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Rules. What are they good for?

Is ‘following the rules’ a driver of ethical decisions? When I think about the times I did the ‘right’ thing, a rule’s existence, at most, served as a hint on what the correct choice was. If I was trying to convince myself to act morally, I’d simply think about what I ought to do. Consulting my conscience has, in most cases, been enough to turn me into a ‘good’ person. And in all my life, my conscience never brought up the rules to win me over. On some level, that makes me wonder what rules are good for.

In theory, they are supposed to prevent actions which society disapproves of. Failing that, they allow us to punish those who perform them. I do wonder, though, what kind 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 stops people from just following their conscience? To me, it would appear that most people do not want to cheat, and only do so when they are desperate. On a broader level, people who act against their morality tend to have a pressing reason to do so. I don’t see how a regulation, or the threat of punishment, would therefore stop someone who has already decided to do the ‘wrong’ thing. People cheat on the most heavily proctored exams, and find the most ingenious ways to do it, too. The issue is endemic to college campuses, regardless of how competent the administration is.

If not proctoring, what prevents cheating? The answer seems simple enough to me: removing students’ need for academic dishonesty. Please note that this isn’t a call to make school ‘easy.’ Rigorous classes do not inspire cheating. I have heard of people cheating in an absurdly easy class, and seen total honesty in an intensive course. The crucial difference was that the difficult class was ‘fair’. There, the professor gave every student a chance to succeed. Their homework was reasonable, they taught effectively, and showed students how to prepare for  assignments; nobody had a reason to cheat. Conversely, the easy class was taught poorly, the homework was excessive and often irrelevant, and the exams were almost impossible to prepare for. It’s unsurprising that people got desperate, only to then realize that their final was like child’s play. Most people I know would prefer to take the difficult, yet fair class.

To put it another way: people will start following the rules, happily, on the same day that they become obsolete. What does regulation do for us before that time comes? In many cases, I’d say harm. This has everything to do with the second justification for rules: they are supposed to set up the parameters for a ‘fair’ society. Follow them, we are often told, and you will be rewarded. When this claim comes into contact with rules which don’t work, or a system which itself is unfair, the results are disastrous. 

Consider that easy, yet unfair, class. Once a student realizes that they are being set up to fail, how do they react? For starters, they are likely to cheat. Beyond that, once they have recognized this disconnect between following the rules and a ‘just’ outcome, the logic of complying with any class policy becomes less clear. Why, for example, should they attend lectures which do nothing for them? Soon enough, the entire student-teacher relationship disappears. The student’s desire to survive their class begins to override any sense of personal responsibility. Many people act in this way upon realizing that a system is unfair, and it’s an understandable response. If someone feels that they already have to break rules to succeed, then it becomes easier to justify other questionable acts. “I have to get ahead.”

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

In the real world, we see this with the act of theft. I’ve lived in communities where nobody was desperate, and I was never afraid to leave my door unlocked. Based on that experience, I believe that the people who steal must have valid reasons to do so, and punishing them for it is therefore illogical. It shifts the blame of an unfair system onto its victims. Given that, we might be better off fixing the conditions which made someone break the rules, rather than wasting energy punishing them for it.

Of course, there are cases where, even in the best circumstances, people act immorally. Somehow, theft occurs on Duke campus. When that happens, I assume that there is some reasonable, external factor guiding the thief’s judgement—people sometimes act out. When there’s cheating in a ‘fair’ class, I tend to imagine that the student was overworked in other areas of their life. Whatever the rationale, such people will always exist. Creating and enforcing the rules clearly doesn’t stop them.

If that is the case, I would suggest that we change how we understand the rules. They don’t seem to work as a mechanism to guarantee, encourage, or even reward the behaviour which we want to see in the world. At best, they are an aggressive wishlist for society: ‘We want you to act this way or else.’ Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t rely on the rules, or their enforcement, when we have some outcome that we are hoping for. It would be smarter to ensure that a systemic change accompanies a rule change. 

Consider Duke’s abortive attempt at ending indoor dining. Had they provided far more outdoor seating options, that policy could have worked; I can imagine a scenario where people avoided dining indoors for COVID’s sake. Of course, that assumes that such a choice was viable, which it wasn’t. The announcement was made, a few chairs were hidden, and plenty of people continued dining indoors. The only change I perceived, quite frankly, was that some people started taking COVID guidelines less seriously. After all, this new rule did little more than inconvenience the unscrupulous, and it felt like a different kind of inconvenience for the people who followed it. It was a disaster caused by the opposition of University regulations and objective circumstances on the ground.

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

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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