How Reclining Your Seat on an Airplane Explains Conservative Cruelty

The clearest evidence that humanity is not inclined toward altruistic behavior can be found in the frequency with which people recline their seat when flying. By putting your seat back you increase your marginal comfort on board an airplane. Since airplanes are deeply uncomfortable places to be, this seems like a reasonable decision to make; however, the choice to make your own situation more comfortable comes at the cost of the person seated behind you. When you recline your seat you reduce the already highly limited leg space available to the person in that seat. Thus, the choice of whether or not to put your seat back is a deeply ethical issue. The ethical question at the heart of the decision is should you maximize your own personal comfort even if it comes at the expense of someone else?

I do not have any quantifiable evidence of what percentage of people put their seat back, but based on the anecdotal evidence of having taken approximately 50-60 flights over the past decade, the number of people who recline their seat seems to be considerably higher than the number that do not. Probably very few of the people reclining their seat have thought about the decision in ethical terms. Indeed, likely few of them spent much time if any thinking about the decision at all or took into consideration the way in which their choice would affect the comfort of the person behind them.

The evidence of reclining one’s seat on airplanes is that people are not motivated by altruism, but deep self-interest. The claim that people seek to maximize their own interests is one of the foundational arguments of economics and is central to capitalism as an ideology. Unlike orthodox economists, I do not think humanity is inherently motivated solely by self-interest. Indeed, people frequently act altruistically, especially toward people with whom they have a relationship. I would suggest that such behavior as putting your seat back on an airplane at the expense of the person behind you is the consequence of capitalist socialization. We have embedded the idea of self-interest and personal comfort and view the flight as a consumer. Having paid a great deal of money to be in that seat, surely one is entitled to be as comfortable as possible even if that means reducing the comfort of someone else.

The essential conceit of economics is that the discipline is removed from ethics; that it provides models of how the economy ought to behave and describes how it actually does. As such, economists claim an amoral discipline. It is not concerned with the consequences of capitalism, only explaining how it might work better (where working better is defined by how capital can more efficiently dispossess and exploit its workers and consumers). There are a lot of implications as a result of this complete failure by economists to address ethics, but one of the more tangible, everyday consequences has been a society increasingly built on selfishness. To support conservatism one has to be either a sociopath or completely inured to the effects of one’s actions. Most people are not actually sociopaths, but have been conditioned not to feel empathy toward strangers. Such dissociation is necessary to function in a world where hundreds of millions are at risk from warfare and billions from poverty and disease. Indeed, we live in a world where it is virtually impossible to purchase basic goods without participating in the severe exploitation and even enslavement of workers.

Neoliberalism has exacerbated the consequences of this human tendency toward localization and self-interest because it is premised on globalization while it has also exacerbated the destruction of the pillars of community that had previously moderated some of the worst excesses of self-interest. The long history of warfare, factionalism and racism make stark the limitations of pre-neoliberal community, but neoliberalism has gotten rid of the local and left us with a cold, harsh global. Thus, the basic structures that made life liveable and meaningful have been destroyed in the pursuit of economic growth. The technocrats who have benefited, locked into their amoral worldview as they are, are incapable of recognizing what the failure even is.

Because we have been taught not to recognize economic and political questions as being primarily concerned with ethics, we find the Democratic leadership such as Nancy Pelosi furiously opposing universal healthcare even though many thousands will die as a result. For politicians such as Pelosi, who are wealthy and receive large donations from interest groups opposed to improving American healthcare, the self-interest is obvious and the cruelty comprehensible though not forgivable. The example of reclining one’s seat in an airplane, however, points to the smaller, pettier self-interests upon which conservatism has been able to prey and thrive. It is with the healthcare debate that these issues are laid most bare. Sometimes the selfishness is expressed directly, as seen in demands as to why should one’s hard-earned money go to support the healthcare of someone else (with the implication that the individual benefiting is less deserving, after all if they were deserving they would not need the financial assistance). Similar views are expressed in attitudes against welfare recipients regarded as living off the government instead of getting a job. When race and immigration are added to the mix, the resentments become more explicit and when economic anxiety is introduced the stew is at risk of becoming truly toxic. Though sometimes racism is stated explicitly, often it is expressed in more subtle language – such as the white homeowner who “has nothing against black people,” but is concerned about his or her property value.

It has been this deeply ingrained selfishness on which conservatism depends. No one particularly wants to pay taxes and are happy to starve the government of funds right up until the programs they happen to use personally are cut and then they are enraged, but still don’t want to pay taxes. The great challenge for conservatism in the 1960s was how to dismantle popular programs created by the New Deal without completely discrediting conservative Republicanism. The story of how this was accomplished is a long and complicated one, but human selfishness was crucial in allowing Reaganism/Thatcherism to happen.

The central objective for the left ought to be the formation of a local community that can also strive toward internationalist ideals. More importantly, we need to reject amoral economics and demand politicians whose actions are guided by altruism and whose worldview is deeply informed by a strong, coherent ethical philosophy.

And stop reclining your seat on airplanes.