Topic: Professions & Institutions

Bad Consequences from a Good Rule
(5/5/2009)

“Consequentialism” is the false ethical standard of evaluating whether an act is right or wrong according to what happens as a result. With each passing day, I become increasingly convinced that this very human tendency is the Number #1 cause of American society’s ethics confusion.

A vivid illustration came in the form of a newspaper column by Marc Fisher, an often infuriating Washington Post writer whose own ethical instincts are governed more by passion than logic. Fisher pointed the finger of blame at the Fairfax County school system for the suicide of Josh Anderson, a troubled teen who had been caught with marijuana on school grounds for the second time. According to the County’s policies, he had to be kicked out the high school for the infraction. There was no hearing process, because in Fairfax, possession of marijuana on school grounds means automatic suspension and a recommendation of expulsion, no matter who you are or what your story. Fisher called this a “no tolerance” policy.

I’d call it a rule, and an obviously reasonable one. To Fisher, echoing the boy’s heartbroken parents, this is an example of an intractable system “pushing Josh too far.” In other words, Josh Anderson’s suicide, which even his parents admit nobody could have predicted, proves that the school’s anti-drug policy is wrong. Consequentialism.

Also utter nonsense. By this logic, if his punishment had caused Josh to give up drugs entirely and proceed on a career path that led him to a Nobel Prize in physics, the Fairfax policy would have been proven right and good. (Nobody predicted that Josh would do this, either.) Whether or not the action of the Fairfax schools in the case of Josh Anderson qualifies as ethical has to be answered without reference to an unpredictable end result. The key issues are: 1) Was it reasonable? 2) Was the policy fair? And 3) Was it sufficiently kind and caring?

Was it reasonable? When I first read Fisher’s column’s headline ---“Unbending Rules on Drugs in Schools Drive One Teen to the Breaking Point” --- I assumed this was another “ silly-school-administrators-run-amuck” story, with some hapless, innocent kid being caught taking Advil in a gym class, or some other benign act, and punished for a “no tolerance” policy that really was a “no courage to make sensible distinctions and fight off litigious parents policy.” But no: Josh had possession of marihuana, which is illegal. Breaking a law on school grounds has long guaranteed at least suspension, and from what pit of excessive leniency the bizarre attitude that this is cruel and unusual punishment arose, I cannot imagine. Having illegal drugs on school grounds is especially heinous to the mission of education, making it a more serious offense in the context of high school than in other settings. Being high on pot is not conducive to learning; even high-profile pot advocates like Bill Maher would admit that. It demonstrates an early contempt for law (especially a second violation, as in Josh Anderson’s case), something an education system has an obligation to address vigorously and decisively. It encourages other students to behave similarly, and a school policy of leniency toward drug offenders really encourages them.

This is no “victimless crime,” as many of Fisher’s depressingly misguided readers argued. Josh is dead as a direct result of his drug use, not because he was punished for it. He was a victim of irresponsible messages from adults who should know better and who undermine society’s efforts to forcefully discourage our youth from developing a fondness for recreational drugs. Society, social services and government are all victimized when citizens incapacitate themselves with drugs, as so many do with alcohol Any community whose success relies on all members being productive, responsible, self-supporting to the best of their abilities, has an interest in discouraging drug use through prohibition and criminalization.

The key to preventing serious and undesirable misconduct by students is to have a policy that is clear, consistent and enforced. The conduct---possessing an illegal drug on school grounds---is beyond question undesirable. As it involves law-breaking, it is also unquestionably serious. Of course the policy was reasonable.

Was the policy fair? Some of the on-line comments to Fisher’s article pointed out that Josh was a user, and not a dealer, as if this is a clear and significant distinction. It isn’t. In both college and high school, purchasers of pot---users---almost always do some selling to friends, usually in small amounts. No, they aren’t running a drug smuggling operation, but if you have pot, somebody sold it to you, and somebody sold it to that guy, too. Without buyers, there wouldn’t be dealers. It is not at all unfair for a school to punish with suspension or expulsion those who knowingly purchase an illegal substance. The fact that the school doesn’t punish dealers more harshly than users does not make its policy unfair: it is fair for a school to state to all that if you use or sell drugs on school grounds, we don’t want you here. The perceived difference in level of misconduct between users and dealers can be addressed by the legal system, and is.

Was it caring? It is caring to keep our children from making recreational drug use a part of their life-style, and enforcing laws and rules to this end involves caring for all children, not just the one who is caught. It hurts to punish a child. But it is often the most caring and kind thing you can do.

We can argue forever about the “best” way to prevent drug use and the proper punishment for drug possessing students. But no one can be certain that strict school enforcement of anti-drug rules against individual students will not significantly discourage future use by that student and others. And no one can argue that suicide is a likely or predictable reaction to such punishment.

No, the suicide of Josh Anderson did not create an argument against drug laws, nor does it lead to the conclusion that schools are wrong to take severe action against students who break the law on school grounds. Fisher’s piece closed with a poignant quote from Josh’s mother, who said, "…the policies right now are one-size-fits-all, designed to get rid of hard-core drug dealers. It's too late for us, frankly, but are we treating these kids as we would like to be treated?" She is wrong on both policy and ethics. The way to get rid of hard-core drug dealers is, among other things, to make it clear to casual users, like Josh, that our society condemns drug use as destructive to its goals, and especially condemns drug use by students in school as a threat to the education of succeeding generations. This message is sent by making laws and rules, and enforcing them. The Golden Rule, which Sue Anderson invokes, does not apply universally to scenarios where an individual has knowingly violated a rule and thereby earned punishment. Nobody wants to be punished, or to be subjected to the consequences of their own misconduct. Her version of the Golden Rule would preclude any punishment at all.

Sometimes doing the right thing has terrible consequences. It did in this case. But we all have to take care that we don’t let consequentialism interfere with sound ethical analysis. That can have terrible consequences too.

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