The Moral Implications of Special Fees

Posted by at 5:25PM

Student election season is here again, which mostly means that a bunch of freshmen are scrambling to find rides to Kinko’s to print their best puns. Regardless of which 15 undergraduates are elected to the ASSU Undergraduate Senate, this year’s campaign season has brought to light a far more interesting, and far more contentious, aspect of the elections process: student group special fees.

I think it is fair to say that just about everyone is confused about special fees. Special fees is an amorphous vat of money outside of general fees to fund student groups that can’t be funded through normal bureaucratic channels, and as such it is inherently confusing: since it is essentially impossible for the average student to try and understand the intricacies of the ASSU funding system, let alone each of the 600 student groups’ funding needs, voters are unable to understand why or for what a group should receive special fees.

If this chimpanzee had applied for special fees, he would likely have been violating the principle of universalizability.

Because of this system, groups take advantage of the system and stretch the boundaries of special fees legitimacy. This issue was brought to light by the special fees petition of the members of the Stanford Flipside, in which they requested 7,000+ dollars to buy themselves a Segway scooter. The Flipside’s satire attracted a fair amount of attention, and certainly achieved its satirical mission: it made clear that the special fees process has enormous, easily exploitable loopholes. The Flipside has exposed the problems with special fees that other groups have been abusing for years. The actions these groups are taking are, in my opinion, wrong: it is immoral for students to game the special fees process at the expense of other students. But why?

After thinking about this issue, I believe it is possible to create a coherent moral justification for rewarding special fees money. There are right and wrong actions for student groups requesting special fees to take, independent of other student groups’ actions or the rules of special fees. Just because the law does not prohibit an action does not make it morally justifiable, nor does the fact that other groups are acting immorally condone one’s immoral actions.


We should base the morality of a special fees request on the principle of universalizability. Universalizability, in its simplest interpretation, states that an action is moral if you would support everyone taking that same action under similar circumstances. In other words, if a student group is requesting funding for a specific item, it would only be moral if it would be willing to support every other group requesting funding for the same item given similar conditions. Or, from the perspective of a special fees voter, voting to support one’s group’s special fees request is only morally justified if the voter is willing to support every other group that has similar requests and faces similar constraints.

A maxim of universalizability is attractive because it allows for flexibility and differing moral judgments between individuals. Students will apply universalizability in different ways: some will be willing to deem more requests as universalizable and therefore acceptable; others will draw a more stringent line. A coherent moral stance does not necessitate agreement on outcomes, but rather on the foundations. In a democratic community, such as the one we are in at Stanford, these disagreements on outcome are dealt with via the voting process.

But unless a person believes in complete moral relativism, it seems fair to assume that the law of universalizability will lead to certain requests being roundly agreed upon as immoral. Let us take again the example of the Flipside: now that the members of the Flipside have pointed out the flaws in the system, they have not stopped their request; instead, they are actively campaigning for special fees approval. A special fees approval would include funding for their entire budget: both normal printing costs (so that they can continue to produce their publication) and a Segway plus other equipment.

Kant, the father of universalizability, looking angsty.

To continue to seek out a Segway through special fees is immoral because, to me, it is impossible to universalize that expense. Special fees comes directly from students: I would not be willing to support all groups, or even all publications, buying themselves a Segway. If I were to support the Flipside buying a Segway, I would also need to support many similar purchases from other groups. I cannot speak for the members of the Flipside, but it seems hard to believe these students would be actively willing to fund Segways, parties, or clothing for any other group.* Most students, I believe, would be very hesitant to be willing to pay for some group’s personal expenses or fund anything that does not directly and irreplaceably contribute to the goal of the student group.

The Flipside argues that they would benefit from a Segway because it will help distribution of their papers; for the request to be morally justifiable, then, the members of the Flipside and the voters who support the Flipside must also be willing to fund other large expenses that make student groups’ activities easier. For example, it would be great if any of the student performance groups on campus had an actual theater space in which to perform their shows–that would certainly contribute to their performances and help enormously to support and allow these students to fully express their craft. But requesting a few million dollars from other students for a new theater space, just as requesting a few thousand dollars for a motorized scooter, is an expense that is neither necessary nor should be coming from other students and is therefore not universalizable. The same principle applies to any student group that uses special fees to buy alcohol, clothing, or group expenses.

