Yalies have often taken the liberal rather than the narrow approach to injustice. Take the apartheid government during the 1980s in South Africa, a Cold War ally of the United States. The ruling minority Afrikaners had for years treated their dark-skinned countrymen like so many disposable workers, while America attempted to rid itself of the remnants of Jim Crow. During the mid-1980s, Yalies set up mock-shantytowns — the decrepit villages in which South Africa’s blacks lived — on Beinecke Plaza and occupied administration buildings to protest the University’s investment in the country.
Take also a more recent, local example: wage theft at Gourmet Heaven. Continuing into last year, Yale students protested alleged wage theft and poor working conditions at the convenience store. University Properties decided not to renew the offending manager’s lease. He recently filed for bankruptcy during litigation for $218,000 in wage theft, according to the Connecticut Department of Labor.
Yalies might have decided that each case wasn’t their problem. “Let the South Africans organize their country how they like — who are we to tell them otherwise?” they might have huffed. “If GHeav wants to pay employees $5 an hour, that’s for the manager and workers to negotiate — at any rate, I want my steak, egg and cheese.”
But they decided that the actions of the South African National Party and GHeav management were wrong — not just options among many morally equivalent ones, but affirmatively wrong (albeit to different degrees). It may seem obvious why, but for clarity’s sake, let’s go through each case briefly.
On apartheid: human beings are morally equal beings. There may be good and proper reasons why some people govern — they were elected democratically, for instance — but race is arbitrary and surely not among them. On wage theft: the managers of GHeav ignored their contractual and legal obligations to their employees. They stole something rightfully belonging to someone else, an offense no different in kind from walking into someone’s home and taking his sofa without asking. Besides that, they took advantage of the more vulnerable (one of the victims was an immigrant) simply because they could.
Yalies made the following connection: the wrongs of the National Party and the managers at Gourmet Heaven obligated those with power and influence, like Yalies, to take action to remedy them. Many have written in these pages about the influence Yale has in the world and how using that for anything other than the greater good would be a dereliction.
But does moral obligation stop at South Africa and Broadway? I urge Yalies to direct their moralism — used here non-pejoratively — at malign activities on campus as well. We should start with the most vicious, and sexual assault tops the list. But excessive drinking, recreational drug use and careless, noncommittal sex also deserve our attention. The last three may seem victimless, and I think we have a strong intuitive bias against unfavorably judging someone else’s purely personal decisions. But can we not hurt ourselves? Can’t someone make a wrong decision affecting only him? I see no reason why just because the object of an action is also its subject, the action does not carry moral weight. And if such an action does carries moral weight — if, say, chopping off one’s own arm is intrinsically wrong — than do others not have obligations to stop self-directed wrong actions?
I think most people intuit that when a friend is drinking himself sick every weekend, something’s not right. And further, that a good friend would step in. This is not to single out drinking, only to say that the idea that we might interfere in other’s behavior when it’s both self-directed and wrong isn’t as foreign as it may seem initially. So, which self-directed actions merit interference? What shouldn’t we let other people do to themselves?
There are many good ways to answer this question, and what follows is only one. Philosophers from Aristotle to Maimonides have argued that one thing distinguishing a human from an animal is his intellect. We are rational. Inebriation from alcohol, a high from pot or the release of pressure that is the end of casual, heartless sex treats humans as simply a series of emotions and passions. This is to treat humans as sub-rational, as mere chemical objects. We should avoid this and encourage our friends to do likewise.
No matter which problems are most urgent, one thing seems certain to me — we are not only morally obligated to the underprivileged. Sometimes we are our own victims.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .