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Are we all just soulless pigs?

the unlicensed ethicist

Dear Unlicensed Ethicist:  “Who tf cracked an egg and left it on the kitchen floor? Do you not have any sense of accountability?” These sentences, which I read in the “Randolph ‘22” GroupMe just before leaving Duke after freshman year, rattled around in my head all summer. Indeed, who was that shameless egg-cracker? And seriously, on the kitchen floor? 

Dear loyal reader,

I assume your question is not a simple ‘whodunit.’ Unless Campus Security has leads they cannot disclose to The Chronicle, the identity of the miscreant will likely remain unknown, and the matter relegated to the cold case files. So the more pertinent question is the ethical issue at hand: who should have cleaned up the egg? When our peers behave abominably, do we have an obligation to intervene?

I’d start the answer with a cliche that rings true: How one behaves when nobody is watching is a true test of character.

Sure, nobody saw you spill your latte on the common room couch, so conceivably you can slip away without cleaning up. And if a few days later your hallmates remark about how putrid the common room has become, you can feign ignorance or maybe even blame it on someone else. But once that frothed milk sours, it will be your gift to the student body for months to come. Is it worth it to stand up and walk ten feet to grab a paper towel? Ditch that thought—somebody posted on Instagram!

But let’s assume the egg-cracker shirked his obvious duty to clean up. Perhaps he was hysterical in the moment, or egged on by another inebriated freshman. Do it once, and maybe it can be forgotten. But after a few repetitions, it is no longer a prank, an immature moment, an aberration. It is who you are.

The next line of defense to abject squalor is the cleaning staff. In terms of responsibility, it is their “job” to clean up. It is literally what they are paid to do. But as Duke students, leaving unholy messes for the cleaning staff is  inappropriate. Technically speaking, nobody can fault an individual student for leaving the slop for the cleaning crew, but ask yourself if that’s the way you want to live.

It is dispiriting and degrading to avert one’s eyes from a rancid mess over an entire weekend. How many times can you step over a repulsive, reeking pile of rot. How long can you disregard nasty, noxious organic matter? At some undefined point, it becomes your mess, your environment, your habitat. It becomes part of your identity. And if you leave such vile conditions in your midst, it becomes a new normal. 

As Duke students, we share a measure of collective responsibility.  If you are willing to bask in the glory of being a member of the exalted class of (fill in the blank), then you must also accept responsibility. It is natural to feel proud if a fellow Duke student achieves greatness, but the flip side is feeling shame when a classmate misbehaves.

So who was that egg-cracker? Does it really matter? Take a stand. Set an example by cleaning up. Follow the advice of the United States National Park Service: “Leave no Trace.” Then take it one step further by packing out more that what you brought in. Experienced hikers do this in national forests, leaving the park cleaner than how it was when they entered.

And if you are not willing to clean up, then speak up. Write a note asking others to be more considerate. Or if you figure out who did it, move the mess to his or her doorstep. Consider it room service in reverse.

Anyone with a heart, brain, and conscious knows that there are certain messes you do not make. Otherwise, you become a soulless pig.

Lena Yannella is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “the unlicensed ethicist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays. To submit an ethical quandary, shoot her an email at lena.yannella@duke.edu.

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