The Ethics behind Fire Drills without Prior Notice

On Oct. 27, there was a fire drill at NYU Abu Dhabi. At around 7:20 p.m., I heard very loud alarms in my room. When I rushed out to the corridor, I ...

Nov 8, 2014

On Oct. 27, there was a fire drill at NYU Abu Dhabi. At around 7:20 p.m., I heard very loud alarms in my room. When I rushed out to the corridor, I heard the broadcast announcing that there was a fire in the building and that all students should evacuate via the stairs to an assembly point. I believed what the broadcast told me and ran downstairs.
Upon arriving at the assembly point, I was told by the Residential Assistants and the security staff that it was merely a drill.
I was angry, because I was lied to by the school — I assume that the school is responsible for holding the drill, and I will refer to the responsible party as “the school.” If I am mistaken, I apologize, whereas my accusation still holds against the responsible party — I received no prior notice and I wasn't informed about it being a drill during the exercise. The fire announcement intentionally misguided me into thinking there was a fire, while the school was perfectly aware that there was no such thing happening. The school stated something against its own belief, and by doing so committed the crime of deception.
Is deception always immoral? The school may defend itself by saying that the deception was for the students’ own good, because students would not have left the building had they known that it was merely a drill and it was necessary for them to know what route they should take in the case of an actual fire.  Despite this being most likely true, it is a consequentialist argument. If we are to discuss the moral worth of an action, we must first be clear where it originates from. In Groundwork of the Metaphysics and Morals, Kant argues that the moral value of an action comes from duty, even if it goes against one's inclinations:
“[A]n action from duty has its moral worth not in the purposethat is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which it is resolved upon, and thus it does not depend on the actuality of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of willing according to which — regardless of any object of the desiderative faculty — the action is done.”
What Kant means is that the moral worth of an action does not depend on the consequences of that action, but rather on whether it comes from a valid principle of volition. Thus we must dismiss the notion of consequentialism, and examine whether holding a fire drill without prior notice comes from duty, defined by Kant as “the necessity of an action from respect for the law.” In general, a moral act is one whose maxim can be willed to become a universal law.
Let us assume that the school had the maxim, “hold a fire drill without prior notice for the sake of informing students of escape routes.” In our case, it would seem that protecting students is indeed a reason for holding a fire drill without prior notice. But is it a good enough reason? If this maxim were to become a universal law, everyone would know that there is no fire, hence invalidating the principle of volition, i.e. informing students of escaping routes, because no one would be participating in such a drill. Furthermore, there would not have even been such a drill, because the organizer must have foreseen the invalidity of the maxim, presuming that she is a rational agent. In Kant’s ethical system, this is a contradiction in the conception. And therefore we can declare that holding a fire drill without prior notice for the sake of informing students of escape routes does not come from respect for the law, and hence is not a moral act.
In fact, it is quite obvious that lying under any circumstance is not a moral act, simply because lying becoming a universal law defeats itself.
One may push to ask why consequentialism must be dismissed. Is students’ safety not an obvious benefit that far outweighs mild unhappiness? Self-preservation — a form of happiness, I assume — does not originate from reason. Every animal pursues happiness without the guidance of rationality. Indeed as Kant points out, if happiness truly is our end, instincts should serve us even more accurately and reliably than reason does. So why are we bestowed with reason at all?
Moreover, consequentialism rips us of autonomy. Consequentialists tell us to pursue whatever brings us happiness, and hence makes us slaves of inclinations. We are not truly autonomous, or truly free, unless we base our actions solely on reason.
To conclude, the deception involved in the fire drill without prior notice made it an immoral act. By doing so the organizer gave up respect for the law and hence did not endorse reason as their basis of act. Therefore fire drills without prior notice must be condemned and ceased.
Yuanmo Hu is a contributing writer. Email him at 
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