The problem with special fees, though, is that it is often difficult to tell what funds are irreplaceable and what funds are not. Again, it is impossible to fully understand a group’s finances unless you are deeply enmeshed in that group, and therefore it is impossible to fully understand a group’s budget requests. Groups often request items like airfare for tournaments, which, depending on whom you ask, could be universalizable: some say that groups who spend all year preparing for a big tournament and could not easily fund the travel expenses in other ways should be allowed to ask for those costs in special fees; others would argue that these are personal expenses and therefore should not be.

In these situations, the moral onus more prominently falls on the student groups themselves. Are these groups asking for money that they would consider universally supporting for other groups in similar situations? If the answer is no, then according to the idea of universalizability these student groups should not be requesting those special fees. So long as we agree to act morally to our fellow students and community members, loopholes won’t matter.

From a voting perspective, we may not know the ins and outs of special fees, but we do know that special fees money comes from students like ourselves. We should not blindly accept or reject all special fees requests; instead, we should ask: would I support this request for other groups as well? This is particularly important for groups that affect us: it is wrong for us to only support groups that we directly benefit from, as this would violate universalizability.

Special fees funding allows for groups that can otherwise not be funded to be able to exist and thrive. Let us, as student group members, voters, and members of the Stanford community, consider the moral implications of special fees requests and work to preserve the benefits of the special fees funding system.

*Having spoken to members of the Flipside about this issue, it is very clear that a number of them are concerned about the Segway and would like to return that money if they get Special Fees approval.

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8 Responses to “The Moral Implications of Special Fees”

  1. Quinn Slack says:

    Interesting points. However, what if we would support certain expenditures by some groups but not others, maybe because we think some groups are better run than others? Can we our assessment of the group’s efficiency and value into account, or should we only consider the group’s stated goal (no matter our thoughts on the value of achieving that goal)?

  2. Alex says:

    I agree we should take universalizability seriously. Otherwise special fees is too much a system of popularity-based handouts. Groups that can get tons of signatures get cash, whereas smaller or less network-savvy groups that may have better reasons for needing funds get nothing. In this sense, it’s ethically irresponsible to sign a petition or vote “yes” for a group just because a friend asks you to. Even if you know how important it is to your friend, you should still consider the ethics objectively. You may feel like a bad friend, but you’ll be a better citizen.

  3. Jeremy Keeshin says:

    I think Kant’s Categorial Imperative provides a solid framework for us to evaluate individual moral decisions, however I think it is the wrong one to use for the Special Fees process. The idea of Universalizability inherently cannot make sense for different Special Fees budget requests, because groups are different in such a way that their situation and budget is not generalizable. Kant asks us to consider the motive in evaluating the action. But in voting for special fees we should consider the outcome.

    Take for example, a made up publication which has $30,000 in annual printing fees, but is one that you do not read. In requesting printing money, their motives seem sound. But in evaluating whether we should vote for them, it makes sense to consider how the money is being spent. You can find your own way to evaluate the “utility” of a budget, but if you never see or read the publication I think there is little utility gained. You may alternatively think print is dead and support $0 worth of printing. Just because a budget seems legitimate, that does not mean that it is.

    The Flipside budget is $14,000, $6,000 which is for printing costs. If the utility gained from the Flipside exceeds the $2 cost per student, then it can still be worth it to support the Flipside budget, even if you do not support the Segway.

    For many years we have been funding parts of budgets we don’t support for groups we do support. More important than the line items are the total costs. It is more problematic to approve a $10/student budget where $3/student is unjustified than to approve a budget where you feel $1/student is unjustified.

    Just think about how much of your money has already gone to buying golf carts.

  4. Josh says:

    @Quinn–We probably should, in theory, take efficiency into account, but I have no sense of how we could possibly even begin to think about measuring that. Most groups’ outcomes are probably not quantifiable, and to try and do so would probably end in disaster. As such, I think we might be stuck with the group’s goal and a general sense of how we achieve that goal, with the group itself dictating what they think is the most efficient and effective way of getting there.

