how to think about cutting in line: a follow-up

Here is the second half to my previous post on this topic, as promised.

CAUTION: Ideas in progress! Constructive criticism welcome.

It seems to me that there is a (rough) distinction between two kinds of lines: those that are instituted for practical purposes, and those that confer moral status upon the persons at the front.

First, consider the practical purpose kind of line. In these cases, everyone in the line is going to get basically the same good or service, it’s just a matter of order. First-come, first-served lines are a very low-cost way of determining the order. There is no real need to coordinate or organize the people in line; all that is necessary is that there be a general tendency (whether natural or learned) to wait one’s turn. Examples of this kind of line include grocery checkout lines and lines to board planes. In the grocery case, it’s not as if they’re going to stop processing purchases, it’s just a matter of waiting, usually for a short period of time. In the plane boarding case, not only are you definitely getting on the plane, but your seat is even assigned. Since people must board in some order, some will go first and some will go last, but no one at the front is really gaining any advantage (unless you are really greedy about overhead compartment space or something).

Both the virtue of and the trouble with these simple lines is that they operate only by the principle of first-come, first-served. Most of the time, this principle is both expedient and morally acceptable. But, once in a while, a person has good moral reason either to cut in the line, or to let someone else cut. I think that it is morally permissible, if not obligatory, to do these things for morally significant reasons, as long as you do them in such a way as to leave unharmed conventional line forming practices in general. For instance, to return to the example that inspired the previous post, take the case of a few children who want to cut in a lunch line. If you don’t let them, they will be separated from their group and possibly even miss its departure from the building. Particularly since they are only children, those are morally relevant features of the situation, and it seems ok for you to let them go ahead of you, even though this will slightly extend the wait time for others behind you. However, the second part of my proposed rule of thumb prevents you from letting into the line a group of, say, fifteen or twenty children. In that case, letting in the children would likely cause a scene disrupting the standing operating procedure for forming a line for lunch. It could even reduce bystanders’ or the children’s propensity to obey line norms in the future. Furthermore, the morally significant features – that the children would be alone and possibly left behind – would no longer be present if a large group of children were separated from their group. So, you shouldn’t let them in. My conclusion about lines formed basically for practical purposes is that, since they are by definition blind to most morally relevant features of persons in the line, you can take it upon yourself to adjust for these morally relevant features until the point where your interference will interfere substantially with useful traditions of line forming.

The second kind of line is that which does grant differing moral statuses to the people waiting in it. Lines of this variety may or may not be formed purely upon the first-come, first-served principle. People waiting in these lines are likely to have different outcomes depending upon their places in the line. As such, the people towards the front have a different moral status than those in the back: they have a legitimate claim upon whatever it is they are waiting for, even though they do not yet have it. A great example of this kind of line is that for cadaver or living donor organs. Registry lines may be formed based on prognosis, age, health, time spent waiting, or any combination of these and other factors. The person who is at the top of the kidney line can make a legitimate (if not overriding) moral claim upon the next kidney that comes in the door, even though she may not know when that will happen or from whom the kidney will come.

Assuming that the line is formed using morally acceptable procedures in the first place, it will be morally impermissible to take the order of the line into your own hands in these kinds of cases. That’s because the resource being distributed is scare, and your cutting or allowing someone else to cut means that, in effect, you have taken the resource away from someone behind you in line and given it to yourself or the person you allowed into the line. But, as opposed to the first kind of simple lines lines, lines that properly confer moral status have already done the moral work. To change their order is just to interfere with a setup that we have assumed is morally unobjectionable. So, if there were some way of tampering with the kidney line, and you were to sneak into the line in front of a friend who was already in line, this would be a grave moral offense. If there were going to be n kidneys available in the next month, and you were to sneak into a place numbered less than n, you would have violated person numbered n + 1 ‘s quasi-right to the nth next available kidney this month. Instead, you should have submitted yourself to whatever morally acceptable process is used to distribute kidneys. Depending on your set of characteristics, you may or may not be placed high enough to get a kidney this month, and that outcome would be necessarily morally acceptable. (Incidentally, I do suspect that there are ways to cut in line for an organ – I’m looking at you, Steve Jobs. And also, this example depends on the assumption that there is a morally acceptable way to form lines for organ donations. But whether or not that is true is irrelevant to my more general point about lines that confer moral status).

And then, of course, there are hard cases. Some lines seem to straddle the divide between practical purposes lines and moral status lines. Take cases wherein people line up for hours or even days to buy some hot consumer good, X. Ordinarily, the line to buy something in a store is a practical purpose line. But in these cases, everyone knows that not everyone will get the X, with demand being surely higher than the first round of supply. So actually the line does turn out to confer moral status. Those at the front have a legitimate moral claim to purchase the X when the store opens (even if no one actually knows how many Xs exist in the store and therefore do not know where precisely in the line is the cutoff between who gets X and who doesn’t). So it seems like the rule for moral status conferring lines ought to apply: you shouldn’t let someone into the line for X, because that amounts to your taking the X from someone behind you and giving it to the person who you let in. And, maybe, you ought not transfer quasi-rights to purchase goods in this way, because you don’t have quasi-rights in the first place, except for the X that you are going to purchase for yourself. Curiously, though, the store probably doesn’t care whether or not line norms were obeyed, because they will quickly sell all of the Xs anyway. This makes the consumer goods line case interestingly different from the organ line case, wherein the powers that be either do or should care very deeply about whether the right people get the organs.

So, let this whole exercise go to show that either:

1. Moral philosophy is a ridiculous and doomed endeavor which involves a whole lot of worthless question raising, useless distinction making, and general pontification.

2. Moral philosophy can, among other things, hold a critical lens to even the most everyday of practices in order to better understand the normative fabric of human social life.

You can guess which side I’m on!

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