By now, it's very likely you've seen the viral video. It features a passenger in a non-reclining seat at the back of an airplane repeatedly punching the seat of the passenger in front of him who has reclined her seat.
The reclined passenger posted the video on Twitter with the message: "After much consideration, and exhausting every opportunity for #AmericanAirlines to do the right thing, I've decided to share my assault, from the passenger behind me, and the further threats, from an American Airline flight attendant. She offered him a complimentary cocktail!"
In later tweets, the reclined passenger indicated that she had had "extensive neck surgeries" and that her "cervical spine is completely fused, except for C1."
As the tweet went viral, others chimed in. Some found the reclined passenger to be inconsiderate for invading the space of the passenger behind her. She reportedly did move her seat up when he had asked her to during the meal service. Many others called out the seat puncher for his boorish behavior. However inconvenient, one tweeter wrote it didn't provide "an excuse for this man to bully you into submission."
First to get a bit of Twitter mechanics out of the way, if the reclining passenger was trying to send a copy of her tweet to AmericanAirlines customer service, she might have consider using the @ sign before her tweet rather than a hashtag.
But who was right?
Certainly, it was inappropriate for the flight attendant who was alerted to the punching of the seat to be dismissive of the complaint, if indeed that was what happened. Punching someone's seat repeatedly is hardly acceptable behavior.
But would the passenger stuck in the last row been in the right to insist that the person in front of him not recline? He certainly was in the right when he asked her if she could pull up her seat so he could use his tray table during meal service, and she seems to have complied.
If having the second-to-last seat reclined proves untenable for any passenger, then why does any airline allow that seat to recline? That it was a recline-able seat suggests any passenger in it should be able to avail himself or herself of that feature. Then again, just because we are capable of doing something doesn't always mean we should if we know it is causing discomfort to someone else.
The best response to the situation I've read was CBS "60 Minutes" correspondent John Dickerson's who tweeted:
"Not all rights must be exercised to their maximum extent, so maybe don't recline when it causes a special pinch on your fellow human. Mild suffering puts one in a position of finding grace, so use the irritation of the reclined seat to transcend yourself."
He's right. The right thing on a flight or anywhere else is to be mindful of whether our actions cause discomfort to others, but that when we do find ourselves to be mildly inconvenienced to refrain from doing our best to exhort discomfort in return. It's never too late to learn to play well with others, even if that message didn't take hold back in kindergarten.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2020 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.