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Question 168: May a whole group be held liable for the wrongdoing of some?

As dean of students, I have a question to which I have never found a satisfactory solution: When some members of a group of students, a few or many as the case may be, are not behaving properly, is it fair to punish everyone or, at least, make the entire group suffer the consequences? Most students, naturally, say it is unfair. But there are various kinds of cases in which faculty members or administrators argue that it is fair.

Last year, for instance, the librarian, who has the power to impose fines of up to fifty dollars for any abuse of library privileges, fined every graduate student twenty-five dollars. Previously only staff and faculty had access to the room where recent issues of periodicals are stored until bound, but last year all graduate students were given keys. Despite being warned not to leave the door unlocked, some apparently were careless, and during the fall semester undergraduates often were found in the room. Nothing was missing and no damage was done, but the librarian was determined to keep the undergraduates out. At the beginning of the spring semester he fined all the graduate students and warned them he would do the same thing every semester unless the door was kept locked. It worked, but the graduate students complained bitterly to me.

Another example occurred a few years ago when my predecessor punished the whole senior class by canceling their baccalaureate dinner dance. That was a drastic move, and I do not think I would have done it; the members of that class have consistently given less than any other to annual alumni fund raising. Still, I understand his motivation. That class always had been unruly, and the administration had been forced to take unusual measures to try to keep some semblance of order at its events. Despite all precautions, the class’s last scheduled affair before the dinner dance, an April Fools masked ball, ended in disaster when some of the fools got into a fight, campus security was called, and a melee ensued in which the guards were beaten up and one of them was seriously injured. There also was more than twenty thousand dollars worth of damage to the gym.

Still another example is the way our basketball coach trains his players to avoid fouls. All the players detest calisthenics. The coach does not schedule them at the beginning of practice sessions, as most coaches do, but instead has the squad playing basketball right from the start. Whenever a player makes a mistake that would draw a foul in a game, though, the coach makes everyone stop and do ten push-ups or sit-ups or some other exercise. Then all the players get after the offender. At first some players complain bitterly that the coach is being unfair, but his approach seems to work, and complaints die down when the team begins winning games.

Then there are things that are not exactly punishment, but involve more or less the same problem. For example, many professors would like to limit examinations to the final and avoid quizzes. But they give reading assignments students must do to prepare for class. Finding that some students come to class unprepared, they reluctantly begin quizzing the class on the readings. Many of our better students resent this, feeling that they are being treated like school children merely because other students are too lazy or disorganized to do the reading assignments regularly.

Last but not least is the perennial problem about billing students for damage in the residence halls. Of course, there is no problem when those responsible come forward or are identified. But very often it is impossible to identify the guilty party. Undoubtedly, students often know who the culprits are, but they are reluctant to tell on one another. We therefore put it in the housing contract that the cost of repairing damage inside a unit will be divided among all those sharing it, the cost of damage on a corridor will be divided among those living there, and the cost of damage in any other area will be divided among everyone in the building. Many students regard this as unfair, especially when charged for damage that may well have been done by a student living elsewhere or even by a visitor from off campus. Still, someone must pay. Students often argue we should charge it off to general operating expenses. But then every student would pay an equal share, and that hardly seems fair, since different groups of students tend to concentrate in certain places, and there are consistent differences in the levels of damage in the various dorms.

Though there is nothing in the rules about damage to the gym, my predecessor charged the whole senior class for the cost of repairing the damage resulting from the April Fools affair mentioned above. Many students were especially bitter about that, because each had to pay forty dollars, including some who were not at the dance and many others who left before the trouble began or when it started.


This question calls for the articulation and application of norms for just punishment. Strictly understood, punishment is some loss or harm authoritatively imposed on a person in response to his or her wrongdoing. Punishment is wrongful unless it is intended to restore justice and is appropriate for that purpose. So, it never is just to punish a group for the wrongdoing of some of its members unless their wrongdoing constitutes a wrongful act of the group as such. If not all members have been proved guilty of complicity in a wrongful act, punishing the whole group to deter wrongdoing by its members is using a bad means to a good end. Misbehavior in a group should be dealt with not by punishment but by instruction, exhortation, sound rule making, careful investigation of infractions, and strict enforcement. Still, when a privilege extended to a group is abused by some unidentifiable members, the privilege may be withdrawn to safeguard the common good.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Punishment sometimes refers to rough handling or mistreatment totally unrelated to wrongdoing and often refers to various forms of discipline repugnant to the individual subjected to them—for example, chastising of a child or pet by inflicting slight pain or brief isolation. Strictly understood, however, punishment is some loss or harm authoritatively imposed on a person in response to his or her willful wrongdoing (see LCL, 891).

