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Collective Punishment

When I was in elementary school, I got my first taste of collective punishment. Some disruptive student would ignore the teacher, and the teacher would respond by punishing the entire class. It turns out that this dynamic doesn't change, even in college:

Some professors threaten to confiscate students' cell phones if they go off during class. Laurence Thomas has his own approach to classroom distractions. If the philosopher at Syracuse University catches a student sending text messages or reading a newspaper in class, he'll end the class on the spot and walk out. It doesnt matter if there is but one texter in a large lecture of hundreds of students. If you text, he will leave.

Last week, when a student in a large lecture — in the front row no less — sent a text message, Thomas followed through on his threat (as he had done just a few days earlier). And he then sent the university's chancellor, his dean, and all of the students an e-mail message explaining his actions and his frustration at the "brazen" disrespect he had received in class.

The professor's reasoning is that his policy (texting is not allowed) was completely clear. He had told students in advance that he would walk out if he caught anyone texting. His students were not staying within acceptable behavior, so he carried through on his threat to leave. Straightforward, isn't it?

This lecture had approximately 400 students. The counterpoint is that the innocent 399 students paid for the class, didn't do anything wrong, and are not getting what they paid for. This is also straightforward.

The comment thread on that article is remarkable. Both the professor and well-behaved students attract articulate defenders. Most interestingly, in the comments we learn that Professor Thomas was teaching an ethics class. I expect him to know a great deal about the morality of collective punishment. Unlike the gym teachers of my youth, this guy is in a position to know the morality of his actions. He is in a position to know that what he did was wrong.

Collective punishment occurs when both innocent and guilty people are punished for the wrong actions of the guilty people. Collective punishment is wrong; it is wrong in principle and therefore in every possible application.

Let's take a short digression to review the two basic principles of justice:

  1. Guilty people should be punished.
  2. Innocent people should not be punished.

With this elementary foundation it's easy to see what's wrong with collective punishment. While it achieves #1, which is good, it also violates #2, which is bad. Emphatically, collective punishment is not a "shade of gray" somewhere between ideal justice (#1 only) and total injustice (violating #2 only) that we can sometimes accept on a case-by-case basis. Collective punishment is a dangerous mixture of good and evil, but this mixing is totally unnecessary! The fact that we are able to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent means that we can identify people who should not be punished at all, because they have done nothing wrong. It is not gray, it is both black and white, and we can and should reject the black portion and keep the white portion.

(I have absolutely no sympathy for the use of collective punishment in order to "send a message". Messages should be delivered by speech, not by perpetrating injustice.)

The professor's policy instituted the use of collective punishment, therefore the professor's policy was wrong. I agree that it is wrong for students to disrupt the class and that the professor has the privilege to decide what constitutes disruption for his class — but if his response to disruption is to punish the innocent, this professor (of ethics, I have to remind myself!) is wrong.

How could the professor's policy be changed to punish only the guilty? The punishment should be that the guilty student has to leave the class. If they don't leave voluntarily at the professor's request, they should be removed by campus security. I recognize that that could "cause a scene" for a few minutes, but it will only be for a few minutes rather than for the rest of the class period. The other 399 students could continue to learn after the offender has been removed.

(I'm taking no position here on whether the professor's intolerance of texting is reasonable. It doesn't matter to my argument. If you're adamant that texting should be allowed, imagine that the disruption was something else, like two students fighting violently during class.)


The professor's policy is wrong because it institutes collective punishment, which is wrong. The students' argument that they've paid for the class and are not getting what they paid for is correct, and if I ran the university where this occurred, I would be looking for ways to compensate those students for the lost class period. Possibly out of the professor's pay.

Comments: 2

1: Brandon Berg
2008-04-07 02:54:28 UTC

Clearly he's not qualified to teach an ethics class. Ergo he was actually helping the students by cancelling class.

2: Captain Arbyte
2008-04-07 04:49:31 UTC

Touché, Brandon. I stand corrected!

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