Etiquette at the Theater According to Utilitarianism

So my sister and I (Hello if you are reading. Are you proud you are mentioned in a blog post?) went down to the Edinburgh Fringe for a weekend and while we were down there we went to go and see “La Boheme”. It was absolutely beautiful and we were sat next to a lovely Italian couple who didn’t speak English but somehow we managed to convey to them how to get a spoon out of the ice cream lid. However, as always we, and the people around us, were faced with the awkward task of shuffling past people to get to our seats. As awkward people, we all did not want to annoy each other by pushing past many people to get to our seats. In answer to this, one person decided it was better to walk behind our row (shuffling past only 2 people) and then climbed down to get to her seat. I thought this posed an interesting question in terms of utilitarianism on whether this was a more moral thing to do than pushing past the 7 of us and what factors would change this.

Let us start with the situation we were presented with. Is it really the right thing to do to push past only 2 people and climb over seats instead of pushing past the 7 of us. In this case, according to utilitarianism it is a straight forward case. Utilitarianism is the idea that the end that we should pursue is that of pleasure, and a good act is one that maximizes pleasure of everyone. Everyone’s pleasure is counted as equal, so when it comes to upsetting 2 or 7 people, then only the 2 should be upset and you should climb over as this maximises the general happiness.

Seems a simple enough idea. However, the question is then made more difficult by considering exactly who the minority are. For example, what causes more happiness; walking past seven healthy teenagers or pushing past a serve rely arthritic old lady? Yes, going past the old lady would create happiness for the 7 teenagers, but does the suffering of the old lady struggling to stand up outweigh this. Is there a situation where the suffering of the arthritic old lady is justified as more happiness is created by others?
Another dimension that complicates the matter further is what are the preferences of the individuals involved? The 7 may prefer to be pushed past rather than making the arthritic old lady stand. Or they may not and the old lady would prefer to be pushed past. Someone in the back of the auditorium may want you for some strange reason to push past the old lady. Should these preferences be taken into account? How relevant should the preferences be and when should they be bipassed?
The situation is also complicated by the relationship you have with the people. For example, do you push past the seven people or do you push past one that has been making inappropriate sexual comments about you through the first half? It makes you feel uncomfortable, but utilitarianism is about aggregate happiness of everyone, not just yours. So, theoretically, if it caused the 7 other people enough happiness it would be the right thing to do to push past the guy who was inappropriately hitting on you. And, the action is only bad if it genuinely occurs as utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory that judges an action as good based on its ends. So, the guy may not cause you any harm and so total maximal happiness increases. Would it be the right thing to do to make such a risk?
This scenario shows exactly why ethics is a difficult idea to handle, and why generalised theorise often fail at creating a solid rule of what we should do in situations. My opinion of the situation above? Make more room between the rows so people can walk past without making others stand up! But even that has its own utilitarian consequences…

Thank you for reading this week! Don’t forget to like and follow the blog plus comment what you think. Have an idea for a post? Email me.             

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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