A Philosopher's Blog

Should Fraternities Be Banned?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 3, 2014
Members of a fraternity displaying their new h...

Members of a fraternity displaying their new heart brands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having been in academics quite some time, I am familiar with an unfortunate pattern involving the Greek system on American campuses. Something awful will happen involving a fraternity or sorority, such as a gang rape or hazing death. Then there will be a backlash and a surge in calls for banning fraternities (and sometimes sororities). This will be followed by some administrative action, such as hiring well-paid consultants to address the image problem and creating some new bureaucratic post on campus. Academics will write a few highly theoretical articles about the Greek system. The media will cover the event, squeezing it for the blood and pain that the news cycle feeds upon.  At the end of a specific event is the return to “normalcy” which terminates with the next terrible incident that grabs the attention of the media.

The latest cycle has been started by a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at UVA. As with other awful incidents, events are playing out following the usual script: media coverage, calls for action, theoretical academic papers being crafted in the hopes of advancing careers, and so on. It must be noted that many people are acting in good faith: they want things to change for the better. As in past incidents, there is a call to ban fraternities from campuses.

The main moral argument for banning fraternities is utilitarian: the existence of fraternities is claimed to create more harm than good, thus making their removal morally correct. In terms of the harms, the catalog is hardly surprising and certainly matches the usual intuitions about campus life in general and fraternities in particular.

First, while college students are generally heavy drinkers, members of fraternities are significantly more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking (75%) than the general college population of men (49%). This heavier drinking also entails that fraternity members suffer more from the negative effects of heavy drinking (such as injuries and academic problems). In addition to alcohol, fraternity members also abuse drugs (prescription and otherwise) at higher rates than non-fraternity members. Sorority members are also more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking than their non-Greek counterparts.

Second, fraternity members are much more likely than non-fraternity members to commit sexual assault. It must, however, be noted that most fraternity men never commit sexual assault. While there is some disagreement about the causes, this is typically linked to the greater abuse of alcohol, group psychology and fraternity culture. Sorority members are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-Greek counterparts. This is also linked to alcohol abuse and cultural factors.

Third, there is hazing. On average, about one person is killed per year due to a hazing incident. Others are injured or otherwise harmed. Most fraternities officially ban hazing, but it obviously does occur. Obviously, hazing is not confined to fraternities—my own Florida A&M University lost a student, Robert Champion, to band hazing in 2011. While sororities apparently engage in hazing, fraternities are the ones that make the news the most often.

These harms power the argument for banning fraternities (and sororities) on the basis of the claim that getting rid of them will reduce the harms in question. To be specific, if fraternities cause their members to abuse alcohol, commit sexual assault and haze more than they would otherwise, then getting rid of them would reduce (but obviously not eliminate) these problems.

One response to this argument is to argue that banning fraternities would not have the desired effect. The reasoning behind this response is that fraternities merely collect together people who would behave badly on their own anyway and hence a ban would not have a significant impact. This does have some appeal in that non-fraternity members do binge drink, do commit sexual assault and do engage in hazing.

This response can be countered by arguing that a fraternity does not just collect together people who would behave badly on their own, the social dynamics and culture of the fraternity plays a causal role in this bad behavior. That is, the group dynamics changes individual behavior and a man who is in a fraternity is more likely to behave badly because of that membership. Given the studies of group dynamics, this does have considerable appeal: people do generally behave differently in groups and most are easily swayed by cultural factors and peer pressure.

Another response to the argument for banning fraternities is to admit that fraternities do cause some problems, but to counter by arguing that the good they create outweighs the harms. In defense of fraternities, people typically point to some of the following benefits.

First, fraternities often engage in charity work and community service—they do good things for the campus and general community. While I was not in a fraternity in college, many of my friends were and they certainly did many good things. As a faculty member and a member of the community, I also see the good works done by fraternity members.

Second, fraternities provide opportunities for leadership, brotherhood and the forging of social connections that often prove incredibly useful later in life. Fraternities have a well-established history of producing leaders in various fields, such as business and politics.

These benefits do have their appeal and it must be noted that some fraternities are include upstanding and outstanding men who do good on campus and go on to do good after they graduate. These positive factors should not be simply ignored or dismissed.

That said, as with any utilitarian calculation, the positive factors must be weighed against the negative factors. In this case, the question is whether the positive aspects of having fraternities on campus outweighs the negative aspects. There is also the closely related question of whether banning them would create more good than harm.

This is partially a matter of facts—the statistics about drinking, sexual assault and so on are factually matters and should thus be addressed by the usual rational means of assessment. However, it is obviously also a matter of value in regards to how much weight is placed on each positive and each negative factor. To use a somewhat dramatic example, this would involve questions about how many sexual assaults are offset by fraternity contributions to networking, leadership development and campus service. While some would be inclined to take the view that the number would be zero, it must be noted that we routinely tolerate horrible consequences in return for positive consequences. For example, tens of thousands of people die each year due to automobile accidents, yet we still tolerate driving. So, weighing the horrible against the positive is, sadly, a matter of how things are done. And, for utilitarian calculations, how they should be done. The obvious practical problem is that people disagree in these evaluations and such disagreements need to be settled in order to make a decision. Obviously enough, defenders of the fraternity system would contend the positives outweigh the negative. Detractors would claim the reverse.

