Chipotle Mexican Grill versus egalitarianism

Egalitarianism wins.

Chipotle restaurant lost an appeal opportunity when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. chipotle-squareChipotle had been sued by a wheelchair-bound customer who complained that while other customers could see their food being prepared a four-foot high counter blocked his view from his wheelchair perspective. The plaintiff argued that his rights were violated according to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The justices in the Ninth Circuit Court agreed, writing in their decision that Chipotle’s counter “subjects disabled customers to a disadvantage that non-disabled customers do not suffer.”

Let’s set aside some secondary matters to get to the key issues. So set aside the large majority of restaurants at which no customers can see their food being prepared. Set aside the children under four feet tall who can’t see their burritos being assembled at Chipotle. Set aside Chipotle’s offer to bring sample spoonfuls to their wheelchair customers. And set aside the absence of any food-safety concerns or customers-going-hungry concerns.

Here are the key issues decided by the case, one ethical and one political:
Ethical: Customers should have equal food-ordering experiences as a matter of moral principle.
Political: We must use the law, i.e., physical compulsion, to enforce such an important moral principle.

If one were snarky, one might point out that libraries offer their readers an experience that the blind cannot have; that symphonies offer listeners an experience the deaf cannot have; and that dance halls also offer their patrons an experience the paralyzed cannot have. However, one shouldn’t be snarky and in those cases there is a brute physical fact that cannot be equalized*, so the ADA bureaucrats and lawyers have not (yet) called for the closing of libraries, symphonies, and dance halls.

But of course Chipotle’s counter-height choices are not brute physical facts and they can be changed. So how should we decide proper counter height?

Those against the ruling may appeal to the political principle of liberty. In any transaction, both parties should participate voluntarily according to their own cost/benefit judgments. In this case, Chipotle is free to offer whatever it wants however it wants, and the wheelchair-bound customer is free to accept or reject Chipotle’s offering.

But egalitarians argue that the political principle of liberty should be overridden by the moral principle of equality. And this turns on their peculiar interpretation of the principle of equality.

inequalityHere is the proper, non-egalitarian interpretation of the moral principle of equality: One should evaluate all individuals, oneself included, by the same general evaluative standards of honesty, justice, beauty, courage, charm, and so on.

It does not follow from that general standard that all individuals will be treated the same in particular. The use of the principle will also take into account the particulars of the individuals involved on both sides of the interaction. For example, I will apply to all people to the same standard of honesty, but I may be more or less indulgent of my friends when they fudge the truth. Or if I am a parent: I will believe that all children should be educated, but I will spend more time and energy on my own children than my neighbors’. Or if I am dating: I will evaluate all women by the same standard of attractiveness, but I will behave differently with particular women depending on how much or little they push my attractiveness buttons, so to speak. Or if I am a business owner: I will open my doors equally to all potential customers, but the deals I strike with them will not all be the same — customers vary in terms of what they have to offer me and what it costs me to deal with them.

Egalitarians, by contrast, reify equality into a one-size-fits-all straightjacket. Or, to put it in concept-formation terms: they forget that while we omit particular measurements along dimensions in forming abstractions we have to put the particular measurements back in when using the abstraction in individual cases. Or to put it in metaphorical terms: they treat equality as a Procrustean Bed.

Egalitarians also believe it is not proper for individuals to calculate the costs to them in determining the application of the general principle. Properly, in pursuing our goals we should judge others in terms of their particularized worth, and general evaluative standards help us do so. But egalitarians reverse this and use individuals as vehicles of conformity to general evaluative standards. That is to say, there is a deontological-altruist thrust to egalitarianism, in contrast to a consequentialist-egoist thrust.

Here the Chipotle case is also illustrative, showing how egalitarianism is often tied to the classical altruism that holds that the stronger/richer should sacrifice or be sacrificed for the weaker/poorer. Such altruism takes our normal healthy desire to help the poor when we can and turns helping into an absolutist duty that overrides all other considerations. In this case, Chipotle is the stronger, profit-making party and the wheelchair-bound are the weaker party with a need. So the egalitarian-altruist feels justified in imposing a sacrifice on Chipotle to benefit the wheelchair-bound.

Fascinating how much of the history of philosophy is packed into one court case:
Politics: liberty or compulsion.
Normative ethics: egoistic benefits or altruistic sacrifice.
Meta-ethics: consequentialism or deontology.
Epistemology: concepts as abstractions-to-be-particularized or as reified absolutes.

[* Harrison Bergeron counter-examples excepted.]

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9 Responses to Chipotle Mexican Grill versus egalitarianism

  1. Lutz Jacoby says:

    I believe that one possibility was ignored in this case: That the counter height is incidental to the requirement of seeing the food prepared. The height is determined so that customers are separated from the staff and that transactions can take place at a convenient height. The only improvement then would be a small section to be lowered so that a wheelchair bound person also has a convenient counter height for activities.

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  3. Another excellent analysis of a world gone insane.

