The upshot of these reflections is that the relation between surveillance and moral edification is complicated. In some contexts, surveillance helps keep us on track and thereby reinforces good habits that become second nature. In other contexts, it can hinder moral development by steering us away from or obscuring the saintly ideal of genuinely disinterested action. And that ideal is worth keeping alive.
Some will object that the saintly ideal is utopian. And it is. But utopian ideals are valuable. It’s true that they do not help us deal with specific, concrete, short-term problems, such as how to keep drunk drivers off the road, or how to ensure that people pay their taxes. Rather, like a distant star, they provide a fixed point that we can use to navigate by. Ideals help us to take stock every so often of where we are, of where we’re going, and of whether we really want to head further in that direction.
Ultimately, the ideal college is one in which every student is genuinely interested in learning and needs neither extrinsic motivators to encourage study, nor surveillance to deter cheating. Ultimately, the ideal society is one in which, if taxes are necessary, everyone pays them as freely and cheerfully as they pay their dues to some club of which they are devoted members where citizen and state can trust each other perfectly. We know our present society is a long way from such ideals, yet we should be wary of practices that take us ever further from them. One of the goals of moral education is to cultivate a conscience the little voice inside telling us that we should do what is right because it is right. As surveillance becomes increasingly ubiquitous, however, the chances are reduced that conscience will ever be anything more than the little voice inside telling us that someone, somewhere, may be watching.