In Defence of Trashing

Written by University of Oxford DPhil student, Tena Thau

Prior to this year’s final exams, Oxford University announced a crackdown on “trashing,” the post-exam tradition of dousing finalists in champagne, ‘silly string,’ confetti, and the like.   In conjunction with this announcement, the University released a memo outlining its objections to trashing.

In Part I of this post, I will present a point-by-point refutation of the arguments made in this memo. In Part II, I will sketch out what I think is the central moral concern with trashing: that it is an expression of elitism.  I will conclude that this ‘elitism objection’ to trashing should be rejected, showing why it is not trashing – but rather, the campaign against it – that is guilty of elitism.

Part I: The University’s Objections to Trashing

The University’s anti-trashing document lays out four objections to trashing. These are:

  1. Trashing is a “waste of food.”
  2. Trashing is a “waste of money.”
  3. Trashing is a “wasted opportunity to celebrate in style.”
  4. Trashing is “dangerous.”

I will respond to each of these objections in turn, but first, a preliminary note.  Even if all of the above anti-trashing arguments turn out to be true, it doesn’t follow that trashing is, all things considered, morally wrong.  This is because any moral considerations against trashing would need to be weighed against the benefit of trashing: the enjoyment that students get from taking part.

Objection 1: Trashing is “a waste of food.”

The University points out that many people who live in Oxford are food-insecure, and concludes that it is wrong to waste food on trashing.  (Food items, such as eggs and ketchup, are sometimes thrown during trashings.)

There are several ways that this objection might be interpreted.

Interpretation 1: Trashing results in less food going to those in need.

Often, when we object to someone wasting a resource, our objection has to do with how that resource otherwise would have been used.  For example, we criticize corrupt government officials when they spend government money on personal luxuries, because they are wasting money that would have gone towards important government programmes.  However, when students throw food during a trashing – unless they have stolen that food from a food bank – they are not wasting food that would have otherwise been donated to the homeless.  So this objection doesn’t apply.

Rather than appealing to where the food would have gone, we might appeal to where the food should have gone.  This leads us to:

Interpretation 2: Food that is used during trashings (or the money used to purchase it) should have instead been donated to those in need.

If we accept this claim, it must be because of some moral principle that requires us to donate our money and resources whenever doing so would benefit others substantially more than keeping it would benefit ourselves.[1]

However, if this principle were true, it would have radical implications.  For starters, it would be wrong to purchase the sub fusc that the University requires students to wear to sit exams (which they subsequently wear during trashings), because that money could have instead been donated to those in need.

I do not mean to suggest that these implications constitute a reductio of the aforementioned moral principle; perhaps our moral obligations do require a radical revision of conventional morality.  But unless the University is prepared to accept the implications of a moral principle like this, it cannot consistently hold that food that is used in trashings should have been donated to those in need.

Interpretation 3: It is hurtful for people who are homeless to see food being wasted in trashings.

Perhaps the objection is not that the food would have been donated or should have been donated, but rather, that it is hurtful for people who are homeless (or otherwise food-insecure) to see the food wasted.  For example, a Cambridge student made headlines last year for burning a 20-pound note in front of a homeless person. We found this action repugnant, not because we thought the student was under any sort of moral obligation to donate the 20 pounds, but rather, because of the distress they caused the homeless person, by burning the note in front of their eyes.

As University proctors Cecile Fabre and Mark Edwards wrote in an email to students, the “needless waste of food” involved in trashing “is an aggravation of [homeless people’s] distress.”

However, part of what made the burning of the note so objectionable was the maliciousness with which it was done; the student clearly intended to cause the homeless person pain.  But maliciousness is not present in the case of trashing.

But could students’ wasting of food be distressing for homeless people to witness nevertheless?

I interviewed one man who is homeless, Angeles Carl Osharu*, to ask his opinions on trashing.  The objections he raised to trashing had to do with his concern for others, rather than any concern for himself; Angeles worried that students could injure themselves when they jumped in the river after getting trashed, and that some ill-spirited students might trash their peers in a way that resembled bullying rather than celebration.  When I asked him what he thought of the argument that trashing is a waste of food and might be hurtful to those who were food-insecure, he responded with a definitive “No.” “They bought their food. It’s their choice what they do with their food,” he said.

