Rules as thinking substitutes

[ed. note: I’ve been mulling this post over for a while (I wrote about half of it last week), and it hasn’t quite come together yet (probably because it’s more like two or three posts), but I figure the only way to get it done is to just post it.]

This line of thought was kicked off by the Oregon assisted suicide case from a few weeks ago. I thought the Oregon law seemed like it was as reasonable as it could possibly be. It applied only to patients who were terminally ill and would die within the next six months, but still have a sound mind. The law is only a small step away from a complete ban on assisted suicide – the patient had to be about to die, and was choosing to go in their own fashion.

What struck me was how vehement the objections of the religious right were to this seemingly reasonable law. For instance, the White House press secretary is quoted in that CNN article as saying: “The president remains fully committed to building a culture of life, a culture of life that is built on valuing life at all stages.” I saw a lot of objections centered around this principle that “Life is sacred”, and for some reason that bothered me. After poking at my discomfort for several days, I think the problem I have is that the principle is treated as an absolute rule. There are no exceptions. Any behavior which might infringe upon the applicability of this principle is an attack on the whole principle, and would lead directly to people murdering others on the street over a parking spot (hyperbolistically speaking).

This seems ridiculous to me, but it points up part of why the objections were so vehement to the Oregon law. By having “Life is sacred” as an absolute rule with no exceptions, it means that we don’t have to think about how to apply the rule. We don’t have to make a decision about when the rule is appropriate or not. We don’t have to make a judgment call. As soon as the universal applicability of the rule is called into question, then everything is called into question. There are no rules. There are only judgments. And I think some people can’t imagine living in that universe. They want to live in a black-and-white reality, where there is right and there is wrong, and there are clear rules specifying which is which.

But in the world I live in, there are often many rules which apply to a given situation, so I have to make a choice as to which rule to apply. To take an example from the religious right, “Life is sacred” is a rule, as is “Punish evil-doers”. What happens when they collide, as in the case of capital punishment? Well, they answer that “Punish evil-doers” takes precedence. That’s a judgment call as to which rule to apply. But it’s swept under the table in an epistemological sleight-of-hand because they only refer to the “Punish evil-doers” rule when talking about capital punishment.

Rules are never absolute. They conflict with each other. They have limited applicability. They are not always appropriate. Or so I believe, but I grew up playing with the rules. An example of such rules confusion arises in the George Bernard Shaw anecdote where he asks a socialite whether she’d sleep with him for a million pounds (she says yes), then for one pound, whereupon she’s outraged – “What kind of woman do you think I am?” “We’ve already established that, now we’re haggling about the price.” If the rules were absolute, Shaw would be entirely correct that her character has been established by her answer to the first question. But the anecdote is funny because we understand that the rules change when the price changes from a million pounds to one. They apply differently.

Rules are merely the codification of a good idea, as Shirky observes about business processes. A rule was a solution for a given time and place. But when we treat that rule as an absolute and obey it unthinkingly, we forget those localized caveats and what made it appropriate in that situation. In Carse’s terminology, when we take judgment and fossilize it into an absolute rule, we are changing things from an infinite game to a finite game.

I think another reason people like rules is that they don’t trust other people. These are the people who believe that morality tops out at the fourth stage of Kohlberg’s levels, that people need laws and rules to behave morally. They don’t trust their fellow humans to behave appropriately, so they try to fence them in with rules, not realizing that if people are determined to misbehave, they’ll find a way around the rules (e.g. Enron). A similar observation is made in Good to Great where they note that bureaucracy won’t save you from bad people; the first thing to do to turn a company around is to get rid of the bad people, and hire the right people.

I’ve wandered far afield from my original topic, which was my uneasiness with the objections to assisted suicide. I guess my point after these digressions is that it disturbs me that people would rather fence themselves in with absolute rules such as “life is sacred” rather than take responsibility for making moral decisions in their lives. But most people don’t want control of their lives. They’re terrified of it (including me most of the time). They want to be told what to do. Which is why anarchy will never work, alas.

2 thoughts on “Rules as thinking substitutes

  1. One of the tricky aspects of this problem is that there are not just people who don’t want to make judgements, but people who are incapable of making good judgements. I’d go so far as to say that EVERYONE has arenas where that’s true. Nevertheless, people sometimes still need to make decisions in those arenas.

    So we need ways to cope. Rules are one way. Delegating judgement to an expert is another (and I think that rules are generally delegation at one remove — I trust X’s judgement in this matter, so I’ll follow the rule he gave me).

    The problem you’re describing arises (and I’m just paraphrasing what you’ve already said) when people don’t see that rules are just a heavily context-bound approximation of judgement.

    It seems like it might help if we had better social tech for recognizing when someone is operating with high-quality judgement instead of rules or low-quality judgement. (And for being able to recognize it reliably in ourselves.) It would be like being able to call up the customer service hotline and have the magic phrase to say “yes, I do know what I’m doing, and I already tried the obvious stuff, so we’re going to go off-script right away and I’d like you to escalate me to a live technician please” and have them listen to you. But in whatever arena of life it is under discussion. And to be able to know, reliably, how you compared to the average caller’s competence level so you knew whether or not to use the magic phrase…

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