Rules Are Rules

By Deane Barker tags: life, behavioral-economics

I’ve been thinking a quite a bit lately about consequences, and how today’s society tries to qualify everything – “well, I know it was against the rules, BUT…”

Brigham Young University recently dismissed a star player from their basketball team. Brandon Davies was kicked off the team because he violated the school’s honor code by having sex with his girlfriend. BYU’s code forbids this, along with the consumption of alcohol, tea, coffee, and a bunch of other things. Students agree to this code when they are admitted to the school.

I’ve read news articles about this with some interest, because this is the type of thing that society loves to pounce on with disbelief that any organization in this day and age would be so backward as to force people to sign a code of behavior and stick with it.

To my surprise, I found comments like this:

The honor code is stupid but he chose to go there and he made the promise to follow the rules, dumb or not, and should be suspended or whatever. […]

he signed the honor code he should not be the exception to the rule […]

No one forced Davies to go to BYU. He knew about the honor code when he enrolled. Now he has to accept responsibility for his actions. That’s called being an adult.

While BYU’s honor code is a little Draconian (no tea or coffee?), it’s also clear and unambiguous – this is the line, don’t cross it. You don’t have to go to BYU if you don’t want to. Davies chose to violate the code, and BYU stuck to their principles, kicked him out, and are likely to have a disastrous basketball season because of it.

And this brings me to Bradley Manning – the Army private who leaked 250,000 secret cables to Wikileaks. He’s currently being held in solitary confinement in what some say are inhumane conditions.

Over at Reddit, Wikileaks is generally revered as the greatest thing ever and bashing the US is almost a competitive sport. So, when someone started a thread about protesting at the jail were Manning is being held, I thought for certain people where going to jump in and have little anti-USA festival.

Again, to my surprise, I found comments like this:

it’s just naive to think that Bradley Manning will be released. He took confidential military intel which he had been entrusted with and released it to the public. He is the definition of a traitor and subject to military law. This is not my opinion, it’s just a statement of fact. […]

Now, I may be ill informed, but didn’t he still break the law? I’m not saying it is right for him to be tortured/demeaned/treated inhumanely in any way. That is wrong. But the fact remains that he still broke the law. […]

Could any member of the military send secret files to the whole world? Yes. Why don’t they? 1. You are ordered not to. 2. It is illegal. […] The last thing we need is Lance Corporal Coconuts sneaking around the white house with a thumb drive and a mission, uploading DOD files to foreign nationals through a web site. […]

If you do something like this, it’s treason, and in the military, you’re not gonna get a comfortable bed in a little cell for you to sit around and read books all day. Bradley Manning betrayed his country and fellow service members by his actions, and he’s paying for it.

Regardless of how you feel about the military, US foreign policy, or Wikileaks, the fact is that Bradley Manning broke the law, and he had a very good understanding of this when he was doing it. What, pray tell, did he think was going to happen? They don’t give medals for this stuff.

In the end, this all has me thinking back to Pete Rose, of all people. Pete Rose got busted for betting on baseball right as I was graduating from high school. He was a national hero that fell into disgrace and was permanently banned from the game and from the Hall of Fame (into which his induction was a foregone conclusion).

One of the earliest moral stands I took as a young adult was to defend Major League Baseball against anyone who thought Pete Rose should be forgiven. People would trot out all excuses, the biggest of which was “he never bet against his team, only for it.”

But, I was unswayed because of a simple fact: Pete Rose knew what he was risking. He knew that betting on games you were actively involved in was a gross violation of any explicit or implied ethical rule, and the consequences could be huge. He chose to do it anyway.

Pete Rose, Brandon Davies, and Bradley Manning all willingly violated rules to which they agreed to abide. The validity or value of those rules is not really the question. The only relevant fact is that the rules existed and the consequences to violating them were clear and unambiguous.

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