly) binds people to treat others with dignity. That is clearly not the case here. Furthermore, the way I read the situation, if all airlines pursued this policy, many people who paid for their flights would be booted out of it and since this would perpetuate injustice, this would not be a sustainable policy.
    I think the man highlighted a significant issue. Sometimes people do things we wish we could but know that we can’t. I think this will result in policies that may improve the lives of many. Hence from a consequential ethics view it may not be so bad either.
    I also think that the reason many people side with the guy is our notions of distributive (why is the outcome not fair given I paid for my ticket) and procedural justice (are the procedures fair? It seems to me they would have thought twice if it was a celebrity figure). I think attacking the guy’s past is just deplorable and completely ad hominem. Where is the veil of ignorance in that?

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