Topic: Professions & Institutions
Bad Consequences from a Good Rule
“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
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-
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.