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Getting lost in the free sauce

the unlicensed ethicist

While having coffee with a friend at the dining hall, she mentioned that she needed to buy milk for her apartment. I instinctively suggested she ask for an extra cup with her drink and fill it with milk to-go, rather than waste time shopping at Harris Teeter. Then when the milk pitcher at the side-bar ran out mid-pour, we asked the worker to refill it, leading him to believe that it was for our coffee. While I initially thought the transgression was harmless, I began to wonder... Did I just steal from West Union? Where does one draw the line?

For a kleptomaniac, West Union is likely a sensory overload. Free sauce packets, dishware, and napkins sit teasingly on the counters, just asking to be snatched by college kids on a budget. Duke Dining even hosts an annual Fork Amnesty Day to encourage students to return their stolen utensils with full immunity. Message to pilferers: they’re onto us.

On the one hand, taking things—let’s call them “supplies”—from West Union is tolerated. There are no video cameras trained on the condiments rack and no security guards looking over our shoulders. One can “borrow” a single spoon without fear of condemnation. With a wink and a nod to your friends, you can walk out onto the quad, the booty tucked away in your bookbag.

But there are limits. If this “borrowing” is done too often, or if too much is taken, it becomes unseemly. You are what game theorists call a free-rider, using more than your fair share of a public good without paying. Sure, you “fork out” tens of thousands of dollars to attend Duke, but that doesn’t entitle you to raid West Union’s fork supply. Such greed and selfish behavior results in a tragedy of the commons, or a depletion of the public good. It is why Duke Dining had to order a whopping 9,000 extra forks for the new school year.

Public goods are an amenity that makes life more pleasant and tolerable. For example, in a dormitory, each resident has the choice to be selfish or sharing. Suppose the avid baker who lives down the hall is kind enough to leave a sheet of cookies in the common room for anyone to enjoy. The pleasant aroma, as well as the sugar high, makes everyone feel a bit more loved and valued.

Then imagine a stoner grabs the entire plate, just minutes after it is shared. The baker will be a little less generous in the future, and the communal spirit vanishes as fast as the plunderer. As he scurries down the hall, he deprives his neighbors of more than just cookies; he nabs their morale.

Now suppose a student is out of food points and has no money. For argument’s sake, we’ll assume his pocket change has been spent on toilet paper and textbooks, not a case of White Claws or JUUL pods. With a chemistry final in the morning, the student is in desperate need of a touch of milk for coffee to get through tonight’s grind. A career in medicine is on the line. Surely, taking a little milk from the dining hall would not be considered looting. It’s excusable under these limited circumstances, and only the most sanctimonious person would call it out. 

In the end, the ethics of taking a public good is a matter of common sense and decency. Sometimes things just feel wrong. If you feel the need to be furtive, don’t do it. Let your conscience be your guide.

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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