Naturally, there are alternative moral approaches to utilitarianism. For example, one might take the view that to weigh the benefits of fraternities against the fact that fraternity men are significantly more likely to engage in sexual assault is a moral travesty. The fraternities should be shut down, it might be argued, because sexual assault is to be prevented. While this does have some appeal, the same reasoning could be pushed to the entire university system: since sexual assault occurs on campus and eliminating campuses would eliminate sexual assault on campus, campuses should be eliminated. This can, obviously enough, also be countered.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Given the harms associated with fraternities, there is clearly a moral case for eliminating them. That said, there are some positive aspects to the fraternity system that can support a moral case for preserving them, presumably with some extensive reforms.

In any case, this cycle spins on. If it follows past patterns, people will soon forget about the UVA case and matters will go back to “normal.” Then some new horror will emerge involving a fraternity and it will start again.


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  1. T. J. Babson said, on December 3, 2014 at 8:27 am

    All the Title IX legislation that was passed with the idea of helping women is now there for men. I’m not sure it would be legal to ban fraternities without banning sororities at the same time, as it sounds like a rather blatant Title IX violation.

    • WTP said, on December 5, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      Thoughts on this, TJ? From those evil right-wing frat boys at the WaPo:

      A lawyer for the University of Virginia fraternity whose members were accused of a brutal gang rape said Friday that the organization will release a statement rebutting the claims printed in a Rolling Stone article about the incident. Several of the woman’s close friends and campus sex assault awareness advocates said that they also doubt the published account.

      Officials close to the fraternity said that the statement will indicate that Phi Kappa Psi did not host a party on Sept. 28, 2012, the night that a university student named Jackie alleges she was invited to a date party, lured into an upstairs room and was then ambushed and gang-raped by seven men who were rushing the fraternity.

      The officials also said that no members of the fraternity were employed at the university’s Aquatic Fitness Center during that time frame — a detail Jackie provided in her account to Rolling Stone and in interviews with The Washington Post — and that no member of the house matches the description detailed in the Rolling Stone account.

      The attorney, Ben Warthen, who has represented Phi Kappa Psi, said the statement would come out Friday afternoon. He declined to comment further.

      Capt. Gary Pleasants of the Charlottesville police department said that detectives are looking into the allegations at the request of the university but declined to comment on the status of that investigation.

      Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, also released a statement with new doubt. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” he said in a statement.


      • T. J. Babson said, on December 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm

        The story was too good to check.

        • WTP said, on December 5, 2014 at 6:02 pm

          Or too good of a reason not to bash fraternities. Or as one Twitterer said:

          “I can’t state this more emphatically: If Jackie’s story is partially or wholly untrue, it doesn’t validate the reasons for disbelieving her.”

          Shows what an education from Loyola University Chicago with degrees in Sociology and Cultural Anthropology will do for your critical thinking skillz.

          • T. J. Babson said, on December 5, 2014 at 7:14 pm

            You misspelled skillz, WTP. It only has one “l,” skilz.

            • wtp said, on December 5, 2014 at 10:42 pm

              Actually one short. Meant the lizard brain version of “skilllz”.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 6, 2014 at 7:01 pm

            Well, evidence that a story is not true does tend to validate actual reasons for disbelieving the story.

            It would not validate irrelevant reasons, though. So, if someone doubted the story because he thinks all women lie, the fact that the story is not true would not prove that all women lie.

            • wtp said, on December 7, 2014 at 10:48 am

              Leave it to Mike to defend one of the stupidest things said on the internet in the past week. And in doing so builds a huge strawman. So, if someone doubted the story because he thinks all women lie Who is this man, Mike? Is he in any position of responsibility or, like most of this article, a character in a fantasy world of leftist imagination?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2014 at 5:07 pm

              I did not claim anyone said that.

              My point is that showing that a claim is false does not automatically validate every claim that could be used to refute that claim.

            • WTP said, on December 8, 2014 at 5:38 pm

              TJ, can you parse for me wtf Mike is saying here? Did he not say ” if someone doubted the story because he thinks all women lie, the fact that the story is not true would not prove that all women lie.”? Who manufactured this mythical beast? I see nothing in the original quote about a unicorn, leprechaun, or any other entity who “thinks all women lie”. I didn’t say it.

            • wtp said, on December 8, 2014 at 9:58 pm

              Good god. I think I’ve parsed it..that second sentence, that is. You’re saying that because 1 + 1 != 3, this does not validate 1 + 1 = 4. Presuming, IOW straw man, made such a claim. But of course the original quote did not say “some of the reasons for disbelieving her”, it said “the reasons for believing her”. The definitive article. But of course you must misrepresent the original text in order to make a pitifully weak and effectively irrelevant point. Semantic games. This is how ethics works, eh? You’re despicable.

            • wtp said, on December 8, 2014 at 10:01 pm

              Obviously that should be “the reasons for disbelieving her”. Had to point that out lest Mike be a d!ck and use it to make some irrelevant point.