Of course, homeless people are not a monolith. The fact that Angeles was not offended by trashing does not mean that there are not others who are. But there are other reasons to doubt that trashing would cause the distress that Fabre and Edwards assume it does.

First, witnessing the wastefulness (in the form of frivolous spending) of others is already a part of homeless people’s daily existence.  For example, just down the street from one of Oxford’s homeless shelters is Westgate, a new, 440 million dollar shopping complex.  Given that the waste involved in trashing is so minor, and that visible manifestations of wasteful spending are ever-present, it seems unlikely that trashing would have a measurable impact on homeless people’s distress. Besides, homeless people have many things to worry about. Whether or not some 20-year-olds squirt each other with ketchup seems like the least of their concerns.

Objection 2: Trashing is “a waste of money.”

The University’s anti-trashing document points out trashing “costs the University more than £25,000 each year” in security and clean up costs.

However, given that Oxford has 11,728 undergraduate students, the cost to the University of trashing is only £2.13 per student per year.  This does not seem unreasonable, especially when you compare it to, say, the £100+ cost of a ticket to an Oxford ball.[2]

Objection 3: Trashing is “a wasted opportunity to celebrate in style.”

As the University writes: “Students aren’t allowed in the local pubs or restaurants if they have been trashed.”

If the University intended this to be an argument for the moral wrongness of trashing, it seems implausible.  Moral philosophers agree that individuals have duties to others (e.g. refraining from harming others, benefiting others when it is possible to do so at little cost to oneself), but it is controversial whether individuals have any duties to themselves.  If there are self-regarding moral duties, however, they are surely not so extensive as to include a moral requirement to seize available opportunities to celebrate in style. (And even if this requirement did exist, it would need to compete with the far more pressing moral requirement to seize available opportunities to celebrate in silly string.)

Perhaps the University did not intend for this to be an argument for the moral wrongness of trashing, but just wanted to offer this as an added benefit of their trashing ban: students will have a better time ‘celebrating in style’ than they will being ‘trashed.’ However, surely students themselves are better judges than University administrators of how they would like to celebrate the completion of their exams.

Objection 4: Trashing is “dangerous[3].”

The University states that “trashing has resulted in students and residents being admitted to the hospital through slipping on trashing materials.”

But absent further information on the frequency or severity of trashing related injuries, or any reason to believe that trashing is particularly dangerous compared to other forms of celebration, this objection is not persuasive.  Even the University’s suggested alternative to trashing is not risk-free;  “celebrating in style” at a “local pub,” after all, comes with all of the risks associated with alcohol consumption.

Part II: The Elitism Objection

I have argued that the memo’s four objections to trashing fail.  However, the possibility remains that there is some other objection to trashing that succeeds.

Maybe the problem with trashing has to do with the sense of entitlement and elitism it seems to express. Fabre and Edwards drew an analogy to the Bullingdon Club, an all-male drinking society with exclusionary membership fees, known for vandalizing restaurants and paying for damages on the spot.

However, the Bullingdon Club example is disanalogous from trashing in several important respects.

First, when the Bullingdon Club vandalizes a restaurant, there is an identifiable set of people who they directly harm: the restaurant’s owner and staff.[4]  However, in the case of trashing it is difficult to identify anyone who is harmed by students’ celebrations.

Second, part of what makes the Bullingdon Club’s actions so repellent – and distinct from ordinary vandalism – is the way that they use their wealth to get away with it.  The same cannot be said for trashing.  However, if the University started imposing the £300 fines for trashing that it has threatened (thus far the trashing “ban” appears to be almost entirely unenforced), this would, ironically, have the effect of making trashing more like the Bullingdon Club; wealthy students would be able to get away with flouting the ban by paying the fine.[5]

Relatedly, a third disanalogy between trashing and the Bullingdon Club is that Bullingdon’s high membership costs – their mandatory ‘uniform’ alone runs in the thousands of pounds – make it accessible only to the wealthiest, most privileged students. But trashing has, thus far, been a tradition accessible to all. (This would change, though, if the University follows through with its threats of fines.)

