The privileges of business class began long before reaching the cabin. Waiting—that pervasive nuisance of modern life—was shorter in the line for business class check-in and security. Instead of sitting in the crowded gate area with its white glare and loud announcements, I waited in the business class lounge where warm colors soothed my senses. Stiff upright seats with sharp edges and hard backs had been replaced by low-slung sofas, mahogany-hued coffee tables, expansive desks with chrome lamps, and deep revolving office chairs. A flight of spiral stairs led to a loft with napping cots. A waitress made rounds every so often: What would I like to drink? Would I care for some dessert?

On board, in the business class cabin, three uniformed attendants were assigned to dote on the dozen-odd inhabitants. They were polite and present, helping a man take off his coat, asking a woman if she would like her bag stowed, cooing to a toddler. They were so attentive, so available. The message was unmistakable: you’re getting what you paid for.

Awaiting us at our fully reclining seats were a change of clothes, slippers, and Godiva chocolates. The onboard dining rivaled that of an upscale restaurant: freshly squeezed juice, sushi, lamb chops, champagne.

What was your last in-flight meal? Image: marcmo/Flickr

Despite the ease with which I took to these luxuries, I was surprised that I was flying business class at all. Just two months before, I had passed up an opportunity to do so. As an employee of the World Bank, when traveling for work, I am able to fly business class on most international trips more than six hours. Yet on my first international flight, I chose to fly coach.

Only four months earlier, I had written in my journal:

February 4, 2014.

I can give reasons why development professionals should not fly business class, but to each there are reasonable counterarguments. Still the nagging feeling that somehow it is not right does not go away. Perhaps the best I could say is “Optics matters.” Flying business class has come to symbolize the excesses of the development industry much as a yacht stands for the profligacy of the corporate world. When we fly business class, our intentions do not seem sincere. Its renunciation would demonstrate our solidarity with the poor whom we claim to give voice to and on whose behalf we supposedly work. And that would be reason enough.

In my career, I hope I will have the fortitude to forgo what is nice but not necessary. I will do this not to make a point, embarrass anyone, or come off as saintly, but simply to quieten that gnawing feeling in me. If in due time others notice my action and emulate it without my preaching it, so much the better. If it stays unnoticed, or even mocked and ridiculed, I’ll be none the worse.

I intended to fly coach on my second trip as well. When I discovered that I had unintentionally booked business class tickets, I could have called back and gotten it straightened out. But I chose not to.

Where was my virtuous self that had made those solemn resolutions? Or is the pertinent question a more primitive one: was it reasonable to imbue economy class travel with virtue and morality in the first place?

To consider the first question—why did I break the personal moral code—let’s take for granted that economy class travel is the morally superior choice. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely could not have conceived of a better experiment to test the resoluteness of my volition. Experimental studies show that people veer off personal moral code when there are rewards to the departure. That is the unsurprising part. What is surprising is that people deviate by just a little and the magnitude of deviation is not always related to external costs and rewards. This violates economists’ view of how people behave: they are more dishonest when the benefits are higher, the chances of getting caught are lower, and the punishment for transgression is lighter. The theory of self-concept maintenance offers a better explanation than economists’ rational cost-benefit analysis. It proposes that people stray from their internal moral compass, but only insofar as they are still able to think of themselves as morally upright. Wander off too far and the belief in one’s rectitude becomes untenable.

Nevertheless, some circumstances facilitate the deviation more than others. I am more likely to compromise on my moral standards when the consequences of my actions are uncertain, distant, diffused, and anonymous; I would never put a bullet in someone’s head but I would think nothing of working in an armaments factory. In my work, although poverty and the poor are my obsession, I sit at a vast remove from both. I hardly know anyone who is absolutely poor—that is, someone who lives on less than $1.25 a day—where they live, how they get by, what their lives are like. I recognize them only in my data and spreadsheets. I, who can describe poor people in graphs and make them fit tidy theories, would hardly know what to say if I met one. The poor sit at such a great distance from me that I see little direct effect of my choices and actions on their welfare. Poverty is borne of multiple complex causes. What has my self-abnegation got to do with it?