  5. Josh says:

    @Jeremy–I’ve got to disagree with you on this one. I’ll start with two quick responses to claims you make, then launch into two larger arguments.

    Two quick points: 1) you wrote, “Just because a budget seems legitimate, that does not mean that it is.” I agree completely. Groups have a moral obligation to present a budget that is actually legitimate to the best of their knowledge. Being good at scamming the system is still morally wrong. 2) you wrote, “It is more problematic to approve a $10/student budget where $3/student is unjustified than to approve a budget where you feel $1/student is unjustified.” Sure. But it is more problematic to have $3/student + $1/student be unjustified than just $3 be unjustified. You are arguing that just because other groups do it worse means that it is morally acceptable for a group to request something like a Segway. As you probably have figured out by now, I strongly, strongly disagree with this claim.

    My responses can be summed up by the following sentences from my article: “There are right and wrong actions for student groups requesting special fees to take, independent of other student groups’ actions or the rules of special fees. Just because the law does not prohibit an action does not make it morally justifiable, nor does the fact that other groups are acting immorally condone one’s immoral actions.”

    Now, for some larger arguments.

    First, you are saying that the Flipside has chosen to ask for 14,000 dollars, less than half of which is for printing costs. The Flipside could have chosen to ask for 6,000 dollars, or what it needs for printing costs, instead of an extra 8,000 on top of that. If voters “value” the Flipside at a certain dollar amount and we are going to maximize utility (which is probably what should be done if we are looking at this from a ‘utility’ perspective), asking for that extra money is diminishing everyone’s utility. Instead of getting a value of X amount of dollars of pleasure minus cost to fund the Flipside, each student is getting X – Flipside – paying for the Flipside to get a Segway. That will certainly be less overall utility, even if the members of the Flipside get extra utility from futzing around on a Segway, than just asking for the printing costs. Thus, if we are analyzing this in terms of utility, asking for a Segway does not maximize overall utility and therefore would be similarly unjustified.

    It might be “worth it” to support the Flipside, but it would be more “worth it” to support the Flipside without a Segway. If the ballot had two options, one for ‘Flipside budget with Segway’ and one for ‘Flipside budget without’ and students chose to support the former, you might have a case for utility. But I find it extremely difficult to believe that would be the case.

    Secondly, I strongly disagree that universalizability is not applicable here. Yes, groups face different constraints and circumstances, and we should certainly account for this variation. But to use this as grounds for disregarding universalizability is far-fetched. Groups won’t be asking for the same exact item for the same exact reason, but we can still compare similar requests. Just because other groups aren’t asking for Segways doesn’t make universalizability moot; we can ask whether or not we would support funding every group that asks for a Segway-like item. Similarly, universalizability is relevant because it does not mean that finding some internal way to justify an expense (i.e. it makes distribution easier) makes it automatically acceptable. Many groups can justify expenses like retreats or parties in the name of team bonding, group cohesion, and, for groups like the Chappie, probably also creation of their product. But if those groups are asking everyone else to subsidize these types of expenses, even if they do help team bonding, they are only acceptable if these groups would be willing to subsidize parties and retreats for everyone else.

    An example: a Segway is an expense outside of the nuts and bolts costs (printing) that might make distribution of the product a bit easier. While other groups might not ask for a Segway, they might ask for other expenses that are also not nuts and bolts but might make their lives easier. What if a performance troupe like StanShakes or Cardinal Ballet requested to hire a full time advertising person for their shows? That would make distribution of their product much easier but it’s got very little to do with the actual content itself. If you would be willing to pay for every group to have an expense like that (ie that it would be universally acceptable), it would be morally justified for the Flipside to ask for a Segway–but I doubt any student would be in favor of that.

    As I hinted at in responding to Quinn, I want to emphasize that the moral onus falls on the groups themselves. We fund parts of budgets we don’t support for groups we do support, as you mention, but this is avoidable in many cases! If groups don’t ask for requests that are not universalizable, we won’t be faced nearly as often with the choice of “paying for items we shouldn’t be paying for” versus “completely defunding this student group.” That’s a terrible choice to have to make, and everybody loses. In my opinion, asking for a Segway epitomizes this dichotomy.

