© 2008  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the January 15, 2008 issue of the National Post.
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Robbing (able-bodied) Petra to pay (disabled) Paula

Joanne Neubauer of Victoria, B.C. must be happy today.  She’s the wheelchair user whose complaint to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) resulted in last week’s decision that the airlines will now be compelled to give her a second seat, without charge, for her traveling attendant.

“It means we have the same rights as everyone else,” Neubauer said. “I’ve always wanted to go to the Maritimes myself.  I’ve seen pictures but I’ve never been, because I haven’t been able to afford [two seats.]” 

In my view, Neubauer’s satisfaction with this ruling is extremely short-sighted.  Ultimately, the erroneous thinking that gave rise to this ruling threatens the security of able-bodied and disabled individuals alike.

The CTA probably had no choice but to rule as it did, given the content of the governing legislation and case precedents.  However, Neubauer’s conclusion that she was given the “same rights” as everyone else is incorrect. 

The right that able-bodied passengers have is to consume whatever services an airline willingly provides at a particular price—in other words, the right to engage in voluntary trade. The disabled now have something different—the legal power to consume services in excess of what an airline willingly provides at that price.  They have the power to coerce others into parting with their property, against their will.

This power is clearly a privilege, not a right.  If it were a right, everyone would have it—universality is what distinguishes rights from privileges.  But if everyone had it, Canadian society would rapidly disintegrate into the chaos, brutality and destitution that characterizes societies where private property is not secure, but can be seized against the owner’s will by whoever comes along with superior muscle power. 

The philosophical error underlying this ruling is the widely held notion that justice consists in our following Lady Luck around and trying to undo what we perceive to be her injustices.  Neither Air Canada nor Westjet (the defendants in this case) had anything to do with causing Neubauer’s rheumatoid arthritis.  Most likely, nobody did.  Neubauer was simply unlucky in falling victim to this crippling condition.  

No matter how we may seethe against the seeming unfairness of her situation, we must accept that there is no element of morality or justice involved. Lady Luck is not an entity—merely a metaphor. But morality and justice are concepts that apply only in judging the deliberate actions of conscious entities. We don’t call a tree immoral or unjust if it falls and kills someone. Trees aren’t conscious and their falling is not deliberate. 

The fact that Neubauer became disabled through sheer bad luck is morally neutral. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the CTA’s decision to shift the burden of Neubauer’s disability to others.  In concert with the law-makers who passed the Canada Transportation Act and the judiciary who have interpreted those laws, the CTA has taken deliberate steps to harm others who are innocent of any wrongdoing.  If the airlines raise fares for other passengers, then it is other blameless travelers who will be victimized by this decision.  If the airlines absorb the costs themselves, then it will be their shareholders who are victimized.

Surely we must acknowledge that deliberately harming innocent bystanders is not an act of justice—that it is morally wrong no matter how sympathetic or appealing the intended beneficiary may be.  Otherwise, the thug who steals your wallet in a dark alley and gives the money to his ailing grandmother should be lauded as an agent of justice rather than punished as a criminal.  Nor does it help that the state’s decision to redistribute wealth has been made using the democratic process.  If democracy remedied this injustice, then two thugs in the dark alley could justify taking your wallet simply by letting you vote with them on it, and outvoting you two to one. 

The moral course of action for people to take if they wish to help the disabled is to donate their own resources, not to commandeer someone else’s, for that purpose.  Charities like Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, for example, converts voluntary donations into invaluable assistance to blind people.  Neubauer would have done a genuine service, rather than a disservice, to the country if she had organized a similar voluntary organization to fund travel expenses for the disabled.

As for that trip to the Maritimes, I’ll bet there are many able-bodied people in Victoria who can’t afford it either. The proper course of action in such circumstances is to save up until you can. Neubauer apparently expects to be able to save enough for one ticket. She should simply save twice as long and buy two.

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       January 30, 2008