A Philosopher's Blog

Slater & Sullenberger

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2010
Photo of US Airways Flight 1549 after crashing...
Image via Wikipedia

The case of Steven Slater nicely illustrates the way fame works these days. He became famous not because of a great accomplishment, an amazing discover, an act of heroism or saving the day. Rather, he left his job in a rather spectacular manner.

In some ways, he is a sympathetic figure. After all, almost all of us have been pushed towards the breaking point at work. I am confident that almost everyone who works has a fantasy (or six) about how they would quit their job if pushed to that point. As things go, Slater could have done much worse (like the folks who return to work with a gun) and his exit showed a certain style and drama (grabbing beer and escaping on the slide).

My own experiences flying also make me sympathetic. On various occasions I have only narrowly managed to block a swinging piece of over sized luggage that a crazed fellow passenger was trying to jam into the overhead bin. I have also seen passengers get nasty with the flight attendants when the passenger was completely and obviously in the wrong. I found such behavior really annoying and stressful and can easily understand how dealing with that on a regular basis could push a person over the edge.

However, while I do understand and sympathize, I do not think he should be cast as a hero in a meaningful sense. An example of a real hero is, of course, Captain Sullenburger. He calmly and skillfully brought his crippled jet to a safe water landing in the Hudson river. True, he did become famous for it. But, this was well deserved fame. However, the hype about Slater seems to far exceed what the situation merits. Rather than remaining calm and resolving the situation, Slater lost control and apparently acted in a way that (at the very least) inconvenienced passengers. This is not an act of heroism, but rather what seems to be a rather immature act and an unprofessional one.

While heroism does involve doing what others would not do (or could not do), merely doing what others would like to do but do not is not enough to make an act heroic. To be heroic, an act would seem to need to be a positive action that requires certain key virtues such as courage. What Slater allegedly did was not a positive action nor did it require key virtues.

While Slater is not a hero, he also need not be a villain. After all, he seems to have been provoked into his response and, of course, everyone has a breaking point. While the facts of what actually happened are being debated, it has been claimed that a passenger injured Slater (which should be investigated as an assault) and swore at him. If so, the passenger seems to have the potential of being a villain in this situation. While Slater should not have done what he did, the passenger in question also should have not acted that way (assuming that the claims are true). After all, if people treat other people badly, then it is to be expected that they will respond poorly. As such, the situation illustrates not heroism, but bad behavior: one person pushing another and one person over-reacting to that push.

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2 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 14, 2010 at 11:21 am

    He snapped. Everyone can sympathize. But he is not a hero.

  2. brucetheeconomist said, on August 15, 2010 at 12:18 am

    I vote not a hero.

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