But more than anything, the behavior of other people in our in-group has the strongest pull on our behavior. From schoolyards to corporate boardrooms, war zones to places of worship, “everybody’s doing it” is a powerful explanation for many human actions and choices. We take cues on social and moral behavior from our surroundings. In the process of socialization, we absorb mores and morality from parents, peers, books, movies, art, folklore, religion, and all other media through which culture is passed on. What is proper is what everybody else is doing.

In the words of Montaigne:

The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received amongst his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause.

We apply ourselves to them for many reasons: to be liked and approved of, to not stand out or be seen as peculiar, and to avoid the risk of making a wrong judgment. It takes courage and confidence to go against a tradition or contradict a widely held opinion. Not many are cut out for it.

But what allows people to preserve the self-concept of moral integrity even when they fall short of their personal moral standards? Research suggests that the easier it is to rationalize the actions and reframe them in different light, the more likely the deviation and the larger its magnitude. Love thy neighbor, unless he has loud late-night parties.

More champagne? Image: Luke Lai/Flickr

Business class travel is highly susceptible to post hoc rationalization, not least because it is not immoral or dishonest in the way that tax evasion or insider trading is. Indeed, there are many good reasons to travel business class. International work trips are often packed with meetings and consultations. The business traveler must be prepared for long days making presentations, conducting trainings, leading seminars, and sitting through unending meetings. What’s more, we must do it with charm, wit, and patience. This takes stamina. A fitful journey in coach will leave you jet-lagged and exhausted.

Traveling business class also makes us directly productive. Comfortable desks and chairs, power outlets, and access to the internet are a godsend to procrastinators like me who get work done—prepare presentations, read documents, set up appointments—en route in lounges. It also ameliorates the toll that travel takes on the body. The trips are often so short that by the time your body adjusts to the local clock, it’s time to head back, disrupting your sleep pattern for another week.

Then there is the inconvenience of separation from family. Travelers miss birthdays, anniversaries, festivals, and holidays. For couples with young children, the burden of childcare falls exclusively to the spouse left at home. Business class travel is a perk, a small goodwill gesture, for bearing the strain on private life and relationships.

After flying business class once, the rationalizations only got easier as many forces started acting on me in concert. Luxury is insidious in how quickly you become habituated to it. I remember arriving at the business class lounge in Istanbul after ten hours of flying. It had a salad bar, a counter serving skewers of grilled chicken and lamb, a wall-to-wall fridge stacked with beverages, Macbooks for public use, free WiFi, comfortable seats, marbled bathrooms. And yet I thought, “This is comfortable. As lounges go.”  The luxury no longer assaulted my senses; the opulence did not seem over the top. I had spent all of one hour in a lounge and ten hours in a business class cabin and already I was getting accustomed.

Soon, loss aversion kicked in. The anticipated pain of losing the privilege was more severe than the pleasure I first experienced. Pride welled up too: “I worked hard to get here. I’m doing good in the world. I deserve what I’m getting.” Business class travel was a necessity, not luxury. I was a martyr in my own eyes.

Perhaps this is what happens to revolutionaries once they ascend into power.

I suddenly found the arguments in favor of flying business class more persuasive. The contours of moral discomfort that panged my conscience were dimming. Like the best adapters in the natural world, I was shifting shapes and hues.

Sleeping in the Economy Lounge. Anthony Pujol/Flickr

When you are outside a development organization, it is easy to maintain a militant edge against seemingly corrupt and hypocritical development professionals. Once you are inside, the tendrils of social relationship crawl around the anonymous monolith and find individuals with a name, a face, an office. People who fly business class are your friends, your mentors. You see the spectrum of their humanity, each with a unique narrative of motivations and frustrations, aspirations and regrets. Flying business class becomes one of many facets of their life, and not a particularly important one. The faceless development professionals become humanized. They fall from the plinth of Platonic evil and turn into one of you, with blind spots, biases, and selective amnesia. In them you see a reflection of yourself. You identify, sympathize, and forgive.

