The ethics of reclining airplane seats

I enjoyed reading the replies to this tweet, since it’s a lower stakes issue that has all the contours of broader ethical debates. Granted, what triggered the tweet was not low stakes:

There are passionately held beliefs on both sides (see replies to the original tweet for more). As with any argument, different principles lead to different conclusions. One principle with many adherents is that the rules follow directly from the design of the airplane:

But this could still screw over the person behind you. So maybe reclining is bad, based on the fact that it harms more than it helps?:

These views, by the way, are similar to what a travel industry analyst says to the NY Times: “Airplane etiquette is you only recline when necessary, and if you must recline, just put the seat back a little bit to get the comfort you need without encroaching too much on the person behind you.”

Another principle: the person in back of you could have “property rights” over the area directly behind your unreclined seat:

But reclining may also be justified based on the consequences:

Many other variables. Long haul vs. short haul:

Dimmed lights:



If the replies are at all representative, this issue is in a bad state where a significant share of people have opposing beliefs about what’s right and when. So we should expect to see more conflicts between passionate passengers.

One potential solution is that the airlines try to coordinate everyone. An announcement could say “Our policy is that passengers should feel free to recline. Just check to make sure you do not spill the drink of the person behind you.” This should douse the passions and lead to less conflict. A grumpy person being reclined on should feel less empowered; the loudspeaker announcement is common knowledge.

Another thing airlines could do is sell reclining and non-reclining tickets. Then everyone knows what they’re getting—another way of making the policy more explicit.

This is not to say that either policy would be the best. Maybe an “asking equilibrium” is optimal, so that people can forge personalized agreements. “Is it alright if I recline?” “Sure, let me move my drink” or “Yes could I have a few minutes to finish eating?” or “I’m sorry but actually no, I’m extremely tall.” I worry that this system would disadvantage nice people though.

This seems like an issue where kind and reasonable people could disagree. With no (clear) connection to other ideological commitments, perhaps it’s a useful exercise for understanding the other side.