how not to think about cutting in line: a crash course in normative ethics

While I was at the IHS seminar last week, someone mentioned in passing the issue of whether or not it is morally permissible to allow people to go ahead of you in a line. What precipitated this question was the fact that we were using the same dining hall as a number of groups of young campers. They would descend like a swarm upon the facility, dashing about, grabbing things, and basically disregarding the fact that there were other people there. This is not too surprising since they were mostly little kids, and it wasn’t particularly unforgivable. But it did manage to raise the question of whether one ought to let them into the line. I also got on and off four planes over the course of the week, making the line issue even more salient to me.

So, I’ve been thinking about it on and off since then. As it turns out, it’s actually a great example of a problem case for the leading three types of normative moral theories. Today, I’ll show why. Next time, I’ll discuss how I think we can productively think about the matter “on the ground,” so to speak, and apart from any particular moral theory.

The three basic types of normative moral theories are: consequentialism, deontological (duty- or obligation-based) theories, and virtue ethics. The most often discussed examples of these theories are, respectively, Bentham & Mill’s act utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. I have neither the time nor the inclination to reproduce for you the arguments in favor of these theories, so just assume for the time being that they exist and are decent. I’m more interested in seeing how they fail to account for the line problem adequately.

The question of the day is: what is the moral status of allowing a person to “cut” in front of you in a line? Is such an act morally impermissible, permissible, obligatory or even supererogatory? (see definitions here).

Act Utilitarianism

According to traditional AU, an act is both morally permissible and obligatory if and only if it produces more total utility (pleasure minus pain, impartially considered, in the long run) than all other acts available to the agent. All other actions are morally impermissible because they produce less than maximal utility. No action is supererogatory, in the sense of going morally above and beyond what is required, because if any act would produce more utility, even at a cost to the agent herself, then the agent is already morally obligated to do it. And every permissible act is also obligatory; AU is commonly understood not to offer any moral options, except in case that two or more acts tie for best in their ability to produce utility.

How can we use AU to think about the moral status of letting someone cut in front of you in line? It would seem to be pretty straightforward: just figure out if the person cutting in the line has some important and pressing need to go first that outweighs the minor inconvenience to everyone else in the line. But actually, the line case makes obvious some knowledge & time problems with AU. You really need to know quite alot about not only the person cutting, but also about everyone else behind you in the line, and whether or not a slight delay will affect them greatly. You also need to know about their personal psychologies: maybe someone back there has an acute sense of line justice and will get super stabby if they see someone else cut. The time it would take to figure these things out would end up costing everyone a bunch of utiles. To this sort of objection, John Stuart Mill says we can use time-tested moral rules of thumb to avoid wasting time doing utility calculations. For instance, we might adopt the rule that allowing one person to cut is generally conducive to the overall good. But JSM is still committed to the position that, should the rule fail in a particular case, that you have acted wrongly even without knowing so. And that is weird. So AU is not particularly helpful in our line case.

Kantian Deontology

To make a long story obscenely short, Kant thinks that moral permissions and obligations can be derived from either of two categorical imperatives. The first categorical imperative gets translated as something like this: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.” It means that you ought not act on principles that either are logically impossible for everyone to follow (such as making promises that one knows one cannot keep – comment if you would like an explanation) or that would be really terrible if everyone followed (a principle never to give aid to others). The second categorical imperative says to “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never as a mere means.” This basically says not to use people in ways to which they could not or would not consent as rational agents.

Is allowing people to cut in line required, permitted or forbidden by either categorical imperative? When we test it with CI #1, it seems that making into universal law a rule allowing people to cut in line is not logically impossible nor catastrophic in practice. This suggests that it has the same status under Kantianism as imperfect duties of beneficence to others: one ought to give to charity some of the time, and to give others a place in the line some of the time. Trouble is, Kantianism doesn’t really have anything more to say as to when and where imperfect duties ought to be discharged. So it isn’t really helpful in the line cutting case. It only verifies the commonsense intuition that sometimes line cutting should be permitted and sometimes it shouldn’t.