I knew my transformation was total when I was exhorting others to fly business class. A colleague had booked economy class tickets for her first trip, perhaps out of the same conscientiousness that haunted me. I was livid when I found out. “You are entitled to it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!” I said. If everyone was doing it, I was making damn sure no one was deprived the privilege. I was now not only a supporter, but an enforcer of the practice. In a distorted way, flying business class became my defiance and rebellion, my cause and resistance.

Before I knew it, I was on the inside looking out, thoroughly imbibed in the tribe’s morality. I could see why reform from within is hard to come by in any organization or society. By the time one climbs up the ladder and acquires decision-making authority, one is so deeply socialized in the group’s culture that it is impossible to be objective about it. Indeed, in a twist of irony, to reach a position where you can change a culture, you often must be its exemplar and most ardent believer. If not their own conscience, who leads the leaders?

Which brings me to the second and more primitive question: is business class travel immoral in the same way that lying, cheating, stealing, and harming are? Many a head has gone gray thinking about what constitutes moral choices and where we get our morality from. Broadly speaking, there are two philosophical views on this. Consequentialists maintain that moral assessment of all choices and actions must be based on their consequences, the “state of the world” they bring about. They favor Good before Right. In contrast, deontologists assert that choices are inherently “right” or “wrong,” quite divorced from their consequences, and one should always put Right before Good. If the only way you could save the lives of ten innocent people were by killing one innocent person, would you? If you answered yes, you’re a consequentialist; answered no and you’re a deontologist. How about a hundred lives saved, would you change your mind? A thousand? Million? As you can see, these things aren’t absolutes; they run in degrees.

Now let’s evaluate my dilemma from these lenses. The most common consequentialist objections to flying business class are that the travel costs waste public funds and that business class seats have a worse environmental impact. However, these arguments are surprisingly easy to put down. If everyone is flying business class, my restraint little matters; if no one is flying business class, my restraint little matters. It’s like the old finish-your-food-there-are-hungry-kids-in-Africa admonition that children the world over have heard from their parents. Of course, what I do with this food on my plate has no consequences whatsoever on African hunger. The long arc of the moral universe may bend toward development professionals flying coach, but the marginal impact of my next decision is negligible on that arc’s curvature one way or the other. Consequentialist arguments are relevant for an institution-wide policy change, but they offer little guidance for personal moral conduct.

And of course, business class travel has positive consequences as well. Development organizations compete for talent with peer organizations, the private and public sector, non-profit organizations, think tanks, and academia. What if business class travel is a perk necessary to retaining the best talent in an organization? What if the organization will hemorrhage its leaders, veterans, and leading experts if the policy is rescinded? Surely it would be immoral to offer second-rate advice to the policy makers of the poorest countries.

“Good riddance,” you may say. “Those who can’t survive in the sector without the luxuries shouldn’t be there in the first place.” But you’d be getting ahead of yourself, stepping into the deontological domain of argument. This was how I thought too; that it is inherently unjustified for development professionals to fly business class. But this line of argument doesn’t get us very far either. Although there are some qualities that are universally virtuous—justness, forbearance, humility, compassion, courage, generosity—the list doesn’t run very long. Who is to say flying business class is universally repugnant? What benign universal arbiter will we defer to to tell us the inherent morality of our choices? It’s your word versus mine. Indeed, the arbitrariness, or rather the subjectivity, of what is moral is one of the main criticisms leveled against the deontological view.

So there, that’s where I am, suspended between two poles, immobilized by the paralyzing choices borne out of the faculties of reason, morality, and free will. I see no practical value in flying coach but the thought that it doesn’t feel right nags and pokes. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” I’ll leave the question of good and evil to giants like him, but I can attest that the dilemma to fly business class cuts through mine.

Cover photo: The Sunrise Breezer, “a refreshing mix of sake and bitter lemon,” available in business class aboard Singapore Airlines. Matt Weibo/Flickr. Republished under CC BY-SA 2.0.