If punishment, strictly understood, is to be fair, it must be intended by the authority to promote the community’s common good by restoring justice and must be suited to that purpose. When wrongs are done, wrongdoers incur a debt to society, and law-abiding people want them to pay the price of their wrongdoing. Sometimes anger about wrongs and hatred toward wrongdoers lead to demands for revenge. Acting on such motives, however, is always immoral, and so it can never restore the balance of justice. But that balance can be restored, not by taking revenge on wrongdoers, but by making them suffer what displeases them so as to restore balance with others who, in acting responsibly, have given up some degree of freedom to do as they please.374

Punishment may be used with the hope of reforming the wrongdoer and/or deterring others. Provided punishments are intended to restore justice and are suited to that end, these purposes also can rightly be intended. Neither, however, provides an adequate principle for just punishment. The reformation of wrongdoers need not involve inflicting any loss or harm, and may have little to do with what they have done, except that the wrongful behavior manifests their need for help. Treating a wrongdoer in such a way as to deter others will be unjust unless that treatment also is appropriate to restore the balance of justice.

Strictly speaking, then, it can never be fair to punish an entire group for the wrongdoing of some of its members, unless those members’ wrongdoing constitutes a wrongful act of the group as a whole. Yet sometimes common agency is wrongly attributed to a group, and all members are held responsible for acts that are neither acts of the group nor of each and every one of its members. Unfairly punishing a group’s members who in no way share responsibility for wrongs done by other members perverts punishment and is counterproductive. By treating wrongdoers and law-abiding people alike, it increases the imbalance between them rather than overcoming it.

Someone might object that, while group punishment generally is unjust, in exceptional cases it can be just, since one purpose of punishment is deterrence, and sometimes only group punishment will deter. For example, on pleasant days when many windows are open, some of the men in a certain dorm harass women walking by outside by shouting obscene remarks. The women cannot identify the guilty parties and, despite exhortations by the dean of students, the men living in the dorm will not identify them. So, the objection goes on, the dean calls in the student identification cards of all the men residing on that side of the offending dorm, which means none of them can attend college events or get into the campus pub. The penalty works; the harassment ends and the cards are returned. My answer nevertheless is that, while deterrence often is among punishment’s purposes, punishment may not be used for deterrence or anything else unless it is just in itself, that is, fair recompense for wrongdoing. Calling in the identification cards of a whole group of men to deter harassment by some is using an unjust penalty to prevent wrongdoing—a bad means to a good end.

Perhaps someone will respond: If other members of the group were not in solidarity with those shouting the obscenities, peer pressure would soon end the harassment; and if other members fail to identify the wrongdoers as they should, the whole group is justly punished on that basis. My answer is that, while some or even most other members of the group may be implicated in the wrongdoing by supporting it or failing to fulfill their duty to try to stop it, punishing this group as a whole cannot be justified unless each and every member’s complicity is not merely plausibly supposed but proved. (Note, too, that group punishment often is not an effective deterrent and may even be counterproductive, since people’s sense of being punished unjustly can provoke them to share in the misbehavior that deserves punishment.)

In cases of this sort, the proper approach is twofold: instruct the group about the wrongness of the behavior and everyone’s responsibility to do what he or she can to stop it, and diligently enforce appropriate rules with adequate sanctions. Rather than calling in the identification cards of the whole group of men, the dean of students should have explained to them (and everyone on the campus) why the harassment is wrong and why anyone who sees the wrongness of shouting obscene remarks at women passing by should urge the guilty parties to stop and, if necessary, report them. If there was no adequate rule against this form of harassment, the dean at the same time should have promulgated a rule with a severe penalty, used appropriate means to identify at least some culprits, and punished them.

The case in which your predecessor “punished” the whole senior class by canceling their baccalaureate dinner dance is ambiguous. Perhaps he did intend the cancellation as punishment; if so, it was unjust. But he could have had, and perhaps did have, a different motivation: to prevent another disaster. According to your account, the class always had been unruly and special efforts already had been made to prevent trouble at its events. Such efforts having failed at the April Fools affair, it may well have been reasonable to judge canceling the baccalaureate dinner dance the necessary means to prevent more trouble, perhaps including additional serious injuries. In that case, the cancellation was fully justified—not as punishment, however, but as a necessary safety measure.

Your basketball coach’s way of training players to avoid fouls is not ambiguous. The calisthenics he requires whenever a player makes a mistake are not punishment. Although they could be used as such, they are imposed, not for wrongdoing, but for mistakes. Moreover, since other coaches start practice sessions with calisthenics, the exercises are, not mere imposed suffering, but an appropriate part of the athletes’ conditioning, and your coach surely is using them for this purpose. Unlike other coaches, he also is using them to develop teamwork. In games that count, each player’s mistakes harm the whole team, and so every player must learn to avoid fouls. Individuals’ mistakes in practice sessions need not trouble others, however, so the coach, rather than using the calisthenics as punishment, has another purpose in mind: to get the players into the habit of putting the team first by making individuals’ mistakes the occasion for exercises which, though detested by all, would be an element of their training in any case.