Moreover, trashing itself can even be seen as an expression of anti-elitism.  After all, students could choose to celebrate completing their degree at one of the top universities in the world by dressing up and going to a fancy restaurant to – in the University’s words – “celebrate in style.” But there is something charming about how Oxford students choose, instead, to celebrate by covering each other in silly string.  Trashing seems like something of an act of self-deprecation, the opposite of elitism.

In Part I, I pointed out that many of the objections that the University raises to trashing would also apply to activities that the university encourages.  For instance, the University criticizes trashing for being a “waste of money,” but Oxford’s many balls are vastly more expensive. So why does the University single out trashing for criticism?

I suspect that the answer to this question – which is suggested by the University’s  point about ‘celebrating in style’ – is that trashing violates University administrators’ sense of decorum: their idea of the proper way for an Oxford student to look, behave, and celebrate.  Students attending a ball, dressed in their suits and gowns, conform to this ideal; students covered in shaving cream do not.

It seems, then, that it is not the students taking part in trashing who are guilty of elitism – but the University administrators trying to stop them.

*Angeles gave written permission to be quoted in this piece.

[1] (Philosopher Peter Singer endorses an even more demanding version of the principle Famine, Affluence, and Morality, suggesting we should “give until we reach the level of marginal utility – that is, the level at which, by giving more, [we] would cause as much suffering to [ourselves] as I would relieve by [our donation].” An implication of this principle, Singer suggests, is that we should donate almost all of our money and resources, until we have “reduced [ourselves] down to “very near the material circumstances of a [starving person].”

[2] One disanalogy is that tickets for balls are paid for voluntarily by students who choose to attend, while the cost of clean up and security at trashings is paid for by the University (and passed on to students, in a non-voluntary way, through the cost of their tuition).  However, if the University wanted to make the cost of trashing “voluntary,” they could simply charge students who wanted to get trashed a fee (which could be waived for low-income students) of a few pounds, which they would need to pay to enter designated trashing areas (a suggestion I owe to Richard Ngo).

[3] The memo states that trashing is “disruptive” (to students who are sitting their exams) as well as dangerous, but acknowledges that disruption can be avoided by conducting trashing “away from exam centres.”  Since the disruptiveness point is presented as an argument in favor of relocating trashing rather than as an argument against trashing at all, I have omitted it from this discussion.

[4] The money the Bullingdon Club pays in compensation may be sufficiently great that the restaurant staff and owners are not harmed in the “all-things-considered” sense.  But the fact that many restaurants in Oxford now refuse to take the Bullingdon Club’s bookings indicates that the money they pay does not fully make up for the harm that they cause.

[5] I owe this point to Tom Douglas.

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4 Responses to In Defence of Trashing

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    Interesting and thoughtful post Tena.
    I think Objection 2. (Waste of Money) needs a bit more consideration. It is wanton littering. I don’t see why anyone should be able to flout laws on littering, with the University cleaning up after students like one does after small children. Sandel, with whom I generally disagree, also has this argument that this is not the kind of obligation one should be able to pay one’s way out of – See his Things Money Can’t Buy (or something like that). I think the celebrating students should clean up after themselves. When you throw a party, you should clean up afterwards, not leave it to your parents, or do gooders, or your University. Sadly, I have to agree with Sandel: there is something wrong with paying other people to clean up the mess you make in a public place.

  • Eric Sheng says:

    Concerning Objection 2: a difference between the expenses of trashing and a ball ticket is that, for a ball ticket, the beneficiary pays, but for trashing, bystanders (e.g., undergraduates and indeed graduate students who don’t get trashed) have to pay too. The objection might be best understood not as getting too small an aggregate benefit for the money spent, but as X getting no benefit for X’s money spent, where X is someone who doesn’t get trashed: i.e., for students who don’t get trashed, trashing is a waste of their money. Granted, students who pay fees implicitly contract with the university that the latter spend their fees not just on their education but also on non-educational operations such as cleaning. But it is surely also part of that implicit contract, and students can reasonably expect, that the university should, consistently with certain standards, minimise the cost of such operations, and thus to prevent trashing.

    • Eric Sheng says:

      And of course any objections to littering in general apply. The odorous mess trashing creates, and the barriers used for security, do inconvenience those of us who live on or by Merton Street, as well as anyone who needs to drive through.

  • grosse merde says:

    Top post !

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