Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Sorry, No One’s Sitting There

November 23, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Freedom, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post,”Sorry, No One’s Sitting There.”

When my wife and I go to the movies, I typically buy a third reserved seat so I can keep the seat next to me empty. I prefer — but by no means need, either physically or psychologically — the extra space. My wife finds this new habit of mine rather absurd and extravagant. I agree. But is it unethical? WILL, AUSTIN, TEX.

My Answer: This isn’t an abstract issue. Your behavior affects other people. Instead of asking for an abstract judgment from outside parties like a journalist, you can communicate with them. Since the context is a theater’s private property, why not ask the management, or at least the person selling you the ticket, what they think? Instead of looking for absolute right and wrong—that is, asking for judgment—you can use the situation to build relationships, meet people, share something interesting about yourself, and let the theater know you’re basically giving them free money. If there were an absolute measure of right or wrong, you would have used it and not have to write anyone else. There isn’t, so you didn’t.

If the theater doesn’t allow it, you may have to suffer the occasional person next to you, negotiate with them not to sit there, or surreptitiously try to keep the seat anyway by putting a coat there or something like that. Or go to a different theater. If the theater allows it, you could print up a placard that says “Reserved” so people see something official. In any case, it seems like an opportunity to share a quirk.

I recommend being actively social over passively judgmental. It’s worked for me, anyway.

I don’t know many people who enjoy other people being judgmental. Why make yourself that way? Most people I know like friendly people. Why not make yourself that way?

The New York Times Answer: First of all, let me say that I also agree with your wife. Furthermore, I’d like to note that this problem doesn’t apply to most Americans, because movie theaters with reserved seating are relatively rare. But I still want to answer your question, as it (somewhat incidentally) illustrates how many day-to-day ethical quandaries should be considered and addressed.

If you buy an extra ticket for a movie playing in a theater that’s only half full, you’re actually being more morally conscientious than necessary. Most of the time, finding an empty third seat is not that difficult — but by paying for a third ticket, you are admitting your intentions up front and ensuring that you won’t extract more from this experience than you invested. That’s good citizenship. If the theater is full, however, you should never do this. Yes, it’s certainly within your legal right. But you are placing your own gratuitous comfort — which you concede is not necessary — above a stranger’s ability to merely experience the same film. Under those conditions, the benefit you are taking for yourself is smaller and less meaningful than what you’re taking away from another person. That’s bad citizenship.

Consider the most extreme example of your policy: Let’s say I prefer to watch movies in a totally empty theater, where I am the only audience member. I also hate worrying about specific showtimes, and sometimes I don’t know what movie I want to see until I arrive at the multiplex. I also happen to be an eccentric billionaire. What if I decided to just buy every ticket to every showing of every movie in my entire community, thereby providing myself the opportunity to see whatever I wanted whenever I felt like it, without dealing with other moviegoers? Clearly, this would make me a jerk. Without committing theft, I’d still be damaging public good. And this, ultimately, is the crux of the question — if you are going to participate in a collective, public experience, you need to consider the lives and opportunities of other people. If you don’t want to do that, you should probably stay home.


I was recently on an express train during rush hour. The first stop is two hours away. The minute the track number is posted in Penn Station, several hundred people dash to the train (knowing that if they don’t get a seat, they will be standing for two hours). In this situation, is it unethical to save a seat for a friend who is running late? JORDAN S., NEW YORK

My Answer: I suggest a bigger issue is the MTA’s rules. A web search on “MTA seat rules” that took less time than you took to write your question yielded two relevant pages:

The first showed a fifty dollar fine for seat obstructions and another fifty dollar fine for breach of peace that you’d risk in case of an argument. The second showed occupying more than one seat could involve the police, ejection from the train, and up to thirty days’ imprisonment.

As you know, in practice, no one will likely fine you if no one argues to get the seat so while the train fills, your risk in saving a seat is probably small, increasing as the train fills. Then the consequences of your actions affect the people you are keeping from sitting. Instead of thinking about abstract principles, why don’t you think about your relationship to these people? Then you can answer for yourself what you consider right and wrong for yourself. Then you can act accordingly, keeping in mind others’ may have different opinions.

You can ask about abstract ethics all you want, but the consequences of your actions are that you risk about a hundred dollars, getting kicked off the train, and getting booked by police. Would you feel better about a fine and getting kicked off a train if some journalist said you were ethically right?

The New York Times Answer: This is different from the letter above, because you’re saving a seat for someone rather than no one. That’s not unethical. You do not, however, have any ability to enforce this reservation. If another rider comes along and asks, “Is this seat taken?” you can certainly say, “I’m saving this for a companion who is still boarding the train.” But the other rider has the right to ignore your request.


I’m a landlord with new tenants who are responsible for paying their water bill. Recently, these tenants received their first bill, which was three times as high as normal. They called the superintendent, who discovered that the excess water use was due to a problem with their toilet. The tenants claim that there was no indication of a problem, and it’s not clear whether it started before they moved in. They argue that because it’s my responsibility to provide a toilet that functions properly, I should share the costs of the bill. My argument is that I’m responsible for fixing the toilet, but that they must pay for the water. Am I ethically obliged to share the costs? NAME WITHHELDWatch t

My Answer: This is a relationship issue. Think about the relationship you’ll have with your tenants because how you act will affect that relationship more than anything else. If you get some third party like a newspaper columnist to declare his opinion on the ethics of the situation but they disagree and withhold rent or some other adversarial action, does it matter that you feel you’re right and they’re wrong?

You and they disagree. You both want to reach agreement. I would use the situation to develop my relationship with them. I suggest reading Getting To Yes and applying its principles will help you in the long run more than declaring yourself ethically right, however much supported by opinions of third parties who aren’t even there. I doubt anyone else would view such opinions as objective criteria. They’d probably view a signed contract as objective. If it doesn’t say anything clearly resolving this situation, building your relationship by working things out. Implying they are ethically wrong will likely lead them to push back and develop resentment.

The video in this post on Walter seems relevant.

The New York Times Answer: Check the final water bill paid by the previous tenant. If that final bill was as large as the new tenant’s initial bill, then you are at fault for inadvertently renting an apartment with a broken bathroom fixture, and you should pay the entire water bill as an act of good faith. But if the previous tenant’s final bill was normal, then the fixture broke on the new tenants’ watch. It’s your responsibility to fix (or replace) the toilet as soon as the tenants report the damage, but they have to cover the cost of the water they wasted. That will strike them as unfair, but somebody has to pay for this water (and they signed a lease that placed that responsibility on their shoulders).

All that said, this is a difficult question to consider ethically, as it’s mostly a contractual issue. If we lived in some kind of utopia where everyone wanted to do the right thing at all times, these kinds of expenses would be collectively shared, and the water would be essentially free. But we don’t live in that world, so we have to assign blame to whoever accepts the burden of risk. In this case, that risk was taken by the renters.

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