when you arrive, you are told that Eva, your favorite hair stylist, is overbookedand the salon has arranged for you to have your hair done at the XYZ Salon, ahalf hour away. They explained to you that Tuesdays average three cancellations,so the salon always overbooks. On your Tuesday, however, there were nocancellations. Would you consider this acceptable behavior on the part of thesalon?
Case Commentary: Utilitarianism
The act utilitarian point of view on the Barnes’s situation asks, “Was the greatestgood achieved for the greatest number of people?” Possibly—the only onesinconvenienced were Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. The hotel owners certainly achievedtheir greatest good, at least in the short run. They made the most money possibleby having sold all the rooms. However, allowing guests to think their rooms areguaranteed when they really are not, may have numerous harmful consequencesfor the hotel owners, both short term and long term. The corporation is using theguest to achieve the highest possible profit for that day, while paying lessattention to the guest’s needs and comfort.What are the consequences if a hotel develops a reputation for consistentlyoverbooking? What are the consequences if employees see overbooking asmanagement’s inconsiderate treatment of guests? Employees often take their cuefrom their supervisors. The housekeeper might decide that the bathroom looks“clean enough” for guests. The bellperson might decide to charge a guest forcalling a taxi.An act utilitarian considers
all of the consequences
of the action. There arealso consequences to never overbooking: lost revenue for the hotel owners andempty rooms denied to travelers in need of lodging.For act utilitarianism, deciding the morality of action involves a balancingact: you weigh the total benefits against the total harms likely to result from aspecific act. You are ethically obligated to undertake the action that results in the
greatest net benefit
for all concerned.In the case of overbooking, the many factors you must balance can make thecalculation fairly complicated. If a hotel only overbooks by X percent of rooms,and the X percent overbooking rate very seldom results in any guest being“walked,” the net harm is relatively small. Since the benefits of a full hotel aremany, act utilitarianism may find this level of overbooking ethically acceptable,because the benefits outweigh the harms.However, it is also a question of how injurious the harms are. If a guestdenied a room because of overbooking is greatly harmed (forced to travel a greatdistance for alternative accommodations, or forced to accept inferioraccommodations, etc.), then the weight may swing in the direction of makingoverbooking unethical. Another factor that would affect the balance (and, hence,the morality of overbooking) is how much overbooking is practiced. If, instead ofX percent of rooms being overbooked, three times X percent are overbooked, andthis higher rate means that guests are frequently denied the rooms they reserved,then the amount of harm increases significantly. Thus, act utilitarianism maycondone a certain level of overbooking but not higher levels. It is all a matter of