Sanctions: ToK is generally useless… but oddly helpful in this specific circumstance.

By Jake Lupu

It would not seem unjustified to claim that 90% of all IB students, at least once in their Theory of Knowledge career, think to themselves ‘ToK is useless.’ For some of them that thought remains at the forefront of their mind, consuming all focus. I’m not here to debate whether or not this subject is useful. That would be a pointless discussion. Instead, I’m here to say “No, look! You can apply ethic tools learnt in ToK to real-life applications!”

Screenshot of the mention of sanctions in Mr Zurfluh’s Special Update email

The real-life application I mean here are the “sanctions” mentioned in Mr Zurfluh’s Special Update from January 19th, 2021. Following the incident of families not being 100% truthful in the daily Ok4School survey, and the mention of sanctions, the atmosphere in school got heavier. Even though I was glad that the “majority of our families are working hard to make the right decisions and follow our guidelines,” I too was concerned about the implications this caused. 

Two cases where people weren’t wholly honest on the survey have been found. While it’s great that it has come to light, one thought has stayed on my mind. 

‘How many others are not disclosing all the information on the survey?’ And how many people have lied, are lying, and will continue to lie on their surveys? 

I recently reviewed the recording of the Town Hall meeting (link). As I wasn’t in the Zoom meeting, I can’t speak for the mood of that. However, the overall feeling I got from the Town Hall recording was rather tense, perhaps even bordering on slight hostility due to some of the anonymous comments.

It’s hard to overlook the elephant in the room when questions such as “What kind of sanctions are you planning to implement to parents being sponsors of all teachers and administrators in terms of not following YOUR rules?” arise. There was even a rather passive-aggressive statement of “Referring to yesterday’s email from school principal [I think meaning the director here], we parents expect a more respectful way of communication.” (These comments were posted anonymously to the Sli.do website used to solicit questions and feedback for the Town Hall.)

I know from personal experience that there were also quite a few discussions amongst students regarding the aforementioned sanctions, with opinions being split. The majority also seemed to agree that filling out the Ok4School survey every single day is bothersome. 

Kant’s Universality Test (also known as Kant’s Categorical Imperative) is one of the many ethics tools we learnt in ToK that can be applied to understanding this situation. In essence, this part of Kantian ethics asks us to consider what would happen if everyone else did that? 

To apply the Categorical Imperative to lying on the surveys, imagine this: someone is running late one morning, and decides that they will save time by not taking their temperature. They fill out the survey while on their way to school. For Question 1 they write in a random number, perhaps going off the temperature they had the day before. “I’m going to get my temperature taken when I go into school,” they reason while filling out the remainder of the survey, “it’s gonna be fine.” Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. 

What if everyone did this, however? What if everyone, for one reason or another, put in a random number for the temperature? That would be pretty bad. And, to take it even further, what if everyone lied on all the questions, not just the first one? Call me a pessimist, but that just seems like a surefire recipe for a superspreader event (or at least a very big disaster). 

In my mind, this is what sanctions would be designed to prevent. We’ve already seen that trusting people to make the right choices is not foolproof. Sanctions, to bring up the ‘swiss cheese model,’ would just be another layer of protection. Given the indignant sentiments revealed by this incident — be it lying because of laziness, or to escape online learning — it seems like sanctions are very much needed.

After all, we need to “work together. Because without us all, we’re nothing.”

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