I am an advisor to a student organization at my campus, and in order to recharter the organization, I recently had to sign a document stating that I had read and would agree to follow the university’s anti-hazing policy. It reads (in part):

Any student may be expelled, suspended, or placed on probation for engaging in ‘abusive behavior directed toward, or hazing, of a member of the campus community.’ Hazing includes any methods of initiation or pre-initiation into a student organization or student body or any pastime or amusement engaged in with respect to these organizations which causes, or is likely to cause, bodily danger, physical harm, or personal degradation or disgrace resulting in physical or mental harm …

On the face of it, hazing (so described) looks like a fairly serious moral wrong. We do after all need pretty compelling justifications to engage in that which is likely to cause bodily danger, etc.  The organization StopHazing.org defines hazing this way:

Hazing activities are generally considered to be:  physically abusive, hazardous, and/or sexually violating.  The specific behaviors or activities within these categories
                   vary widely among participants, groups and settings.  While alcohol use is common in many types of hazing, other examples of typical hazing practices include: personal servitude; sleep deprivation and restrictions on personal hygiene; yelling, swearing and insulting new members/rookies; being forced to wear embarrassing or humiliating attire in public; consumption of vile substances or smearing of such on one’s skin; brandings; physical beatings; binge drinking and drinking games; sexual simulation and sexual assault.

This description places hazing next door to torture, morally speaking. 

Nevertheless, hazing seems widespread, and so I’d like to know what people think about the ethics of hazing.  Could there be a compelling moral reason for hazing given that it often involves behavior that would be impermissible in other contexts?


16 Replies to “Purple hazing

  1. The only argument I have ever heard to justify hazing (other than the claim that it is ultimately harmless, which the above definitions seem to refute) is that is can be a powerful way of bonding a group of people, especially males, in circumstances where group loyalty is essential. So the classic example is the military. If you are going to put your life in the hands of others, forming a strong group bond is important. You want to know that the guy next to you in the fox hole will risk his life for yours. Since hazing usually ends with the hazers expressing their respect for the hazees ability to go through the ordeal, this goal seems to have been achieved.
    It also, in a case like this, is important to know that the new guy is able to endure real hardships. When lives are on the line, you don’t need someone who couldn’t take a little pain or is psychologically weak enough that he breaks down when publically humiliated. The old guys learn that the new guys are reliable through hazing.
    That is the military argument. Sport teams, especially in the violent, contact sports, sometimes see themselves as civilian versions of an army, so they, too might claim these benefits of hazing. Sports teams likely got the idea for the custom from military organizations, and non-sports teams got it from their sporting counterparts as a “fun” thing to do.
    But in the end, I have no idea if hazing does actually do the things it is supposed to do and whether or not some other, more permissible behaviour could do the job instead. I also have no idea if on balance it does more harm than good even among the military. These are empirical questions, and I don’t know the answers to them. It likely depends on the specific nature of the hazing activities. But in the end, I doubt there is any justification for hazing in a chess club or a philosophy society.

  2. I don’t have a compelling rationale for hazing to offer. But I do want to question the characterization of hazing as next to torture, etc.
    Some of the items in the quotation sounded very bad. But some of them sounded trivial. For instance, swearing or “making” someone wear embarassing attire. Why would somebody be subject to expulsion or suspension for that? Don’t people have the right to swear or insult each other? (This seems a particularly trivial offense since the insults are probably known by all to be insincere.) If you run a private organization, don’t you have the right to set as a requirement on joining it that one perform some harmless action (like wearing ugly clothes)?

  3. I’ve always found it strange that all the attention seems to go to what the military does to enemy combatants when hardly anyone questions the same practices used on their own trainees. Aren’t the moral considerations much weaker against doing this when some issue of national security are at stake than they are when we’re just trying to train someone? Perhaps it’s immoral in both cases, or perhaps it’s perfectly permissible in both, but it seems strange to me to focus on the wrongness in the enemy combatant case when the other cases are at best no better and perhaps worse.

  4. Hmmmm, rightly or wrongly some PhD programs (and proseminars!) themselves can seem to involve:
    “personal servitude; sleep deprivation …yelling, swearing and insulting new members/rookies;”

  5. Jeremy,
    I think there are important differences between the trainee case and the detainee case. The trainee normally joined the organization voluntarily, and so may have (implicitly) consented to the rough treatment; the trainee is normally rewarded for enduring the treatment (e.g. the trainee may be promoted in the group’s hierarchy); the trainee is normally aware of approximately when the rough treatment will end; the trainee is normally given a reason to think that the rough treatment is, ultimately, in her own best interests (e.g. the trainee may have been exposed to some version of the argument David White suggested above); etc. I think all of these differences make the reasons against rough treatment of military detainees much stronger than the reasons against rough treatment of trainees in, say, the military (at least in the normal case).

