The principal of the Nickajack Elementary School outside Atlanta
recently decreed that no student would be permitted to bring peanuts or
peanut butter to school. She is not alone. According to the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, schools in "at least nine states" now ban peanuts and
The reason? A few students are highly allergic to peanuts, and
if not treated in time, the reaction can lead to death.
Lest 1 or 2 percent of the students have a bad reaction to
peanuts (a reaction that is entirely treatable by the school nurse), the
cheapest, tastiest, healthiest food that most kids like -- the peanut butter
and jelly sandwich -- is now forbidden in some American schools.
We have here in microcosm five highly destructive developments
in modern American life:
1. Social policies determined by "compassion."
To the Nickajack Elementary School's principal and the many
other Americans who support a peanut ban, the issue is simple: peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches on one side, the health of some students on the other.
Compassion obviously dictates a peanut ban.
More and more Americans want more and more of American social
policy -- from schools to government -- to be guided by compassion. But
compassion-first advocates do not understand that while compassion can and
usually should determine personal behavior, it must almost never determine
When compassion determines social policy, it is almost always
destructive. Because compassion is by definition highly selective, it is not
possible to be equally compassionate to everyone. When dealing with the
public, compassion to some people inevitably means injustice to others. For
example, if compassion for the sufferers of one disease determines society's
funding of research into that disease, sufferers of other diseases will
receive less compassion and therefore unjustly receive less funding.
Banning peanuts is unjust, even mean, to the 98 percent of
elementary school students for whom peanut butter is the most practical
source of protein they will eat at school. It is cheap, delicious, and won't
spoil as meat or cheese might. For the sake of a few students, thousands are
2. Compassion or selfishness?
To deny nearly every student at an elementary school the right
to eat their favorite healthy food is labeled compassion, and the educators
who push for the ban may well be motivated by compassion. But the activists
who demand the community's compassion are simply selfish.
On my radio show, I spoke to a parent whose child is highly
allergic to peanuts, and who supports school bans on peanuts. After a few
minutes of challenges, he acknowledged that he is simply being selfish. I
saluted his honesty. Would that the rest of us acknowledge the selfishness
that is at the root of so many policies determined by compassion.
3. Compassion trumps all.
Compassion trumps all other considerations, especially facts and
reason. The fact is that there is an antidote to peanut poisoning that every
school can easily administer. The fact is that banning peanuts actually
makes schools less safe for nut-allergic students, since they then let their
guard down and think they can eat other students' food. And reason suggests
that if we ban peanuts, we should also ban school picnics to protect those
who can die from bee stings. But to raise such objections only shows that
one is not compassionate.
4. Fear of lawsuits.
As powerful as compassion is, neither it nor justice dominates
school, company or government policies today as much as fear of trial
lawyers. Parents now sue schools for their children's poor grades. Surely
they will for allergic reactions.
5. The pursuit of a risk-free world.
Perhaps it has been this generation's unprecedented affluence.
Perhaps it has been the absence of widespread suffering in America since
World War II. Whatever the reason, more and more Americans have been
preoccupied with abolishing all risks to their well-being. Americans
increasingly feel that no price is too high to pay to ensure no risk.
Such thinking, however, is very wrong. With fewer and fewer
risks demanding ever more money and ever more legislation, the prices we are
paying are getting ever steeper. Just ask the tens of thousands of
schoolchildren now eating junk instead of peanut butter.
If your kid is allergic to peanuts, have the school stock
epinephrine. Don't deprive all the other children of peanuts. That's not
compassionate; it's selfish.