  4. Goober Peas says:

    So, if I may summarize, Chipotle Grill is free to advertise to the public the fact that dining in their restaurants is a uniquely gratifying experience because customers may watch their food being prepared ensuring its freshness and adding enjoyment to the dining experience, much like some Japanese steak houses and other such establishments.

    If one is unable to take advantage of that advertised enhanced experience offered to the public in order to make a profit due to physical handicap then one is free to not eat at Chipotle Grill and forego that enhanced dining experience.

    Handicapped persons may be excluded from the unique experience because Chipotle Grill, and any and all businesses, have no obligation to anticipate the needs of a variety of customers but should only focus on the needs of the majority of customers who are “normal”.

    Handicapped customers must accept that, unlike able-bodied customers, the enhanced experience is currently unavailable to them because of their physical limitation and they should have no expectation that the corporation might consider their needs because clearly, Chipotle Grill doesn’t care whether they can see the food preparation or not and would prefer that they accept a lesser experience or take their business elsewhere.

    That is, unless and until some other entrepreneur decides that maybe they want some of the profit that could be earned from wheelchair-bound paying customers who would like to share the same experience that their able-bodied family and friends enjoy while spending money to dine.

    Capitalism and libertarianism solve every problem. It’s just a matter of time until some enterprising soul realizes that they are missing out on some profit and that handicapped citizens will pay money to enjoy their dining out experiences just like everyone else.

    Amazing. If only this kind of philosophical reasoning could be put to better use in solving other major problems confronting mankind and return us to a saner, better time pre-ADA. Is that about it?

  5. That is about 90% correct, G.P. Very good effort for someone unsympathetic. Two corrections:

    In paragraph three you say Chipotle “should only focus on the needs of the majority of customers.” No: There is no “should” here; any restaurant is free to focus on whatever customers it wants to.

    In paragraph six you say “Capitalism and libertarianism solve every problem.” No: C & L will likely solve whatever problems free individuals set their minds to.

    The key issue here is the morality of politics: Civilized human beings do not use force amongst each other to solve problems that arise. Whatever nice or good thing we want to accomplish, we achieve it through voluntary methods. It is at best semi-civilized and at worst immoral to attempt to solve the problems of anyone, the handicapped included, by using compulsion against others.

  6. Moises says:

    It is depressing to see the usage of our legal system to force the majority of the people to bow down to the discontent and challenges of others. Though we ‘may’ have a ‘moral’ obligation to ‘assist’ to those with special needs, we should not have an obligation to yield to their wants. In doing so, the able-body majority will become slaves of the imperfections of the few.

    I hope that the defense lawyers also look at the minimum counter height standards for food preparations because for altering the height of the counters to satisfy the wants of ‘one person’ (the few), can have long term safety and health problems for those preparing the meals. I guess for the handicap individual the next lawsuit will be against Sushi Bars across the country.

  7. Lance says:

    I am 6’8″ tall. Short counter heights cause me incredible pain and suffering. I am going to sue everyone that installs low fixtures in their places of business, as it is discriminatory to me and causes me harm.

  8. William Walsh says:

    I am of average height and mobility but dislike Mexican Fast Food. Who do I sue?

  9. Jeff Fienstein says:

    The Americans with Disability Act was signed by H.W. Bush… I never knew the Bush’s were such egalitarians… oh wait, their not? Hmmm.. Be serious Stephen Hicks… This case had nothing to do with egalitarianism.. In fact this post fails to make a REAL & DIRECT connection between the ruling & egalitarianism (because there isn’t one).. You cannot show that their ruling was based on some egalitarian principles.. it was simply based on the law that was signed by (non-egalitarian) H.W. Bush.. I’m not saying that I agree with the ruling because seeing your food prepared is a luxury.. but the real question at hand here is…
    Why are/were these laws needed in the first place? Answer: because people like you mistaken believe that (& I’ll quote you) as a “business owner: (they can) open (their) doors equally to all potential customers, but the deals (they) strike with them will not all be the same.” Really? Is that how Wal-Mart & your local grocer do it? Or do they offer a “one-size-fits-all” universal price to everyone.. Hmm.. they generally have the “one-size-fits-all” price.. I guess their egalitarian too right? (NO!) Smh… In fact the idea that “the deals (businesses) strike with (customers) will not all be the same” because “customers vary in terms of what they have to offer (the business) and what it costs (the business) to deal with them” sounds a lot like DISCRIMINATION… especially if in your evaluation of the individual (your wording not mine) you determined that the individual has little to offer your business or will cost your business more because of their physical disability, or their race (e.g. I’ll lose business if I serve blacks because whites will stop eating at my restaurant), religion, or gender (e.g. my clients my feel that having a women in management is inappropriate). & that is why we have these laws in the first place because people have repeatedly shown a failure to make the proper “interpretation of the moral principle of equality” (whether it be an egalitarian or non-egalitarian interpretation) & history is littered with examples of this…

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