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Thus Spoke the Undergrads: On indoor gatherings

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian&nbsp;</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian 

Introducing “Thus Spoke the Undergrads”: The Daily Princetonian's new ethics column: 

For many Princeton students, the culmination of academic pressures, quarantine, and the burden of young adulthood results in making some ethically dubious choices. “Alas,” these students think, “were there to be a column in The Daily Princetonian that did the ethical legwork for me! Then perhaps I wouldn’t have found myself in such a moral kerfuffle.” Amidst the woeful cries of our misguided colleagues has risen the ethical oasis they have thirsted for since the dawn of teenage-hood.

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You can submit your moral quandaries to magistro@princeton.edu, and three student ethicists will guide you. Our answers may be unexpected, unsatisfying, and hard to swallow, but we can guarantee that we’ll give it the ol’ college try, as they say. Take your first step on the road to cultivating an impregnable ethical compass and submit a dilemma today! The following question is loosely inspired by submissions from Tiger Confessions#. Submit questions so that we never have to do that again! Please for the love of all things holy don’t make us do that again.

Q: Recently, I’ve seen classmates at indoor parties with more than 10 people, and I’m certain that even more students are breaking the rules around how many people can be in our dorms. It’s frustrating that people feel comfortable shirking the social contract and threatening everyone on campus — and the broader community — just for some stupid fun. I think these students should be punished with immediate expulsion for breaking university guidelines. That way other kids know the University is serious about punishing those who break the rules. Is that too harsh?

- Anonymous (as in, somewhat fabricated by us. re: above)

Despite having been in one or another form of lockdown for a year now, it is still surprising how many people have (and how many people haven’t) given up some civil liberties and hunkered down for the pandemic season. This is, of course, not the first time quarantine was necessary during a pandemic. Now, many of us at Princeton find ourselves in a similar situation to those of pandemics past. We have chosen to follow the University’s pandemic protocols, with the knowledge that to disobey the protocols will result in punishment. This punishment consists largely of disciplinary probation, which can continue for years of students’ time at the University and may result in suspension if any other violations are committed.

According to Princeton’s “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,” there will be no sentences harsher than disciplinary probation, but there have been a number of instances in which students have been barred from campus for the remainder of the semester. Clearly, rules can change, and even if the University is against expulsion, the moral questions around using it as a punishment for social contract violations remain. While most schools have some procedures for punishing students who break rank, most don’t go as far as expelling students. 

Should the University start expelling students for serious contract violations? In our view, no.

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The first question to ask is whether the rules themselves are legitimate, given that punishment follows from rule-breaking. For us, these rules are the University’s COVID-19 policies. That essentially means no large gatherings, no touchie touchie, no unnecessary travel, and no taking your mask off when other people are around. These rules were designed to minimize harm, which most people would find a noble goal. 

Although these rules aim to reduce harm, it’s possible that they do the exact opposite. The writers of the Great Barrington Declaration, who are well-respected medical researchers and professors, have taken the stance that lockdowns cause more psychological and long-term harm than they prevent. For college kids who have lost the chance to meaningfully engage with their classmates, friends, and professors, this argument may have appeal. 

However, it must be acknowledged that Princeton has done a remarkable job keeping cases near non-existent and the risk of COVID-19 minimal. Something seems to have worked, and it is likely the rules and people’s adherence to them. The principles of the social contract have likely contributed to the relatively few COVID-19 cases we have witnessed since the semester began. 

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Furthermore, if there were no rules and no way to enforce those rules, then what more would you expect than for at least some people to do whatever they want? Remember how, during the nights before we left campus last spring, it felt like the anarchists had leaked out of the steam tunnels and Butler College became Broken Glass College? We certainly do (with the exception of Andi, who was still in high school). It’s important to have rules to prevent harm, especially when one case of COVID-19 could have an exponential impact on the school population.

The next question to ask is whether punishment is an effective method to ensure these rules are followed. If the answer to this is “no,” then expulsion is already far off the table. There can be different reasons why the practice of punishing someone for breaking any rules is justified. One reason is the belief that someone always deserves punishment for wrongdoing — actions of moral dubiousness or of explicit violation of rules to which one has previously agreed — and that giving them the punishment they “deserve” is a good act. One can also argue that punishment exists to increase the general welfare of a population by deterring rule-breaking.

Because our "questioner" sees expulsion as a deterrent, we will work off of that understanding. In this case, the goal of punishment would specifically be to prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19 on campus. Of course, it is an assumption that punishment deters rule breaking, and it is an assumption that garners much debate. There are objections, for example, that punishment does not deter crime among those in the criminal justice system. 

Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that no one on campus wants to be punished. It is also fair to claim that Princeton students are able to calculate the risks involved in breaking social contract rules. Given this is the case, we would argue that the threat of punishment would push students to follow the rules. The recent set of removals from campus shows that the University’s more heavy-handed response might be using this framework of “punishment as deterrence” too.

Let’s recap. We’ve justified the need for punishment by arguing that if there is no system of deterrence for breaking rules, and no rules at all, then any aim of reducing harm the University hopes to achieve would be dashed faster than midterms made us cry. We also established that you’re liable to be punished when you break the University rules because of obligations to which you consented. 

But all of that still hasn’t done the work of justifying a given act of punishment, such as expulsion. While we can successfully justify the practice of punishment and the rules that punishment enforces, we could easily prescribe an act of punishment that is excessive and abusive. Does expulsion fit into that category?

At first blush, expulsion makes sense with regards to the goals of our Princeton penal system. What better way to deter someone from rule-breaking than to threaten them with divine retribution by the hand of Eisgruber himself? But if we’re sticking with the idea of deterrence, then there are other options that accomplish the same task. 

The one that sticks out the most is removal from campus since it accomplishes everything expulsion does but is less severe, which satisfies the “less is better” mindset of punishment theory. After all, students came to campus because they wanted to. Losing that would be a significant punishment and still deter students from breaking the rules.

Social distancing violations could also be met with a simple probationary period, where a student must stay in their dorm for a certain period. This could also act as a final warning (“no more screw-ups, or else!”). A more severe take on probation could be a suspension, Honor Code style, which would enforce upon rule-breakers a mandatory gap year. Finally, even a stern talking-to by an administrator may suffice, leaving it up to the discretion of the student to exercise some maturity and not make the same mistake again. “Be better,” if you will. “Bee better” from Butler admin.

It is easy to excuse students’ potential COVID-19 carelessness by remembering that no one chose to live through a pandemic. However, we are all adults, and this means that regardless of how many potential parties have been taken away from us, we must maintain responsibility for our communities (even if we are restricted in contact with these communities). Removal from campus and other punishments ensure that we uphold our obligation to Mercer County while also taking into account the unique and difficult nature of time we are living through. 

There are myriad better options than expulsion that serve the purpose of deterrence while also proving less severe. Still, there is room to question the strictness of COVID-19 rules on campus. As the semester continues and vaccines rollout, Princeton can readjust the rules accordingly. If you feel your classmates are being unsafe, you can voice this concern. Or you can grumble to yourself and plot for the day when you sit in Eisgruber’s throne, his shiny crown couched on your head, and can cast expulsion down upon the Princetonians who defy you like Zeus showering Greece with his lightning bolts. Until then, however, it is too vindictive to demand expulsion for party-goers when there are so many better alternatives.

The ethicists are Ethan Magistro ’23, Claudia Frykberg ’22, and Andi Grene ’24. Do you have juicy ethical dilemmas you want us to opine on? Send it in an email to magistro@princeton.edu!



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