Of course, this approach can be abused—for example, by making excessive and even harmful demands on people. Sometimes coaches, drill sergeants, and the like push people too far, perhaps even to a point where one suspects them of sadism. However, such excesses are possible even when the need to burden individuals for the success of a common effort is such that there is no question of group punishment. For example, when the band practices, the band master might require it to play a piece over and over until it is done flawlessly. This means skillful players must bear the burden of helping train those who make mistakes. When the band master says, “Let’s play it again, and this time no mistakes!” nobody considers it punishment, though there may be audible groans. Still, if the practice session is extended so long that the band’s members begin collapsing from hunger and fatigue, the band master has gone too far.

As you say, group punishment is not at issue when professors feel compelled to quiz a class because some of its members neglect to do assigned readings by way of preparation. In some cases, that step is analogous to the band master’s requiring the group to play a piece over and over, for if the effectiveness of the class’s meetings depends heavily on student participation, the common purpose will be impeded unless everyone is ready to contribute. In other cases, quizzing the whole class may be justified by the considerable benefit to those who need this motivation—and, to be realistic, even the best students do at times.

Of course, unreasonable demands sometimes are made in cases like this, too. To be fair, professors should not assign more work in preparation for each session of a course than they reasonably judge virtually every student can do passably without slighting any other responsibilities—not least, the responsibility to meet the legitimate requirements of other courses. Moreover, professors should be certain all assignments really contribute to the development of the course and are likely to be fruitful for most students. Then too, sometimes a professor finds that particular students receive little or no benefit from a burdensome requirement and can relieve them of it; in fairness the professor should do that.

How to bill students for damage caused by unidentifiable individuals in the residence halls is a perplexing problem. Your practice of including in the housing contract an explanation of how damage will be billed no doubt helps mitigate student resentment. But it does not ensure that the system is fair, since many students probably agree to pay the bills for damage only because they have no alternative to living on campus, and some may not realize what sorts of charges the housing contract will require them to pay. Nevertheless, assuming that some student or group of students sooner or later must cover the cost of all such damage, and provided students are free to choose the group among whom they will live, I do not think it necessarily unfair to assess charges as you do. For if a representative group of present and future students were asked to propose something fairer (and it might be worthwhile for you to convene such a group from time to time and put the question to them), I doubt they would find a more acceptable alternative.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that in fact the system may well be unfair, not because there is a more equitable way of allocating charges for damage, but because the college may be failing to do all it should to deal with the problem of damage. As you say, other students probably often know who the culprits are but are reluctant to tell on them. To remedy this situation, you should explain to the students that everyone suffers as a result of such damage, everyone would benefit by reducing its extent, and everyone can help do that by refraining from causing damage, taking responsibility for any damage he or she causes, admonishing others to do the same, and reporting those who selfishly refuse to cooperate.

The college also needs sound rules and diligent enforcement. Since the specifics must be appropriate to your situation, I offer the following only as a set of possible starting points.

When students do take responsibility for the damage they cause, it seems to me they should be billed only for the actual cost of repairs. When students fail to take responsibility and that is proven, they not only should be billed for the actual cost of repairs but punished severely—for example, required to perform the hours of work around the buildings and grounds that would earn at minimum wage a fine of one thousand dollars or ten times the cost of repairs, whichever is greater. Students deliberately and maliciously destroying either the college’s or any mem~ber’s property of significant value should be expelled, and their crime should be reported to the police and charges pressed. Campus security should be staffed by a sufficient number of adequately trained personnel to enforce these and other rules. Moreover, serious instances of property damage very often result from alcohol abuse, and the college may be negligent in enforcing reasonable rules in this matter; if so, a sound policy should be established and consistently enforced (see q. 163, above). If the college took steps such as these, property damage might well quickly dwindle to insignificance.

Finally, your predecessor plainly was unfair in recovering the cost of the damage resulting from the disastrous April Fools affair by billing every senior for an equal share of it, despite the fact that some members of the class were not at the dance, others already had left, and some left to avoid involvement in the melee. If he meant to punish the group, the charge patently was unfair, but even if he meant simply to recover the cost of the damages, it was unfair to impose the burden on the whole senior class, many of whose members plainly were not responsible for the damage, rather than treat it as current operating expense, which would have divided the cost among a far larger group. It would have been appropriate to conduct a vigorous investigation with a view to holding responsible those who were guilty, especially of beating up the security guards and seriously injuring one of them—offenses far more serious than property damage. But perhaps such an investigation was conducted without success.

In any case, the college owes restitution to the alumni who were unfairly charged forty dollars each for the damage on that occasion. Moreover, since what you say about alumni giving by members of that senior class indicates that your prede~cessor’s handling of the affair was counterproductive, refunding the money with accrued interest and an apology very likely will be financially advantageous for the college in the long run.

374. See John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 262–64.