It isn’t particularly helpful to resort to the second categorical imperative, either. I agree with Fred Feldman that, while the moral intuition that using people is morally bad is surely correct, it is not a particularly informative guide to action (“On Treating People as Ends in Themselves: A Critique of Kant”). The most plausible interpretations of CI #2 read it as requiring that either one help others achieve their goals, or specifically their rational goals. But, presumably, both a person who wants a place in line and the people behind you in line have goals, even rational ones, which conflict. You can’t help both. So Kantianism doesn’t seem to generate any kind of specific answer to our question.

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Aristotelian virtue ethics examines what kind of life is good for a human and how one comes to lead that kind of life, rather than assessing particular acts for rightness or wrongness in isolation. In short, a flourishing human life consists in developing and exercising both moral and intellectual virtues. The moral virtues in particular are probably familiar to you: honesty, kindness, generosity, etc etc. Aristotle proposes the Doctrine of the Mean as a way of thinking about virtues: find a pair of opposing virtues, and aim at the middle in thought, feeling, and action. For instance, true courage lies at the mean between rashness and cowardice. But the mean is relative to us and our situations; what would be rash for me might be courageous for someone larger and stronger than me. Young people can be habituated to acting well (e.g., not lying, not hitting) by the rewards and punishments of authority figures.  Then, with time and maturity, their proto-virtues can be perfected by their coming to understand the reasons why those are good actions & coming to take pleasure in acting well. Even so, perfect virtue is an ideal that no one or almost no one will reach.

Try as though I might, and much to my chagrin, I am thoroughly unable to come up with any virtues that are clearly related to the line cutting issue. Generosity is not quite right, because a place in line which, say, costs 10 people 2 minutes is not entirely or even mostly yours to give. Allowing the person to cut costs you 2 minutes and 9 other people a total of 18 minutes. Surely true generosity does not consist in giving away others’ time to which you have no right. And, if the line were such that the amount of time you’d lose were equal to the time one other person behind you would lose, then there would be no compelling reason for another person to ask to go ahead of you, or for you to let them. Patience isn’t really right, either, because generally allowing people to cut in front of you probably represents an excess of patience, and not the mean. So, at this point, I have no idea how to make the line cutting issue fit the virtue ethics mold at all.

So, at this point, you should know a thing or two about the three main kinds of moral theories, and why the line cutting issue is at least prima facie not adequately addressed by any of them. I don’t mean to say that no form of consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics is properly equipped to deal with the line issue. It’s just interesting that, for all I know about ethics (which I like to think is kind-of-quite-a-bit), I have not been able to use these theories to fruitfully think about what seems like a rather trivial matter. But actually, standing in line is something we do alot more often than we find ourselves in a trolley car case, for instance. So I think we need to dig a little deeper into the ethics toolbox to get at the heart of the matter. And that’s what I intend to do, when I follow up on this post later this week.


  • […] 12, 2009 Here is the second half to my previous post on this topic, as […]

  • I’m puzzled. This seems like the easiest of cases for a Kantian. I cannot will as a universal maxim that the cutter be allowed into line, because that would destroy the coherence of lining up. It’s almost as clean a case as lying: the wrongness lies in the self-contradictory character. You cannot simultaneously will queues and cutting.

    Or, to put it differently: the cutter him or herself treats others as not-ends-in-themselves. Their time is not as valuable or important as his/her time. The one person who unilaterally, without the consent of every other person behind him or her, allows the cutter in thus *also* fails to treat those behind him/her as ends-in-themselves.

    The analysis you give under virtue ethics– being generous with other people’s time [and without their consent!] is directly relevant to any Kantian treatment, I would think. When I allow the cutter in, to please my own vain sense of myself as generous, I’m giving away two minutes of my life, *and 18 minutes of 9 other, unconsenting, persons’ lives*, to save this new person 20 minutes. My act toward those 9 other persons is disrespectful and fails to treat them as full agents.


  • Thanks so much for the excellent comment, Jacob. I could have said alot more about Kantianism but it would have been too much for the original post. Since you’re pressing, I have decided that this issue is new-post-worthy and will try to write on it tomorrow.

  • […] 18, 2009 In response to my post on how not to think about cutting in line, Jacob Levy makes these important points: I’m puzzled. This seems like the easiest of cases for a […]

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