STUDENT VOICES | CHYNN PRIZE 3rd PLACE WINNER
By: Brendan Dagher
Everyday we struggle to resolve how to treat those who wrong us or cause us pain. How do we punish those who steal from us? Who determines how we are fully compensated for the pain others inflict on us? We demand justice, or a system of fairness that safeguards our dignity as humans. Our personal morals feed into this system of fairness, often making justice a complex ethical issue.
It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I began to truly question justice within the framework of morality. Ironically, living in an apartment with six other rowdy college students allowed me to examine and further develop my ideas of justice and morality. While living in the apartment, I realized that what seemed fair didn’t always seem right or moral. In this paper, I share how the experiences of living in an apartment with six of my good friends shaped my notion of justice in the greater context of society.
The summer before my junior year of college was full of excitement and anticipation for the coming school year. I would be living with six of my friends in an off-campus apartment. Surely, it would be an awesome year full of fun and crazy college antics. Initially, we were concerned that keeping our apartment clean was going to be quite the challenge. However, we brushed this off by determining that we would establish a system of accountability for dishes, trash, and other responsibilities. This system never came to fruition and I realized that maintaining a culture of order and responsibility in our apartment was a lot more difficult than we originally assumed.
Messes started piling up, dishes were left everywhere, and the tile in the bathrooms started to turn an unpleasant green. Nobody liked the mess, but nobody did anything about it either. Some people cared about it more than others, including myself, but it simply wouldn’t be fair for one person or a select few to assume responsibility for the mess. When we did clean, it would be a joint effort, so that everyone had to assume responsibility for the mess they contributed to. Yet, these cleaning sprees only occurred when the apartment became so repugnant that we considered it truly unhealthy. I started to question why I even washed my own dishes or took out the trash when it seemed like nobody else did.
There needed to be some sort of accountability and justice system for our apartment. The ethical principal of justice emphasizes distributing benefits and burdens in a fair manner. Considering this, I started to willingly contribute to the mess even though I knew it added to the discomfort of the others in house. It’s what seemed fair, because I was certainly discomforted by the mess as well. I noticed that other people in the house stopped caring as well. Thus began a culture of disregard for others’ comfort based on the principle of fairness, or justice.
This culture of disregard only intensified as the year progressed. We already established a disregard for the spaces that we all shared including the living room, kitchen, and bathrooms. What followed was neglect for other people’s personal spaces and possessions. I soon found that my clean laundry was rapidly disappearing without my approval. My socks disappeared, my bath towels went missing, and my closet seemed to have less clothing. Others noticed that the same was happening to their personal items as well.
After I confronted the suspected perpetrators, things still hadn’t stopped disappearing. I personally could no longer justify doing laundry only for my clean clothes to be taken by those who hadn’t bothered to do their laundry. So, with the notion of fairness in mind, I stopped doing my own laundry and I retaliated by taking others’ clean clothes. This trend gripped our apartment and soon everyone was stealing each other’s clean clothes and desperately trying to find hiding places for their own clothes.
It’s almost as if I needed to participate in this vicious cycle in order to survive in my own apartment. If I cleaned my clothes, then my other roommates would just take them, no matter how long I spent doing laundry the day before. This didn’t seem just to me. Even though I knew it contributed to the discomfort of my roommates, I still went into their drawers and took the only clean pair of jeans they had, because they had done the same to me. It seemed to be the only fair way to go about things. This culture of disregard and retaliation happened with food, toiletries, and other personal possessions. We initiated a process of compensatory justice, or payback, by doing to others exactly what had done to us.
I often discussed with another roommate the comic culture of disregard and retaliation that we established in our apartment. We were able to laugh about the ridiculousness of it because we were all friends and nobody intended any true harm by their actions. Many people in the house often did get frustrated with the situation, including one roommate who came home to find that the chicken he spent hours preparing the night before was all gone. No one was spared from the disregard, and everybody retaliated.
My friend and I noted that our families and friends often questioned how we even lived the way we did. We established that we were living in a way that was so far removed from how normal, civilized people lived. I believed our situation was just a product of 7 rowdy college guys living together. However, after comparing these experiences to what I observe in the world outside of my apartment, I’ve developed quite a different theory.
After seeing how we administer justice on both a personal and political level in our society, I realize that my apartment was a microcosm of human society today. An observation of our own human history demonstrates that this culture of retaliation, which occurred in my apartment, happened on much grander, more serious scales. Consider the Cold War, where political and military tensions between the United States and Russia were extremely tense. This period saw the first application of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) military and political doctrine. The doctrine assumed that both the United States and Russia had an equal amount of nuclear weapons, and that each country would respond with at least equal force if they suffered an attack from the enemy country.
This would seem just or fair, just like taking my roommate’s jeans would seem fair because they had done the same thing to me. Considering the massive amount of lives that could be lost from this approach to justice, I question if this is a moral course of action. Martin Luther King Jr. said “the old law about an ‘eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.” Reflecting on this quote, I realize that Martin Luther King Jr. was correct.
In my apartment, everybody retaliated until nobody had clean clothes left, until there was no food in the fridge, or until the mess got so bad that we couldn’t even use our living spaces. If the United States or Russia dropped a nuclear bomb on one another, there would’ve been massive destruction and immense casualties. We see this type of retaliation occur in our world every single day, but what are we left with in the end? This happens in wars and personal property disputes, among other daily issues that we face. At the very least we are left with a few, uncomfortable, unclean college roommates, but at the very worst we are left with massive causalities and possibly the destruction of a civilization. We must examine if this culture of retaliation that we’ve established truly allows us to live a happy life. How can we further our comfort and happiness when we are so busy ensuring that those who have wronged us are just as unhappy as they left us?
The experiences I relayed about living with six of my good friends show that retaliation is not always the right course of action. We constantly attempted to administer justice by inflicting the same amount of discomfort that we received from one another.
In the end, we were left with a disgusting apartment and no clean clothes. In the greater context of society, we kill, hurt, and steal from those who have committed those actions against us. However, we are always left with less. If we started to focus less on ensuring justice through retaliation, we might be able to focus on living happier, more harmonious lives.
Brendan Dagher FCRH ’16 is an economics major, and was awarded third place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2015 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.