Me — Sort of
(May 2008)

Perhaps “reluctant hero” is more apt. When one spends his time lecturing others on ethics, there are times when being the ethics exemplar is less instinct than unavoidable necessity.

I was flying home from Alaska on a crowded flight, and had paid an extra $35 to nab the last remaining aisle seat on the left. A flight in a center coach seat more than three months ago left me with a pinched nerve in my right shoulder from folding my whole right side into my chest to accommodate the 350 pound behemoth over-flowing from my right into my space. That still-aching shoulder, plus a right hip still recuperating from replacement surgery, made sitting on the aisle the only way to avoid, not just temporary pain, but chronic pain.

I had just settled in when a young woman sitting in the window seat asked if I would switch seats with her husband, sitting in the window seat in the row ahead of us. Apparently the couple had reserved a full row so they could share the care of their 14- month-old son during the flight, but the airline had split them up anyway. I explained that I was in the aisle seat to accommodate an injury, and wasn’t in a position to move. They understood, and then proceeded to ask everyone: the teenaged girl, the young man in the baseball cap and flip-flops, the busy executive, the tiny elderly woman. None were willing to switch seats. The couple asked the flight attendants to make an announcement, which they adamantly refused to do. Nobody would help.

It was then that I got the unpleasant feeling that has often visited me since becoming a full-time ethicist, the feeling that says, “Jack, you keep telling people that they should think about ethics and be ready to do the right thing even when it isn’t fun or convenient. Now it’s time to do it yourself.” Before entering on this career path, I’m pretty sure that I would have said to myself, “Well, there are plenty of people who have no excuse for not switching seats. There’s no way I’m obligated to be the one to sacrifice my comfort for strangers.” That would have been a rationalization, of course, but an effective one, as long as nobody called me on it. But now I had to call it on myself. The situation was a pure Golden Rule test: what would I want me to do if I were one of the young parents? What was the kind, thoughtful, responsible thing to do? If my discomfort for the rest of the flight could help two parents and a child endure their journey more comfortably, eliminate the harm done to them by the airline, and possibly ensure a flight for the rest of the passengers that didn’t include not-stop wailing from a traumatized infant, wasn’t that an exchange that had to be made under utilitarian principles?

In a word, yes. “I’ll switch,” I said glumly. The very large man in the center seat switched with the child, and once again I was looking forward to several hours with my right shoulder twisted into my chest. The grateful mother tried to hand me the money I had paid for the aisle seat, which I refused. “You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m a professional ethicist; I tell people that they need to act unselfishly, think of others, and do what’s right even when it’s uncomfortable. If I didn’t help you when nobody else would, I’d have no integrity. I had to do this. It’s one of the burdens of being an ethicist. You have to be ready to live what you teach.”

I have to say, father, mother and child seemed to have a great flight. The large man next to me was good company, and the pain in my shoulder has almost subsided to where it was before the fateful switch; a couple of Tylenol will get me through most nights. I did the right thing, however grumpily, and I’m glad I did.

But it does bother me that nobody on the plane who wasn’t an ethicist felt an obligation to help out a couple traveling with a small child, even those who didn’t have pinched nerves and bad hips. And it disturbs me that if I hadn’t been an ethicist, I probably wouldn’t have helped them either, though it was clearly the right thing to do. Sometimes doing the right thing requires some extra motivation—like the loss of self-respect.

And sometimes it hurts.

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