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Valar Qringaomis

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Monday, September 22, 2014

St. Anne’s Girls, Fifty Pence a Night (or: the limits of Utilitarianism)

"There may be no knock-down argument for or against the claim that all moral goods can be translated without loss into a single measure of value. But here is a further case that calls the claim into question: In the 1970s, when I was a graduate student at Oxford, there were separate colleges for men and women. The women’s colleges had parietal rules against male guests staying overnight in women's rooms.

These rules were rarely enforced and easily violated, or so I was told. Most college officials no longer saw it as their role to enforce traditional notions of sexual morality. Pressure grew to relax these rules, which became a subject of debate at St. Anne’s College, one of the all-women colleges.

Some older women on the faculty were traditionalists. They opposed allowing male guests, on conventional moral grounds; it was immoral, they thought, for unmarried young women to spend the night with men. But times had changed, and the traditionalists were embarrassed to give the real grounds for their objection. So they translated their arguments into utilitarian terms. “If men stay overnight,” they argued, “the costs to the college will increase.” How, you might wonder? “Well, they’ll want to take baths, and that will use more hot water.” Furthermore, they argued, “we will have to replace the mattresses more often.”

The reformers met the traditionalists’ arguments by adopting the following compromise: Each woman could have a maximum of three overnight guests each week, provided each guest paid fifty pence per night to defray the costs to the college. The next day, the headline in the Guardian read, “St. Anne’s Girls, Fifty Pence a Night.” The language of virtue had not translated very well into the language of utility. Soon thereafter, the parietal rules were waived altogether, and so was the fee."

--- Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? / Michael J. Sandel
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