Sunday, November 25, 2012

Men and Beasts at Midway Airport

I flew home to New York for Thanksgiving last Wednesday morning. My faith in mankind has been shaken.

Early in the morning, dense fog cloaking the airport made it impossible for planes to take off, and a dozen flights out of Chicago were canceled. Chaos ensued in Midway Airport. Travelers snarled in frustration as they stood impotently in endless lines. Parents snapped at their whining children. College students yelled nervously on their cellphones at invisible parents.
Meanwhile, the degree to which each traveler lost concern for everyone else at the airport was unnerving. People cut each other off in line. Middle-aged businessmen in suits swore at their customer-service representatives. When I was standing at the front of one particularly long line, a young woman walked up to the agent behind the desk. “Excuse me,” said the woman in a trembling, panicked voice. “I’ve been waiting here for half an hour, and I need to rebook my flight. I’m not in line, but can you help me now? Like, before all these people?” The line grumbled in frustration at her, and I confess to being ticked off myself. If I’d had a case to plead against her, I would have pled it.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There was plenty of amiability and commiseration, too. But those moments of solidarity and friendly chatting seemed only to arise where there was no real point of conflict between the travelers involved. I spent half an hour in line with one friendly thirty-year-old man, talking with him sympathetically about rebooking our flights which had been canceled. When we got to the front of the line twenty minutes later, he cut me off with a mumbled, gruff excuse.

I conclude from the evidence that in the absence of enforced social standards, standards of civility simply melted away. The relative anonymity of airport travel and the benefits to be reaped from exploiting other people were extremely corrosive to people’s moral compasses. It seems like without the fear of God and the Leviathan, there’s room for a lot of human evil. Or at least a lot of inconsiderateness. 

That’s not to say that these were bad people at the airport. To the contrary, everyone there had equal, legitimate interests: to get home as fast as possible to the family that he or she loved. The problem was that those equal interests conflicted with each other, and people’s senses of civility were not strong enough to withstand the conflict. But as thinkers from Kant to the illustrious Dennis Prager have pointed out, virtue only counts when it it’s exercised in opposition to natural feeling. You can get a much better sense of someone’s morality from their behavior at the airport than their behavior at the Thanksgiving table.

I do acknowledge that I am succumbing to a sampling bias here. People who lost their civility were more likely to make a scene and to be noticed by me. But I’m not arguing that everyone descended into a beast-like state: just that enough people did to make the experience unbearable for everyone else.

So the prospects for human beings are not uniformly bleak. There is room for peace among men: but only if they are either terrified of punishment or if conflict between them is removed.

Don’t even think about the chat-’n’-cut.
(Actually, the scene in the airport was closer to Locke’s state of nature than Hobbes’s. Hobbes posits a “war of all against all” in which men will exploit every chance they can get to steal each other’s property. To Locke, conflict only arises when men’s interests overlap—they have no inherent interest in seizing as much as they can from everyone else, only in enforcing their individual titles to their own property.)

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