            • WTP said, on December 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm

              But then of course…

              That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 6, 2014 at 6:58 pm

          Rolling Stone dropped the ball on that. They violated a basic rule of ethical journalism in regards to allegations of misdeeds. To be specific, they needed to check on not only the accuser but the accused. One harm from this is that of crying wolf: people will be even more inclined to doubt real reports in the future. There is also the harm done to the school, the fraternity and the community.

          • ronster12012 said, on December 10, 2014 at 11:32 am


            Dropped the ball?? Journalists seem to be incredibly gullible when a potential story meshes with their biases.

            The story reeks of hoax. Raped for three hours by seven men on shards of glass from a broken coffee table? Punched in the face and then raped with a beer bottle but no police complaint laid after being dissuaded by her friends who fear that they will not be invited to other frat parties? Oh really?Apparently too, this “rape” occurred at the wrong time of year for fraternity initiations. Are these so called journalists just dumb kids or are they simply on a mission?

            As there have been so many rape hoaxes it is perhaps better to withhold judgement until actual conviction especially in the case of high profile cases where other agendas may be in play. I don’t think that there is any evidence that women are less prone to lying than men and in some cases seem to have fewer scruples than men in making false allegations. Perhaps the reluctance of courts to jail female false accusers(to a similar sentence the accused would have served) sends the wrong message and encourages their sense of entitlement.

            As for the question of whether fraternities should be banned, what about the rights of freedom of association? Arguing from a utilitarian POV, is there a net benefit for society in abolishing the rights to free association?There is also the issue of collective punishment by banning all for the alleged sins of the few. Arguing from another POV, should sororities be similarly banned, and if not would that be simply just blatant discrimination.

            • WTP said, on December 10, 2014 at 11:56 am

              Journalists seem to be incredibly gullible when a potential story meshes with their biases.

              Stick around a while. You’ll find journalists are not alone there.

              In general, you may find this interesting if you haven’t already. Not sure if you’re familiar (from Oz, yes?) The Scottsborough Boys case at one time was a very well known and oft referenced item well into the 1980’s here.


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 10, 2014 at 6:05 pm

              Journalists are like other people-we all want to believe what matches our world view. But, journalists are supposed to be on guard against that and they usually have the time to consider the matter as they research and write.

              As you note, the story has some serious problems. While there is some reason to believe that something did happen to her, there is now a rather serious credibility problem.

              The right of association, when not coerced or duped, is a basic moral right. So, it should only be infringed upon for legitimate and serious reasons. My view is that frats and sororities should not be banned. I do favor better policing of these organizations and reforming of those that have problems. As almost anyone who went to college knows, there are good frats and bad frats-so to do a blanket ban would be unjust. This would be on par with banning all sport teams at schools because there are some badly behaved athletes.

            • ronster12012 said, on December 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm


              Thanks for the link……….and despite being an Aussie I had heard of the Scottsboro case though did need a refreshing of the details.

              From the article:
              “Interest groups foment outrage, then enlist sympathetic activist journalists who rely on the testimony of deeply invested “experts” while partisan politicians exploit the allegedly systemic problem to advance an ideological agenda and demonize opponents as sexist bigots or rape apologists.”
              Spot on, though in no way confined to domestic issues. It is the modus operandi of the PTB in many instances. I can think of a few wars started this way after softening up the public with atrocity stories who then almost demand that the government do what it intended doing all along. Problem Reaction Solution.

              “Stick around a while. You’ll find journalists are not alone there.”:

              I was being charitable by calling them ‘gullible’ as it implies a sort of naivety not mendacity. I am at the stage now(and have been there for quite awhile) that *all* public propaganda campaigns ie. that all sensible, good, caring, right thinking etc etc people should accept………everything from dietary guidelines to economics to war, the global warming story even…is mostly BS. Unless someone wants to either make a buck out of us or change us(impose on us in some way more accurately) then there is is absolutely no motivation for relentless media campaigns about anything.

              Who would have thought fifty or even thirty years ago that the trajectory then would lead us to the current situation where a lawyer, Zerlina Maxwell could call for the ditching of the presumption of innocence:
              “Apparently, Zerlina Maxwell disagrees. She writes in the Washington Post: “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.”
              Not just calling for the overturning of sacred legal principles but in a major national platform……and being somehow managing to still be taken seriously, with no damage to her career. How can this be??

              I think that the major issue is that virtually everything now seems to be political and therefore tribal and the search for the actual truth be damned.

            • WTP said, on December 12, 2014 at 3:00 pm

              Who would have thought fifty or even thirty years ago that the trajectory then would lead us to the current situation where a lawyer, Zerlina Maxwell could call for the ditching of the presumption of innocence:

              Well not to slap myself on the back, but me. OK, a very few others. And 20-25 years ago, but close enough. What was considered strawman arguments back then have come to pass.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 5, 2014 at 5:45 pm

        It’s almost as if the people who claim to be most concerned about rape don’t regard it as a very serious crime.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 3, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Time for some radical postgenderism!

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