  6. Jeremy Keeshin says:

    I still disagree, and think that you have chosen the wrong framework to reason about Special Fees. It is not generalizable to say: If thousands of dollars of food will make a group’s events better, then they deserve the food. It is not generalizable to say: If a group will not function without officer salaries, then they deserve salaries. To borrow your reasoning, let’s ask if we would support funding every group that asks for a salary-like item … for “Voluntary” student groups. Almost no budget requests fit into the generalization model. Under universalizability, your arguments hold. However it makes no sense to analyze the budget this way. Under utilitarianism, which makes sense for analyzing the value of budgets, we have to vote based on the total costs.

    You write: “It seems hard to believe these students would be actively willing to fund Segways, parties, or clothing for any other group.” And, “For the request to be morally justifiable, then, the members of the Flipside and the voters who support the Flipside must also be willing to fund other large expenses that make student groups’ activities easier.”

    You miss the point: We already do! This is exactly what Special Fees is. Unfortunately, it’s not about the Segway. The voters can vote how they like. The problem is the hundreds and thousands of dollars in unwarranted funds.

  7. Adam Adler says:

    @Josh:

    Setting aside my disagreement with universalizing as a moral framework, your application of the principle in this context is flawed. Unlike other student groups, The Flipside is not requesting “outside of nuts and bolts” funding just because we want to. It is doing it as part of a larger criticism of the special fees process–

    1. Groups that petition can get pretty much whatever they want.
    2. The Appropriations Committee (which rejected a non-Segway budget) rejects student groups when they don’t really need to, giving groups an incentive to petition for more.
    3. It shouldn’t take a small budget to get people to think skeptically about a special fee request (Why is it that you wrote about the immorality of The Flipside and not the immorality of, say, The Daily, or Mock Trial?)

    Now try universalizing the message. If EVERYONE was trying to make this message–Oh no! The message wouldn’t be effective. The effectiveness of the message relies on the fact that no other groups are doing what we do. This means we have a unique reason to support The Flipside when they are the only ones acting, but not when everyone else is doing the same thing for the same reason.

    It makes no sense to say “you wouldn’t support other groups if they tried to make a message through the Special Fees process” because, fact of the matter is, if any of the other groups was satirical AND was the only satirical group making such a message, I would support them. This is the proper universalization for this context, and this passes the test.

  8. Josh says:

    @Jeremy and Adam–thanks for your responses.

    Jeremy, your argument hinges on the idea that because there are bigger transgressors out there, and that other groups are acting immorally, excuses a group from acting morally on their own. I can only speak for myself, but this violates my idea of morality.

    Adam, Let me be very clear: I am not saying that the Flipside is the one immoral group and other groups are somehow moral. I am just using the Flipside as an example because its budget (including a Segway) is simpler to understand. All groups should be held to a standard of universalizability. I commend the Flipside on its satire in pointing out the flaws of the system, but think that the satire has already been achieved. Now, asking for a Segway is just immoral. The satirical message has been made! It was covered in every major campus publication when you petitioned for a Segway in the first place. You write, “The Flipside is not requesting “outside of nuts and bolts” funding just because we want to. It is doing it as part of a larger criticism of the special fees process.” In what way is asking for money from your fellow students to buy a Segway at all acceptable? The flaws in the system have been pointed out, and now all that is happening is that you are exploiting them for your own benefit.

    There are some major institutional shifts that need to occur in special fees, such as the idea that the Approps Committee needs to find a better approval method. I agree. We all probably agree. But that does not mean that everything is FUBAR and we should just try to exploit the system as much as we can. The most obvious change that can be made is groups trying to act more morally to each other. Asking for a Segway is not doing that; it is doing the opposite. Other groups asking to fund alcohol is not doing that either. Any non-universalizable expense falls under this category.

    Groups ought to act morally. The Flipside, or any other group that asks for non-universalizable funds, is not. That is the problem.

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