  6. Michael Huemer wrote:
    “If you run a private organization, don’t you have the right to set as a requirement on joining it that one perform some harmless action (like wearing ugly clothes)?”
    One might even argue that a private organization has the right to require new members to perform harmful actions as well. So long as membership in the organization is fully voluntary and the nature of the harmful actions required are known in advance, then it ould be argued that any new joiners consent to the hazing, thus overriding the prohibition on harm. Just as with S&M between consenting adults we allow that the consent trumps the harm argument, people who know they will be paddled when they rush a fraternity can be said to have consented to the padelling. If they didn’t want to be paddled they could have chosen not to join up.
    The argument here gets hazier the more severe the harms, the less clear the nature (and severity) of hazing activities are known in advance, and the more one can make a case for there being pressures to join organizations that have hazing, but I bet more than a few people who have been hazed would say they had a general idea what was to come in advance and freely chose to join the club in questio anyway.

  7. Here is something that puzzles me, distinct from the question about consent and voluntariness. The original post asked about hazing by members of ‘student’ organizations. Comments have addressed military organizations, private organizations, and prisoners of war. A ‘student organization’ seems by definition to have an educational purpose. Is there an educational purpose that hazing serves? Military, professional, and social organizations might have justification if they are concerned to ensure a certain sort of commitment or character of their members. But I am puzzled that educators, which I assume most of us are or intend to be, haven’t asked if there is an educational goal served by hazing. David mentions chess clubs but his comment seems to assume chess clubs don’t have a reason for hazing rather than ask if any educational organization has justification for hazing.

  8. Robert wrote: “The original post asked about hazing by members of ‘student’ organizations. Comments have addressed military organizations, private organizations, and prisoners of war.”
    I mentioned sports teams, and was thinking particularly of hockey and football. Many universities have these. Also, there are ROTC programs on a lot of campuses, which would make a group both a student group and a military training one.
    “A ‘student organization’ seems by definition to have an educational purpose.”
    No. It just means that the membership comes from the student body of a particular school. Fraternities are, as I understand them, social organizations first and foremost. To quote from my university’s student union website, “Meeting people is easy. Whether you want to compare notes with students in your faculty, meet members of your ethnic community, or share a Hallmark moment with those who also enjoy smashing pianos, there is likely an SU club for you. And if there isn’t, why not take a page from the book of Max Fischer and start one? Or twelve? There is still no Beekeeping Club, Loathers of the Gilmore Girls Club, or Disaffected Cardigan Wearers’ Society.” But we do have a poker club, that meets just to play. People might learn something in the process, but that is not the purpose of the club.
    But the idea that you could have any kind of club on campus makes me wonder: Could a university have a hazing club and would it really be wrong to haze new members joining it?

  9. If a ‘student organization’ does not serve an educational purpose, then there should be no reason for faculty members, who are ‘educators’ to serve as advisors. Educational institutions should have no expectation that faculty members serve as advisors to ‘student organiazations.’ Rather, advisors could be hired from outside the ranks of the faculty, as athletic coaches are hired. If student organizations do not serve educational purposes, then educational institutions fees, employees, and resources such as (buildings, vehicles, and university names) are being given over to use for non-educational purposes. If ‘student organizations’ are merely social organizations then we would expect them to draw members from a wider population than students of a particular institution. It seems (to me) quite odd to radically divorce the activities of students, educators and educational institutions in support of ‘student organizations’ from the educational purposes of the institution that houses them.

  10. I am just wondering about the definitions of hazing. Football and boxing practice are likely to cause physical harm, at least in a minor way, but they are not hazing. And personal servitude, sleep deprivation (within broad limits) and hygiene restrictions are not physically harmful, hazardous, or sexually violating. I suppose they might cause some mental harm, but not much more than football practice causes bodily harm. So just as a matter of conceptual analysis, why are these practices hazing?

