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Pay to violate?

the unlicensed ethicist

Dear Unlicensed Ethicist:  Each morning, I see a boy on his Spin scooter swerve onto the sidewalk in order to make it to class with seconds to spare. In addition to violating traffic rules, he hides his scooter in the bushes so that it’s there waiting for him after class. When I asked him what gives, he answered that he doesn’t care if he gets ticketed because he is willing to pay the price for convenience sake. I told him it’s unethical, but he insists that he is playing by the rules since he pays the tickets. Who is right?

Devoted reader,

Thank you for your query. This presents an interesting question: if you’re willing to pay the prescribed penalty, is it ethical to break rules?

Suppose your time-stamped Chem 101 lab is due in the department dropbox at 1:30 PM. Because you were bingeing on Netflix, you finish the assignment at 1 PM, putting yourself under tremendous time pressure. By the time you unlock your ride at the closest Spin scooter, you have only minutes to get to Science Drive. It’s time to break some rules! 

The first corner you cut is ditching the helmet. A pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and fingerless leather gloves better suit your mood. And to get your legs pumping and quell your stress, a SoundCloud remix flowing from your AirPods is an obvious necessity.

As you zoom past the C1 in a public display of dominance, you come to a horrifying realization. Being the smart Dukie that you are, you’ve done the math: taking the legal path up Towerview Road at a max speed of 16 MPH just won’t cut it. In a panic, you make the executive decision to sport your vehicle straight through the BC plaza. Your classmates, who are enjoying the lazy warm weather, look up in astonishment. But to hell with what others think when your already mediocre GPA is on the line!

Reaching your destination, you execute a smooth dismount that one might label a “stop, drop, and roll.” In a clatter of metal-meets-pavement, the scooter is strewn to the side. Hopefully the atrocious parking job will deter anyone from taking it. That’s just an added bonus.

With 30 seconds to go, you run down the steps and find yourself on a collision course with a fellow tardy classmate. Only one of you can make it on time. Your conscience says yield, but the concept of relative success voids that more charitable impulse. Grades are determined on a curve, and the perverse implication is that someone else’s failure can enhance your chances of success. A simple clip of the heel will send her spinning and sprawling. 

“Good heavens, did I do that? I’m such a clutz!” you call to her over your shoulder.

I put it to you, devoted reader: which of the transgressions above, if any, is within the bounds of acceptable behavior? Surely, riding the scooter without a helmet can’t be labeled “unethical.” Most students enjoy the cool breeze flowing through their hair, even on a leisurely ride. 

Wearing AirPods is slightly more problematic because they might cancel out the sound of a bus full of students coming up behind you. Not only are you endangering yourself, but you are endangering every person on the bus. There is no justification for that, other than your selfish desire to enjoy some tunes.

What about riding an electric scooter down the BC plaza? Most would agree that this is a more egregious infraction, beyond the commonly accepted code of conduct. It puts pedestrians in harm’s way and demonstrates flagrant disregard for the law. Even though there is a practical goal—getting the paper submitted on time—the ends do not justify the means.

There is no bright line of when breaking the rules becomes unethical. Most people are willing to give you a pass for a heat of the moment, one-time violation of certain rules. Particularly if the rule is minor, which of course is often subjective. 

But while there are certain rules that may be okay to break under certain circumstances, there are some that should never be broken at all.

What about deliberately striking a fellow student? Of course, there are a million ways to justify it to yourself. Such as, she is really annoying. Or she is doing better than I am in Chem 101. Or I can shave another 2 seconds off the race to the chemistry building if I ride my Spin scooter through her, instead of around her.

As tempting as those excuses may be, they’re all obviously beyond the pale.

In the end, a willingness to pay the prescribed penalty does not excuse outrageous violations of rule and law. Sure, you may be willing to risk a lawsuit for causing the C1 to crash, but that doesn’t make it alright to wear earbuds. And a willingness to be forever banned from the BC plaza does not make it okay to ride your scooter along it in the first place. Ethics cannot be bought.

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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