Shackling Our Wisdom With Rules

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

wisdomIn Maryland, a seven-year-old boy is suspended from his school under its “zero tolerance” policy because he nibbles a pastry into the shape of a handgun and says “Bang!” “Bang!” (Here).  In California,  a high school principal refuses to let an ambulance come onto a football filed to tend to a seriously injured player citing school board rules. (Here). A nurse at a home for the aged ignores the furtive pleas of a 911 dispatcher and refuses to perform CPR on a woman dying of cardiac arrest because she says its policy not to do it.  (Here). She won’t even get someone else to do it.

These grotesque examples of indifference to any form of reason are becoming all too common as we find ourselves governed more by rules than by the judgment of people.  These stories got me thinking about the need for rules in a complicated society and their limitations. It also got me wondering why wisdom and its country cousin, common sense, have been banished from most every discussion of decision making. Here’s John Maynard Keynes in his famous treatise on decision making, Treatise of Probability, discussing how to make the right decision:

If, therefore, the question of right action is under all circumstances a determinate problem, it must be in virtue of an intuitive judgment directed to the situation as a whole, and not in virtue of an arithmetical deduction derived from a series of separate judgments directed to the individual alternatives each treated in isolation.

Armed with that little tidbit, I searched the entire work and found exactly zero uses of the word “wisdom” in Professor Keynes’ detailed analysis of doing the right thing. How can that be?

Wisdom is a an old-fashioned word. It hearkens back to Solomon and Solon. To Plato and Socrates. Aristotle explained that practical wisdom is one part moral will and one part moral skill. It means a human action premised on experience or intuition that achieves the best possible moral result.  Not efficient. Not effective. Not even the most profitable. But the most moral result.

At its core, it is about the time and thought necessary to achieve deep understanding.  Both are in short supply these days as we measure our progress by how far we’ve gotten or by how much we have obtained and how fast we did it. The process by which we achieved these things is less important that the result. And it is this philosophy that has laid waste to ethics, judgment, and most importantly wisdom. In this race to “Just Win Baby,” we have ossified our capacity for wisdom under a steady stream of rules, regulations, guidelines, and protocols. But why?

Speaking at a TED conference in 2009, Professor Barry Schwartz examined the problem and offered an explanation in the context of a study done of hospital janitors. Schwartz looked at the job descriptions of  the janitors.  The explanations of employment were big on such rudimentary tasks as cleaning, restocking, and sanitation, but not one mention of anything involving human interaction. As professor Schwartz remarked “the job could just as easily have been done in a mortuary as in a hospital.” But that assessment did not match what the janitors considered the most important aspect of their jobs. In responses to questioning from researchers, one janitor, Mike,  explained the most important thing about his job was caring for patients. Like the time he stopped mopping a floor because Mr. Jones was finally up and around from surgery and had just left his bed to get some exercise.  Another custodian,  Charlene, told of ignoring the orders of a supervisor to vacuum the visitors lounge because family members of a patient who dutifully arrived every day to be with their loved one were finally getting a chance to take a nap.  And, Luke, who scrubbed the floor of a comatose patient’s room twice because the emotionally drained father at the bedside didn’t see it the first time and insisted it be done. No argument. No rebuttal. No peevishness of any sort. Just compassion.

These types of interactions aided in patient care and were beneficial to the hospital beyond the mere improvements to sanitation and overall cleanliness. As Professor Schwartz reminds us, “kindness, care and empathy” were essential parts of these janitors jobs, yet not word one about them in their job descriptions nor the rules promulgated by their supervisors to guarantee their performance.  In fact, the rules were silent on this human component even as strict compliance with the rules would have resulted in the opposite effect. Rule breaking –when the circumstances demanded it — was found to be an equally essential component of their performance as was reasonable compliance in the successful execution of their jobs. The janitors thus exhibited the moral will to do the right thing and the moral skill to exercise their discretion when the need arose resulting in the best moral result.  Why then can’t we allow experienced people to exercise judgment when the need arises?

Professor Schwartz says the answer is fear of catastrophic results. Sure, rules can mitigate against disasters such as when one has no idea what to do, but what about when good, experienced people are penned in by the rules? The sad fact is that wisdom suffers. It suffers because compliance with rules insures mediocrity and banishes excellence.  Winston Churchill used to like to spout this adage (attributed to RAF pilot Douglas Bader), “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” And it was Thomas Edison who remonstrated against mindless adherence to convention saying, “Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.” Like Churchill, Edison, and those janitors wise people can make exceptions to rules and improvise. And in these against-the-grain actions, they contribute to a better overall result than any blind obedience to the rules could muster.

