Can People Claim Spots on the Beach With Empty Chairs?
The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on sharing public spaces.
By Kwame Anthony Appiah
I live on Cape Cod, and I have recently noticed something of a current trend in which beachgoers claim valuable (and sometimes scarce) real estate by arriving several hours early to set up chairs, blankets and umbrellas before leaving to return (in some cases several hours later) to eventually move into their pre-claimed territory.
I always thought that you had to be on hand to occupy some piece of public space. Does an empty chair or blanket constitute actual occupancy? Do such phantom claims have any merit? Would someone have the right to ignore such maneuvers by removing these chairs or blankets? If so, what should be the response to the claimant who might return to find their items no longer claiming possession? — Daniel Burt
From the Ethicist:
The aim of such public space is to allow as many people as possible to make the proper use of it. That aim is undermined by absentee claims that prevent others from enjoying a spot on the beach for extended periods. It’s fine to leave evidence of occupancy if you’re just going off to get an ice cream, say, or to visit a restroom. If you do this, though, it might be wise to leave an explanatory note. (“10:15, buying a snack, back by 10:45.”) That’s within the spirit of the social convention. But your beach-blanket buccaneers are abusing this convention and effectively privatizing what should be public.
At the same time, moving other people’s things isn’t to be done lightly. You’ll certainly want to be sure that their owners haven’t just stepped away for an acceptable interval. The social conventions about claiming areas in these public settings are not, of course, precise. Half an hour or so strikes me as a good marker in most such circumstances, but take a poll among people you know. If the beach-spot hogs return while you’re around, you can show them where their possessions are and tell them that you waited for a while and assumed they were not returning. (Should you ever mistakenly displace a bathroom-breaker, you should apologize and immediately cede the spot.)
It’s best when these issues can be settled through social, rather than statutory, means. Certain beach towns in Spain, I’ll note, punish such infractions with stiff fines on beach-spot hogs; the Italian Coast Guard has even seized unattended towels, umbrellas and chairs, holding them until their owners pay a penalty. Let’s hope that at your beach, norms and social sanctions will eventually suffice to discourage these parasol-planting land-grabbers.
Thoughts? If you would like to share a response to today’s dilemma with the Ethicist and other subscribers in the next newsletter, fill out this form.
I live in a city with numerous clothing resale shops that benefit nonprofit organizations such as charities, schools and cultural entities, including the symphony. I buy a lot of clothing at these venues because I can find high-quality goods at reasonable prices. Occasionally, I purchase items whose labels indicate they were made in developing nations. I surmise that these garments are from factories and sweatshops that spew pollutants and have workers that endure horrendous conditions for barely any pay. I wouldn’t buy this clothing new, because I don’t want to contribute to such scenarios. But in buying them secondhand with the money going to support good causes, do I offset or remove myself from the harm that their manufacture entailed? Or am I just kidding myself? — Diane Pepi
From the Ethicist:
You shouldn’t shun all clothing manufactured in the developing world; textile manufacturing has helped lift huge numbers of people there out of extreme poverty. (Nor should you assume that garment workers in affluent nations are properly treated.) And buying previously worn apparel, in addition to helping those worthy nonprofits, reduces the environmental toll associated with our “fast fashion” habits.
We should certainly try to buy goods that don’t encourage bad practices. What will really make a difference, however, are larger reforms — getting more companies to ensure that the manufacturers in their supply chains meet decent labor and environmental standards. The more of us who commit to buying apparel only from such companies, the better. Even though each such commitment we make has little direct effect, doing so means joining a campaign that’s already up and running. Within that campaign, we’re each a tiny cog, but those cogs are part of a good machine.
The previous column’s question was from a reader who for 15 years had been hiding a trust fund from his spouse that provides him $25,000 a month. He wrote: “When we first met, I said that I worked as a consultant, and they have never questioned this. My spouse, a dedicated doctor, works long hours and doesn’t like to discuss work when not on the job. … I actively serve on various boards, but I have never held a full-time job and don’t plan to. Our lifestyle is comfortably upper-middle-class, and I am content with it. My dilemma is whether I should reveal the truth.”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Maybe a first date wasn’t the right moment to bring up your trust fund. Still, by the time things got serious with this person, you should certainly have fessed up. As I’ve remarked before, secrets tend to grow more burdensome the longer they have been kept. Facts that one could have casually revealed on Day 5 of a relationship can become shattering on Day 500, let alone Day 5,000. So you shouldn’t wait any longer; it will only be worse if your spouse stumbles on the situation later. But don’t expect an easy ride.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
The Ethicist’s advice is excellent. I hope the writer takes it, although I seriously doubt the judgment of anyone who considers $25,000 a month merely “upper-middle-class.” — Lena
Marriage is a contract, and finances are part of that contract. In marriage, you promise to share all of yourself, and how you survive is certainly part of that. And how you spend your days, too, is an enormous part of who you are. The letter writer has been living a lie, and the marriage is unstable because of it. — Betsy
The Ethicist missed the point. The only problem here is the letter writer feeling that there is a dilemma. Why are they looking to shuffle the dynamics of a successful marriage? After 15 years, 10 married, it’s obvious the doctor is not concerned. The two enjoy a comfortable life together. Offer truth when asked. Otherwise, don’t look for rain on a sunny day. — William
It is hard to imagine the magnitude of the betrayal, loss and anger that the spouse might feel if the truth is disclosed. The lie doesn’t just concern something from the past, but is an immense deception that has been reinforced every day for 15 years. Also, the spouse’s lack of interest in their partner’s daily life is another red flag that makes me question what actually holds this couple together. — Nina
I was in a similar situation, where my husband never revealed his trust fund to me. After five years of marriage, I only found out by accident when his broker called. We’ve been divorced for over 10 years now. That moment was the deal-breaker. As far as I was concerned, the trust fund was a trust breaker. — Lynne
Kwame Anthony Appiah is The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist columnist and teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]. More about Kwame Anthony Appiah
AdvertisementFrom the Ethicist:Thoughts?From the Ethicist:⬥The Ethicist’s advice⬥Marriage is a contract⬥The Ethicist missed⬥It is hard to imagine⬥I was in a similar situation,