Wisdom and rules

Some time ago I wrote about the tragic situation in which a school nurse would not let a student use his asthma inhaler, even though he had collapsed in front of her, because the school did not have a medical release form on file. I later discussed a study about how these kinds of situations arise when people see their roles as primarily that of rule enforcers, fearful of repercussions if they use their judgment to defy the rules.

Mark Esposito has a thoughtful essay about why such bizarre situations might be occurring. He first gives some recent examples.

In 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.

In contrast, he gives an example of how the job descriptions for hiring janitors in hospitals were exclusively devoted to the things that you would associate with janitorial work. There was not a single mention of anything that might be construed as human interactions. But the janitors themselves saw their job as primarily having to do with caring for patients and he gives examples of how they would break the rules, risking reprimand, if they thought it was in the best interests of patients and their families. Esposito concludes:

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.

No one would suggest that rules are unimportant. We need them to ensure the smooth running of things under normal conditions. But rules can never be all encompassing and in trying to make them so, we can actually end up shackling people and preventing them from doing their best. We also need to encourage the growth of wisdom at all levels, that quality that enables people to make humane decisions in situations not covered by the rules and may require them to transcend or even defy them.

In my earlier post, I described one decision rule that I have found to be helpful on many occasions when I am confronted with situations where I feel that blindly applying the rules would be a disservice. I ask myself not which decision would be the right one but which decision, if it turns out later to have been badly wrong, would I likely regret more? It would have immediately clarified the two serious situations that Esposito describes. The pastry gun one is too silly for words.


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    Thank you for repeating your decision rule; I think I may find it very helpful.

    As a parent of young children, I struggle with how to articulate when and how an emergency can trump the rules we lay down. This is probably not helped by my background as a computer programmer, where exceptional circumstances can play merry hell with planned behavior; computers require enumeration, where we can hope that people can do better with rules-of-thumb.

  2. smrnda says

    As another programmer (if you can call me that, these days I’m normally called the ‘knowledge engineer’) I can second that the people who write policies seem to put no thought into handling anything other than the most common, obvious cases; there’s clearly no ‘what if THIS happens?’ to it.

    I think the cause of the problem is the incentive system. If an underling breaks a rule for good reason, they will be punished even if the result is good. If a rule causes problems and even hurts people, everybody is told to shut up and do what they’re told. Schools in the States (I went to one) are often little more than institutions that teach nothing but ‘follow the rules, consequences be damned.’ The people who make rules have left open no appeals process where they can be made accountable when their rules are unreasonable. There is no or few penalty for making rules that are bad, but there are penalties for not following bad rules.

  3. physicsphdstu says

    My grandfather used to say that rules are for fools to follow; for wise men, they are just guidelines.

    I know US is a little crazy litigious but what these people did is truely heinous.

  4. bad Jim says

    The case involving CPR does not necessarily fall into this category; the family agreed with the actions of the nursing home, and resuscitation of elderly patients in failing health is not necessarily merciful.

    Zero tolerance rules are an abdication of responsibility by administrators, whose job description explicitly calls for the exercise of discretion. They’re being paid to use their judgment.

    There are situations where professionals are required to report any suspicions, no matter what, and this can work well if the investigators who follow up are empowered to use their own judgment.

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