Rules. What are they for?

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Is “respect for the rules” a driving force for ethical decisions? When I think of the times I did the “right” thing, the existence of a rule, at most, served as a clue to the right choice. If I tried to convince myself to act morally, I would just think about what to do. Consulting my conscience was, in most cases, enough to make me a “good” person. And in all my life, my conscience has never mentioned the rules to win me over. On some level, it makes me wonder what the rules are for.

In theory, they are supposed to prevent actions that society disapproves of. Otherwise, they allow us to punish those who execute them. I wonder, however, what type of action is both frowned upon and requires a rule to prevent it. If we can all agree, for example, that cheating on a test is bad, why do we need a rule to enforce that consensus?

What is it that prevents people from following their conscience? To me, it seems most people don’t want to cheat, and only do so when they’re desperate. On a broader level, people who act against their morals tend to have a compelling reason to do so. So I don’t see how a regulation, or the threat of a sanction, would stop someone who has already decided to do the “wrong” thing. People cheat on the most supervised exams and also find the most ingenious ways to do it. The problem is endemic to college campuses, regardless of the jurisdiction of the administration.

If not watch, what is preventing cheating? The answer seems simple enough to me: eliminate students’ need for academic dishonesty. Please note that this is not a call to make school ‘easy’. Rigorous classes don’t inspire cheating. I’ve heard of people cheating in an absurdly easy course, and I’ve seen total honesty in a crash course. The crucial difference was that the difficult class was “fair”. There the teacher gave each student a chance to succeed. Their homework was reasonable, they taught effectively, and showed students how to prepare for homework; no one had a reason to cheat. Conversely, the easy class was poorly taught, homework was excessive and often irrelevant, and exams were almost impossible to prepare. It’s no surprise that people are desperate, only to realize that their finale was like child’s play. Most people I know would rather take the tough, but fair course.

To put it another way: people will start following the rules, luckily, the very day they become obsolete. What are the regulations doing for us before this time comes? In many cases, I would say wrong. This has everything to do with the second rationale for rules: they are supposed to set the parameters for a “fair” society. Follow them, we are often told, and you will be rewarded. When that statement comes in contact with rules that don’t work, or a system that itself is unfair, the results are disastrous.

Consider this easy, but unfair class. Once a student realizes they are on the verge of failure, how do they react? For starters, they are prone to cheating. Beyond that, once they recognize this mismatch between following the rules and a “just” outcome, the logic of complying with any class politics becomes less clear. Why, for example, should they attend conferences that do nothing for them? Soon the whole student-teacher relationship disappears. The student’s desire to survive their class begins to override any sense of personal responsibility. A lot of people act this way when they realize that a system is unfair, and that’s an understandable response. If someone feels they must already break the rules to be successful, then it becomes easier to justify other questionable acts. “I have to move on.”

The rules still exist, however, and because we believe they keep the company functional, non-compliance is interpreted as personal failure. The student has come out of an arrangement that is supposed to benefit everyone, and that makes them the problem. Thus, evidence of system failure is ignored. I can’t remember the last time I saw a teacher change their approach after hearing about academic dishonesty or seeing a massive drop in attendance rates. From what I can tell, they will see it exclusively as a problem to do with lazy and morally compromised students – an inevitable disappointment.

In the real world, we see it with the act of theft. I have lived in communities where no one was desperate and I was never afraid to leave my door open. Based on this experience, I think people who steal must have valid reasons for doing so, and therefore punishing them for it is illogical. He throws the blame for an unjust system on its victims. Given that, we might be better off fixing the conditions that caused someone to break the rules, rather than wasting energy punishing them for it.

Of course, there are times when, even under the best of circumstances, people act immorally. Either way, the theft is happening on the Duke campus. When this happens, I guess there is a reasonable external factor guiding the thief’s judgment – sometimes people take action. When there is cheating in a “fair” classroom, I tend to imagine that the student was overworked in other areas of their life. Whatever the justification, such people will always exist. Creating and enforcing the rules clearly doesn’t stop them.

If so, I would suggest that we change our understanding of the rules. They don’t seem to work as a mechanism to guarantee, encourage, or even reward the behavior we want to see in the world. At best, they constitute an aggressive wish list for the company: “We want you to do it this way or the other. Perhaps, then, we should not rely on the rules, or their application, when we have an outcome that we hope for. It would be smarter to ensure that a systemic change accompanies a rule change.

Consider Duke’s failed attempt to end the meals inside. If they had provided many more outdoor seating options, this policy might have worked; I can imagine a scenario where people avoided dining indoors for the sake of COVID. Of course, this assumes that such a choice was viable, which it was not. The announcement was made, a few chairs were hidden, and many people continued to dine inside. The only change I saw, quite frankly, was that some people started to take the COVID guidelines less seriously. After all, this new rule did little more than bother unscrupulous people, and it felt like another kind of inconvenience to people following it. It was a disaster caused by the opposition of university regulations and objective circumstances on the ground.

All this to say, quite simply, that when the rules are a reflection of our conscience, the secret of compliance is to make it a possibility.

Dan Reznichenko is a sophomore at Trinity. His column is broadcast every other Wednesday.


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