The disheartening truth is that many leaders simply don’t want the best results. Instead, in an effort to secure their positions, they want mediocre results devoid of controversy. Why strive for excellence and bear the attendant risk, when C plus work will keep your job? We expect wisdom from our leaders and too often we get rules. Vague, incomprehensible guidelines tailored to nothing except the most obvious situations which are many times the least important situations.  By reducing humans to mere instrumentalities of the rules with no discretion to modify them when circumstances so warrant, we achieve the foolish results recounted above. Can every person demonstrate wisdom? Likely the answer is “no,” but wisdom is learned not passed exclusively through the gene pool. As our janitors amply prove, it takes moral education and enough time to garner the necessary experience to let it bloom. Reducing people to automatons for carrying out rules is a sapping away of their humanity and an insult to their dignity as sentient beings. We need to encourage the exercise of judgment and not condemn its every failure.

We need something else, too. We need to allow for error. We need to understand that sometimes discretion is not properly exercised but that the measure of an action is mostly its intention and not always its result.  Too often, the fear of negative consequences stifles any real excellence. Take the nurse at the home for the aged. Her fear of dismissal from her job and any attendant liability permitted her to sit idly by while another person died. Take away that fear and you would almost certainly have had this person, sworn to reduce suffering, giving all she had to save another person. As a lawyer, I know full well the burden on actions that the liability system has on risk taking, but the law is not static and this is precisely the reason for Good Samaritan laws that protect benevolent human action when the intentions are true.

We need to unshackle people and allow the extraordinary things they can accomplish to happen when given the chance. And there may yet be hope. In January, United Airlines passenger Kerry Drake was making a mad dash flight home to Lubbock, Texas to visit his dying mother one last time. Drake knew that if he missed his connecting flight he surely would never see his mother again. His layover in Houston was only 40 minutes and time was of the essence when he boarded his flight in San Francisco. That first leg was delayed well beyond any hope of making the second flight.  United’s captain radioed Houston to ask them to delay the connecting plane. They did and despite the FAA’s and United’s own rules to keep flights on time, 20 minutes after it was scheduled to take off it got airborne with Kerry Drake aboard. Kerry Drake made it to his mother’s hospital bed only hours before she passed  away.

United’s spokesman, Rahsaan Johnson, summed up the situation beautifully, “United tells employees that being on time and safe are the highest priorities, but we also empower [them] to make decisions out of the box to help customers who have a special need like Mr. Drake’s.”

Now that’s wisdom.

Source: Fox News; NPR and throughout.

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

73 thoughts on “Shackling Our Wisdom With Rules”

  1. It is reasonable to NOT perform CPR on an 87 year old person. People die, especially 87 year old people. How about letting them die with dignity instead of with someone whomping on their chest for no reason?

  2. Darren:

    Imagine reprimanding someone for saving a life. Officer, you bravely prove the point. The most moral outcome, indeed. Aristotle would be proud, the department notwithstanding.

  3. Gene: What street in DC has all the hookers? Is it C Street or K Street or do the twain meet? I mean it seems like the hookers would be around the lobbyists and politicians. I think you might know the answer to this.

  4. Gene wrote:

    “..without getting blown up reallllllll good.”

    Gene, nice reference to celebrity blowup.

  5. “I never said K St wasnt funded by business, associations are typically funded by business.

    You should know that.”

    Then who exactly is responsible for their graft again? The people who accept it but not the people who offer it? Your contradiction is glaring.

    Business pays for K Street. They are responsible for their bad actions.

    Also, one bribe being used to offset the damage of a bribe by another party does not make either bribe right. Two wrongs do not make a right. A man killed my child but escaped justice because of the political interference of pols he gave “campaign contributions” to. Is it right when I decided to kill the man and his political flacks or is it still murder? It may be understandable. Some might think it is karmically just. But it is not right, it is outside the rule of law and no amount of rationalization would make it so even though the reason for the revenge killing was a crime in and of itself.

  6. If the U.S. Constitution is fundamentally flawed then it can be amended but it is a long and slow process as it should be. Madison and the Framers studies over 2000 years of world history as to why governments fail so we should be very careful tampering with the design – it should be hard to amend the Constitution. Once viewed a C-Span show with some of America’s best historians and they said it would be impossible to read what James Madison alone read on government, there is no historian alive today that comes close to Madison’s knowledge on government. We should be very careful undoing it!

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