Thursday, August 29, 2013

Justice and Mercy


I used to give my mother-in-law a hard time because the first part of the newspaper she looked at every morning was the obituaries.  I haven’t adopted that habit, but now that I have reached the stage in life where being referred to as middle-aged is a compliment, it doesn’t seem quite as amusing.

Recently I saw that the father of a former student had passed away.  A classical guitarist who had immigrated to the United States to receive a kidney transplant, he seemed to be on death’s doorstep 20 years ago, so I was surprised that he had lived this long. 

Seeing his obituary made me recall my proudest counseling moment. His son was bright, strong-willed, and rebellious, and his junior year could have inspired a soap opera or reality show.  He chafed under rules and expectations that were minimal, scored high enough on the PSAT to be a National Merit Semifinalist but didn’t have grades to match, shaved his head for shock effect, and in late January disappeared for a week.  It turned out he was visiting a girl at a college in the Midwest.

During the last month of school he was convicted of back-to-back honor offenses.  Both could be categorized as stupid rather than deceitful, but at St. Christopher’s the Honor System is the foundation underpinning everything that happens at the School, the line you don’t cross, and an upperclassman with multiple offenses is in deep trouble.  Both the faculty and his peers were at the end of their ropes, and the Honor Council recommended expulsion.

The Headmaster consulted me before acting on the recommendation.  We agreed that the boy wasn’t a bad kid, just immature and stuck in a bad home situation.  At the same time, it wasn’t in his or the community’s best interest to remain.  We finally arrived at a creative solution—either expel him or get him into college early.

And that’s what happened.  A good liberal-arts college (the same one he had visited for a week in January) was willing to offer him admission without a high-school diploma.  We didn’t expel him, he was accepted to college early, and four years later he graduated with honors, after which he wrote me the kind of thank-you note I’ve received only rarely in my career.  It meant even more because of the back story.

A guiding principle in ethics is “Treat like cases alike.”  The challenge, of course, is that rarely are two cases alike.  Every ethical dilemma brings with it a unique combination of circumstances and considerations and requires its own calculus.  That calculus must balance the interests of the individual with those of the community, as well as balancing justice with mercy.  Rarely is it possible to find a solution that accomplishes both, which is what made the previous case so satisfying.  

I have been thinking about the interplay between justice and mercy recently thanks to one of last year’s seniors.  He was an excellent student and school citizen who early last fall came down with a mysterious malady that ended up taking away most of his senior year.  He couldn’t sleep or hold down food and quickly fell way behind academically.  He went to numerous doctors and received numerous diagnoses and treatments, but none made him better.

By the end of September it was clear that the best case scenario was a significant drop in grades, and he decided to apply Early Decision to college so that senior year grades would not come into play.  I was okay with that approach, given that he was a strong candidate for a school he wanted to attend, but I cautioned him and his family that the college would need to be made aware of his situation eventually.

The challenge of the school year, and especially the senior year, is that you can’t call time out and stop the clock.  Christmas break offers one of the only concentrated periods of time when a student might catch up after falling behind.  When January arrived, the student’s health issues remained serious and undiagnosed, it was clear that he would only be able to complete two of his first semester classes, and we knew that we had to, in the words of my GPS, “Recalculate.”  The good news was that he was in college.

As a school we were trying to be sensitive and supportive of the boy and his family, but the situation raised some difficult practical and philosophical questions.  What should we do about the courses he wasn’t physically able to complete?  Is earning a high school diploma about earning a minimal number of credits or about a certain quality of experience?  What was our duty to the student, and what was our responsibility to the college he wanted to attend?  If Woody Allen is correct that 90% of life is showing up, what happens when you can’t even do that on a regular basis?

I struggled to sort out my ethical obligations.  In any ethical dilemma, there are multiple duties involved.  The philosopher W.D. Ross argued that ethical duties arise from relationships, and that every relationship carries with it what he calls a prima facie (or first glance) duty.  In this case I had a duty to the student.  I also had a duty to my school, I had a duty to the college, I had a duty to the profession, and I had a duty to my core values as an individual.  Unfortunately Ross only tells you how to identify possible duties, not how to choose among them.

It wasn’t until March that doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed the student as having postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).  Having a diagnosis and knowing that it was treatable and not chronic was a relief for everyone, but finding the right combination and dosage levels of medications remained a challenge, and hopes for being able to come to school on a regular basis proved overly optimistic.   

As a school we were trying to do the right thing, balancing mercy and justice.  The family didn’t want to consider a repeat senior year.  The college said they would allow him to come if I/we certified that he was ready.  How could I do that, when he wasn’t healthy enough to come to school more than a period a day and would finish his senior year with 1.5 credits?  At the same time, he hadn’t chosen to get sick, and an important moral principle is that you can’t judge or punish someone for things they haven’t chosen.

He finished the school year one-half credit shy of the minimum number required to graduate.  We allowed him to walk at graduation, and gave him two options for earning a diploma.  He could take an on-line course during the summer to get the final credit or we would give him a diploma at the end of his first semester in college.  Of course the family didn’t like either option, and asked us to give him academic credit for therapy he did at the Mayo Clinic during the month of July.

The student started college a week ago.  He seems healthy and ready, but he has also essentially missed a year of school.  I don’t know that we achieved either mercy or justice, and I don’t know that we came up with the “right” answer.  Sometimes an okay answer has to be good enough.    

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