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Ethics Goes on Holiday

By Stephen Rainey

Summer time, and the living is ethically perplexing. Hordes of holidaymakers, the shimmering sea, busy beaches, and one sun over it all. How can the eager ethicist assess how to make the most of a fortnight away? We all know how we can generally make the most of things – but how ought we to treat the beach while we’re away? Should we think of our own pleasure, the pleasure of all, or something else? Here, we can explore some options, and get some answers.

If we want to make the beach the happiest place it can be, it would seem that we should get as many people there as we can. All sun seekers want to gain the most pleasure they can from their spot on the sand, so the more the merrier. The best beach arrangement ought therefore to be a kind of gapless tiling of towels, sunbathers atop. This way, the greatest number of tan-hunters is made possible, and so happiness maximised overall. Simple.

Figure 1 Gapless tiling for pleasure

But might this gapless uniformity herald its own problems? Is it really an enjoyable prospect to be elbow-to-elbow along the strand, head to toe from sea to shore, with every other sweaty, sunscreened, scorchaholic? It seems that maximising bodies on the ground might serve to undermine individual happiness, or that a ‘maximising’ approach might for each be pretty miserable. While it might be true that all sunbathers seek their own greatest pleasure, the pleasure of each sunbather might diminish despite a population peak.

Is a large population of pretty unhappy people really preferable to a smaller population of much more satisfied individuals, even if the sum total of enjoyment is the same?

A better approach might be to bin the tiling approach and opt for a checker flag arrangement: towel-sand-towel-sand, and so on. With a little more room for each, a little more room to move, every sunbather has their own enjoyment notched up a little. In terms of the checker flag beach, even though capacity is decreased, quality of pleasure is boosted.


Figure 2 Checker flag for more joy

The checker flag arrangement is good for those on the beach, perhaps, but those left on the sidelines awaiting their chance are pretty miserable. Standing around under the brutal rays, waiting for someone to leave their spot is no fun. Two populations now, some extra happiness for one, some misery for the other. Overall, the extra happiness overall might outweigh that bit of misery, so overall things are the same. But the questions arises: Why should the miserable wait around for their turn?

Maybe for sunbathing, there are conditions under which the pleasurable activity loses its charm. That was the gapless tiling approach, for example. We might say that, as a rule, sunbathers need certain minimal conditions if they are to be considered as properly being permitted to enjoy their activity at all. A little room to move, a bit of space, some peace. Because the sunbathers already out there in the checker flag arrangement are enacting a best case in terms of individual experience, the waiting would-bes ought to wait.

The alternative, though similar in overall pleasure, just isn’t pleasant sunbathing. While in some sense 1000 vaguely satisfied people are equivalent to 500 pretty pleased, in the specifics of the beach, it isn’t clear the 1000 are doing what the 500 are deriving their pleasure from. Sunbathing has gone out the window, for the sake of a notional numerical equality.

While calculations about overall pleasure can serve as ways of assessing better and worse outcomes, there are some circumstances that warrant their suspension. For sunbathing, we could make a rule: sunbathers need a bit of space if they are to be able to enjoy sunbathing. Now, when we have a potential sunbathing scenario, we can look to the rule and not a calculation. Under this approach, the goodness of the checker flag approach comes from the goodness of the rule as preserving the pleasurable activity ‘sunbathing’, not the utility calculation. Overall, the world with the rule is a better world than one in which calculations must be made afresh every time we hit the beach.

Is this move a safe one? It seems we can imagine that a checker flag beach would indeed be better than a gapless tiled one. This would seem to come from thinking about the consequences of each arrangement – imagining what it would be like for each sunbather under each set of conditions. But given no reason in terms of utility maximisation to pick between them, we’re relying on a rule to sustain the difference.

The quality of the beach experience for each individual is privileged by the rule, and with that the depth of individual satisfaction is held above an aggregated, general, shallow enjoyment. But we might be left with a ‘does this count?’ problem. If we have to decide when to apply the rule, we ought to do this in terms of the consequences we can project with or without the rule. In other words, we do a calculation about overall utility in order to see whether we ought to suspend or continue in such calculation. That might seem confused.

If we don’t want to get our phenomenological cart before our utility horse, then maybe we have to admit that a deontology of beach-pleasure is really what’s required. If I sunbathe only on that rationale such that I could will it as a universal law of beachology, it seems I can better justify the checker flag approach over the gapless tile. In doing this, I am asserting that there are certain preconditions on the experience of recreational sun-worship without which the enterprise would not exist as the pleasurable activity it ought to be. This would be a transcendental approach to the possibility of sunbathing at all: it would say that for sunbathing to be sunbathing, sunbathers must be treated according to the conditions they merit for themselves as sunbathers.

A pile ’em high, gapless tile approach to the beach would see an impersonal approach to utility maximisation such that no sunbather is treated as a sunbather in themselves, but rather as a means to mere maximisation of abstract utility. For the rule-based consequences approach, the checker flag way of doing things seems better – but at the expense of using a rule not clearly justifiable in terms of the pleasure it seeks to secure. If we go the transcendental way, and tan according necessary preconditions, we can make better sense of things: ‘The sunny sky above me, and the sunbathing law within me.’

Maybe on holiday, deontology rules.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Or, alternatively, we could leave it to the market to sort things out. You’re taking beaches to be common goods (non-excludable goods), but maybe they are not (e.g. often in Italy they are not: they are private properties and you are charged for using them). If they are not, people might have to pay for accessing them. At some point, the price for sunbathing will be such that the number of those who can afford it is exactly the maximum number that the beach can contain before each individual experience is no longer pleasurable enough. That could work. Ah no, wait, I forgot the poor. What about the poor who cannot afford it? We don’t want to make sunbathing on the beach a luxury good. Perhaps we want something that guarantees the same level of individual enjoyment but that is fairer than the market (assuming people are not blameworthy for their financial condition, and normally they are not). So we want to reduce the number of sunbathers but give everyone the same chance to enjoy it, regardless of their financial situation. So we can adopt a fairer criterion to determine who the lucky ones are who can access the beach. For example we could have a lottery; or, more realistically, adopt a first come first serve rule; or we can give priority to those who would benefit most from the experience, e.g. those who need sunbathing more than others because they are worse off with regard to those aspects that would be improved by sunbathing (lack of vitamin D?). If we do so, we might want to subsidize those who need it the most but cannot afford it. But then, of course, there will be someone who will come up with the idea of a human right to sunbathing, so none of these solutions would be acceptable because each of them would infringe upon someone’s fundamental human right. So maybe we need the public beaches where everybody can go, as well as the private ones which guarantee a better experience but where only the rich can afford. This might be unfair – or maybe not, or maybe only slightly – but at least everybody would have a decent minimum of sunbathing, just what suffices to make them well off enough. Unless the poor are too many and then we are back with the same tragedy of the common beach. So, in the end, I don’t know what we should do. Go to the mountains, I suppose

    1. All excellent points, of course. Perhaps what’s needed is a characterisation of the good life, the use of which will allow us to identify proper virtue in the individual. That might help us with the rich/poor issue: people may not be blameworthy for their financial position, but their virtue is their own. Although, maybe the least virtuous need the best access in order to provide them with edification such that their virtue improves. Maybe the most virtuous, being virtuous, require no reward in the form of accessible sunbathing. Or maybe you’re on to something with the mountains – we just need to figure out the best way to coordinate our hike…

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