Robert Champion, a Florida A&M University student, died on November 19 in Orlando. It is believed that his death might have resulted from a hazing incident. FAMU, where I teach philosophy, has a history of unfortunate hazing incidents involving our famous band. While FAMU is currently in the spotlight, hazing is still all too common on American campuses-despite efforts to combat the practice.
The administration acted quickly by firing the band director, Julian White. White is fighting his dismissal by contending that certain administrators showed “reckless indifference” when he attempted to seriously address the matter of hazing. There is considerable evidence that White was, in fact, actively engaged in a dedicated attempt to eradicate hazing. Examples include his suspension of individuals for hazing and addressing the various problematic sub-groups within the band. Colleagues I have spoken with regarding White have spoken well of him and noted his efforts to combat hazing.
If Robert Champion was killed in a hazing incident, this clearly shows that things went terribly wrong. However, there is the question of who is at fault. Obviously, the brunt of the moral responsibility would rest on those who (allegedly) killed him. As noted above, White was fired over this death, thus indicating that the people who made the decision are placing the blame on him.
As the band director, White clearly has considerable responsibility for what goes on in the band. However, this does not automatically entail that he is responsible for the death of Robert Champion. As noted above, White contends that his attempts to address hazing were hampered by administrators. If this is the case and White fulfilled his duties conscientiously, then the moral and legal blame would then shift upwards to those who would have failed in their duties.
While initiation rituals and legitimate admission trials can be acceptable practices (for example, I had to run faster than other team mates to secure a spot on the varsity cross country team in college), crossing the line past which people can be harmed (or even killed) is unacceptable. After all, harming a person is only just when doing so serves some legitimate moral purpose. Abusing someone as part of some tradition or to test their willingness to endure senseless degradation to belong to a group would not be acceptable. People should, as Kant argued, be treated as being of moral worth. Abusive hazing practices clearly violate the dignity of the person and hence should not be tolerated. Those practices that inflict actual harm are clearly wrong and, of course, are criminal actions.
As noted above, I do accept the legitimacy of some initiation rituals as well as certain trials of admission. However, the rituals need to respect the dignity of the person and must not inflict abuse or harm. Being a competitive athlete, I am well aware that admission trials can be legitimate. As I noted above, I had to earn a spot on the varsity cross country team by competing against my fellow runners. As another example, those who wish to be Navy Seals need to endure a brutal admissions process. However, these admission trials are legitimate. In the case of cross country teams, a person must earn the spot on the team and this is done by being a better runner. In the case of the Seals, a person must qualify by enduring what a Seal will encounter in his professional activities.
In the case of a band, it does make sense to have people compete for places via competitions in performance. However, the sort of physical abuse that has occurred in hazing incidents clearly has no relevance to being in the band. While a Seal might need to be tested to see how he would stand up to interrogation by the enemy, a band member has no need to be tested to see how many whacks with a paddle s/he can endure. As such, such treatment is simply abuse and must not be tolerated.
My personal view of abusive hazing is that it is a sign of both moral evil and a pathologically defective psychological makeup that would seem to include sadism as well as profound lack of respect for the dignity and worth of other people. Naturally, the people who engage in hazing speak of the tradition of the practice (which is, of course, fallacious reasoning) and note that people need to show their commitment. While I do believe in the importance of commitment, this is not something that should be tested by paddling a band member until he suffers kidney damage or abusing him until he dies.