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Schleimer '12: Thoughts on stealing from a (former) BuDS Cashier

If you've been to Josiah's on a Friday night, you know theft is rampant in on-campus eateries. You've seen - or been - that student slipping Odwalla bars into a pocket or scooting past the register with a cup of soda claiming, "It's just water."

Stealing food is so ingrained in campus culture that Brown Dining Services has given up fighting it. In the past, unit managers would routinely write up students and send them to meet with Ann Hoffman, director of administration for Dining Services. These students honestly didn't realize what they were doing was stealing, and she said, "Nine times out of ten, they were mortified ... they'd say 'I'd never do this normally. I don't know why it's okay, but everyone does it.'" 

Eventually, the unit managers were so overwhelmed that they simply stopped writing people up. "It's not their job," said Gretchen Willis, director of Dining Services. "They can't spend their whole shift being the food cops. ... It's disheartening." 

Many students rationalize taking food without paying because they already paid for a meal plan. But this self-righteous sense of entitlement does not change the fact that breaking the rules for personal gain is a serious lapse in moral judgment. Brown students display a remarkable degree of ethically minded decision-making when it comes to food: Buying organic and local, or going vegetarian. So why is it that when it comes to stealing from Dining Services, morality doesn't apply?

During the 1960s, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg followed a group of boys in suburban Chicago from elementary school through college and tracked their moral development. Kohlberg proposed that individuals develop their capacity for moral reasoning by learning to de-center their worldview to take into account the perspectives of others.

When confronted by a moral conflict between obeying the rules and serving human welfare, more developed individuals consider the interests of everyone involved and apply the Golden Rule: Treat others how you would want to be treated. When this consideration is extended to the good of society as a whole, there comes a sense of obligation to obey the law to maintain the moral order.

According to Kohlberg, the majority of adults stop here at the letter of the law. The minority - and Brown students in general constitute a minority - move beyond the conventions of society to develop independent moral principles to distinguish right from wrong. But to transition from a law-abiding mentality to truly autonomous morality, individuals must enter a sort of moral limbo. Conventional rules are rejected, but those genuine moral principles don't kick in right away.

In Kohlberg's study, some of the most morally developed boys achieved high stages of moral reasoning only to regress in the early years of college to ego-centric and hedonistic relativism. While they were entirely aware that people in general value rules and reciprocity, they opted not to apply those moral constraints to their own decision-making.

Whether our sense of guilt came from parents or teachers, most of us followed the rules in high school to make it to the Ivy League. For many, college life is a rude awakening that doing the right thing is not always rewarded. People lie, cheat, steal and in general do not get punished for bad behavior.

Like the boys in Kohlberg's study, many students are reacting against the sense of guilt instilled by a lifetime of 'good' parenting and beginning to "test out their capacity to be guilt-free." After doing the right thing for years, only to realize that stealing food will not get you punished, they are rebelling against conventional morality. They steal because - in the words of one anonymous senior - they "just don't give a f**k." 

Luckily, for the boys in Kohlberg's study, moral regression was like a teenager trying out the punk look: In the end, it was just a phase. By age 25, their post-conventional morality was revived on stronger, more principled ground and, as Rosen says, they began "doing the right thing for the right reason." 

We are insulated from the real world here on College Hill. As an auxiliary department of the University, Dining Services runs on a break-even budget. Their mission is to provide students with good food in an environment that fosters intellectual and personal growth. Much like the way Department of Public Safety officers will not arrest students for underage drinking in the dorms, Dining Services is not out to get you for stealing a little food.

But the temporary liberation from letter-of-the-law enforcement has put us into a moral limbo. Without conventional guidance to define right from wrong, many students fall back on the hedonistic, ego-centric tendency to prioritize their own interests and disregard the rest.

It seems like everyone has accepted stealing food as a fact of college life. Maybe it is. But as members of the Brown community we still have a responsibility to respect each other and the University. Your actions may go unpunished, but that doesn't mean your decisions don't count.


Lauren Schleimer '12 has cashiered all over campus, and she wants you to know that you are not as subtle as you think you are.



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