  11. To amplify on David White’s comments, I recall Joseph Campbell (the mythologist) in his interviews with Bill Moyers going into some detail about the painful initiation rites among peoples from all over the world. Especially for males, the idea, as Campbell took it, was that the men have to take away the boy (early teens) from the world of the women and forcibly introduce him into the world of the men (given his description of the rituals, this theme pretty apparent). One shocking example was some sort of crucifixion-type ritual that involved sticking wooden stakes in the initiate and hoisting him up by them for a long time. For his part, Campbell positively bemoaned the loss of painful initiation rites in our own culture, and claimed that the bulk of our problems with crime and “kids these days” had to do w/ the fact we had adults with adolescent personalities unshaped and untempered by painful ritual.
    There seems to be an academic project for listing various sorts of boyhood initiation rites, although a quick perusal of it shows that some of the rites listed occur at infancy, and some others are reserved for special castes or roles (i.e., making eunuchs). Nonetheless, it may be useful for someone looking for examples in writing a paper on this subject:
    In any case, I think the cross-cultural evidence will probably reveal that the view that painful initiation ceremonies are somehow psychologically productive of some sort good (those David White mentioned, e.g.) is the common wisdom. Of course, there is no shortage of common wisdom that’s plain foolishness, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind that cultures which survive for long periods of time don’t do so because they’re naïve about human nature.

  12. The definition in the quote of the original post is rather broad, and the remarks made by the poster indicate that it is taken to be fairly harmful (‘next to torture’). The difficulty is determining a way of getting the benefits (bonding, and maybe even keeping a tradition) without doing anything especially harmful to *anyone*. There is variety in people. Its (highly likely) true that what most believe -including prospective initiates – is on the whole not especially harmful, is not correct. Either you scrap anything that would harm anyone, or, I suggest, design a pre-test that examines what would be really harmful to a prospective initiate, and prohibit those sorts of initiations from being endured by them.

  13. Dan raises an interesting point, and it may well be that hazing (odd as it may seem) has psychological and, especially, social benefits.
    However, I would caution against concluding this from the limited sort of evidence that Joseph Campbell seems to have cited. If a practice has survived in many cultures, that at least shows that it doesn’t destroy one’s society. And maybe it confirms to some degree that the practice isn’t harmful to the perpetuation of one’s culture. But it’s a long way from there to the conclusion that it’s morally good, or even morally acceptable. (Example: Destroying other peoples and grabbing their resources helps one to perpetuate one’s culture. But it isn’t morally acceptable.)

  14. Another remark. I’m not sure why it’s the university’s business what initiation rituals fraternities are conducting off campus, even if they are done to university students. University students aren’t children, and the university isn’t their parents. The fact that you’re enrolled in a university (that you’re a customer of that school, in other words) does not make your life their business, except the parts of your life that have to do with your studies–any more than the fact that I frequent some restaurant makes the rest of my life the restaurant-owner’s business (even the things I do, say, with people I met at the restaurant).
    Of course, that’s not to say that some forms of hazing might not be seriously wrong. But I would think that stopping those sorts of things is more the business of the government and the police than a university.

  15. Great ideas as usual, everyone.
    Note that the second quote comes from an anti-hazing group. And my remark about torture wasn’t meant to suggest that all hazing is or resembles torture. Probably some hazing is flat out wrong (it’s hard to justify beatings and sexual assualt regardless of the their social or organizational benefits), some is just amped up -natured ribbing, with some in between. We could of course define hazing such that it encompasses everything bad in these definitions, or we could say these aren’t hazing but something else. Abuse? My own preference would be to keep the definition as descriptive and minimal as possible and then talk about which sorts of hazing, if any, are justified, but perhaps that can’t be done.
    One worry (alluded to in the discussion of consent) is the ‘quid pro quo’ aspect of hazing. First, consenting to something doesn’t always excuse it, does it? And why should some of the worse forms of hazing be a condition of membership in a group? Might not there be some things no can ask me to consent to even if I want the benefits of their “private” organization? (No answers here; just questions!)
    This of course raises the earlier point about group bonding, loyalty, sense of reliability, etc., being furthered by hazing. But how much loyalty, reliability, and the like do some of the groups that haze really need in order to be cohesive? Enough to justify hazing? It’s hard for me to see how fraternities need such a high level of loyalty, etc., in order to justify some of the hazing associated with their initiation rites. These are social organizations at heart, not life-or-death enterprises like the military. And if there is a need for loyalty, camaraderie, etc., couldn’t it be instilled in less harmful or humiliating ways?
    Finally, I think we might interrogate whether there’s some false consciousness here. I mean by this that many people have suggested that the ostensible aim of military torture (the acquisition of vital information) is not its deeper psychological significance. Instead, torturing ultimately aims at giving the torturer a kind of arbitrary power over the tortured in a situation of stress, frustration, and fear. (I think Elaine Scarry has written on this.) So is it possible there’s something similiar going on in hazing? That its facial purpose — instilling loyalty, etc. — conceals a more sinister motive, a similar desire for arbitrary authority or for breaking a person’s will?

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