Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Prescription Drugs in Schools and the Ethics of Shooting the Elephant

FBC sent me this link to a story about a young woman who faces expulsion from school for acting as a good Samaritan.  Her friend was undergoing what seemed to be an asthma attack and she responded by using her inhaler.  The school has a strict policy for the use of prescription drugs -- they may only be used for the person for whom they are prescribed.  This rule is designed to avoid life threatening situations where medicines can be harmful if not used properly.  The rule was designed to safeguard the safety of children. 

Jeremy Bentham was an advocate of what philosophers call "act utilitarianism" in which an act is morally good if the agent expects that doing it will generate better overall consequences than not doing it.  In this case, the student trying to be helpful was clearly acting out of care with a desire to help her classmate, thinking about what harm could come from not helping.  John Stuart Mill argues that trying to apply the principle of utility to each and every act is not practical develops what we call "rule utilitarianism" in which it is consequences of following the general rule which is considered.  In this case, the rule is in the vast majority of cases a good one.  But, Mill readily admits, reality is a messy place and sometimes we are better off disregarding the rule for unusual situations.  He builds in an ethical safety valve.

But these valves bring danger.  How do we really know in the heat of the moment whether we really are in one of these unusual situations?  How do we know we are helping our friend and not harming her despite our good intentions?  Especially when the actors are minors with limited information, experience, and critical faculties, these calculations are more likely flawed.  Shouldn't we erect safeguards to make sure that good people don't end up doing harm?  If so, how do we keep people to the rule and not deviating in what seems to be an unusual case?

This is what George Orwell considers in "To Shoot an Elephant" in which he recalls an episode in which he was a policeman in Burma and was forced by circumstance to shoot an elephant that had been rampaging after it had settled down.  Orwell knew that he didn't have to shoot the elephant for safety's sake, but rather to create a general sense that he was in control.  He committed an act that he knew was wrong in and of itself in the name of a larger sense of order and safety.  The principal in this case sees himself in Orwell's position.  Expelling the students is shooting the elephant.  If we give any agency to students in determining when they ought to share medications, the first fateful step on a slippery slope has been taken. 

Surely, we all regret the principal's stance.  It seems horribly unjust to punish someone trying to aid a sick friend.  But is it ever justified in such a case to shoot the elephant?  Could the larger ramifications ever justify harsh punishment for a laudable act?  Is there a case to be made for the principal's rigid stance?