I’m fascinated by the recent kerfuffle about an airline passenger’s right to recline versus the right of the person behind them to prevent it. At first I thought it was insane that some of these conflicts almost came to fisticuffs, but then I remembered what road rage feels like and it didn’t seem so far-fetched to imagine wanting to choke someone with the complimentary earbuds. Is this a question of etiquette or ethics? If it’s an ethical issue, which ethic prevails — the right to get what you paid for or the right to protect your personal space? I’ve definitely been annoyed by the recliner but I also usually recline. And I’m only 5’3” — what about people like my dad who are over 6’? I started to think about what I would do if this conflict arose on my next flight. Then, naturally, I wondered: WWJD? Being an agnostic I couldn’t really stop there, so I went in search of more nuggets of wisdom from some other great thinkers. Let these prescient words guide you next time you fly the friendly skies.
CONFUCIUS – The superior man thinks always of virtue; the common man thinks of comfort. I appreciate this sentiment, but I don’t think Confucius traveled in business class.
SOCRATES – Let him that would move the world first move himself. I think he meant that you should ask the flight attendant for a new seat assignment, after first admitting that you know nothing and taking an informal poll among the people around you to see if it’s a good idea.
KING SOLOMON – Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other. Substitute “seat back” for “living child” and we have an equitable solution for peaceful air travel.
JESUS – But he turned and rebuked them (Luke, 9:55). This is Jesus’s way of giving you permission to turn around and give the person a piece of your mind.
GENGHIS KHAN – I am the punishment of God . . . If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you. So, if 17E ruthlessly renders your flight home from Vegas more cramped and miserable than it was already destined to be, it’s because you deserve it. You probably did something stupid at the bachelor party.
NAPOLEON – If they want peace, nations should avoid the pinpricks that precede cannon shots. I thought for sure that Napoleon wouldn’t rest until he’d taken over the entire plane, so I was surprised to find him advocating for the pacifist approach: ignore the pinprick behind you and everybody makes it to Kansas City unscathed. He also points out that you’re probably being a hypocrite and are just mad that you didn’t also buy the Knee Defender™ to thwart your enemy: Among those who dislike oppression are many who like to oppress. However, I’m tempted to disregard advice from someone who said that women are merely baby-making machines.
CHARLES DARWIN – It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change. Air travel is not what it used to be. You don’t get a snack and you can’t recline onto someone’s lap. Deal with it or your progeny will never make it beyond this millennium.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN – Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them? When you board the plane, disarm the person behind you with a compliment. They’d have to be a real sociopath to lock your seat in place after that.
GANDHI – It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Another surprise — first Napoleon the diplomat, now Gandhi the instigator.
NIETZSCHE – There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena. So . . . reclining is neither good nor bad. Protecting your space is neither good nor bad. Where does that leave us, Friedrich? Exhausted by all of this moral ambiguity and doing the head bob onto our neighbor’s shoulder, I guess.
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR – Society cares for the individual only so far as he is profitable. This explains why the airlines are literally squeezing customers for profits, but what would Simone do in this situation? She’d probably turn around and say, “Only a man who is worried about his virility would act like such an aggressive asshole.” That might sound harsh, but I find it really refreshing after just reading that Nietzsche considered woman God’s second mistake.
NIKOLA TESLA – The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the Cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2035 than the Secretary of War. Clearly Tesla would be flying in his own plane, but I think the message here is that we should focus our energy on the boogers on the tray table, the greasy smear on the window, or the re-circulating SARS virus instead of on an altercation with the frequent flyer behind us.
I could keep going — Larry David and Gerard Depardieu come to mind — but I have to stop somewhere. I’m not sure that the right course of action is any clearer now, but it’s good to know that whichever route you take you have a few of these venerable philosophers on your side. Bon voyage!