Jani Kaaro is a scientific journalist, a researcher and encyclopedist, and he has some of the most insightful columns that I have read, time after time. I'm going to translate a few of his articles, if you have time and interest, check it out.
Fighting for Common Sense
A few years ago, a complete farce unfolded in the United States, a kind of farce which could not happen if we put more trust in people's ability to use some common sense.
A father took his nine-year-old son to watch a Detroit Tigers baseball match. He was in an academic position and did not follow baseball much at all and didn't go to many matches. Before the game began, his son asked if he could get some lemonade. The only "lemonade" available was of course Mike's Hard Lemonade, which has alchohol in it. But he didn't know that.
That's how it all began. A security guard saw that an underaged child was drinking alcohol and alerted the police and called an ambulance. Before anyone had time to say "Pop goes the weasel", the father was handcuffed in the back of a squad car and the boy was rushed to the hospital. In the hospital they realized there was no alcohol in the boy's blood, but the child protection officials were already there.
No, the child won't be going back home, he's going to a foster home.
Next the case went into court. Due to the mother's request, the child could come home after three days in foster care, but only on the condition that the father moved out of there immediately and could not meet his son during the court process.
This story does have a happy ending. The dad could return to his family and everything went back to normal. But the real tragedy in this case was somewhere else, because everyone involved - the police, ambulance drivers, doctors, child protection and even the judge - knew that none of this made any sense. Everyone understood that this was a completely normal father. He just happened not to know that Mike's Hard Lemonade is an alcoholic drink. But everyone had their own rules and regulations which they had to uphold.
Many of us can identify with this story. Have you ever sat on the line for half an hour to an agency, customer service or the IRS, only to find out that your call was directed to the wrong department which has no say in the matter you are trying to resolve? Have you ever gotten in trouble just because a computer or a register has made a mistake, a mistake that no man can simply rectify as it is now "in the system"? It's all the same thing. Rules, systems and practices are an excuse not to use common sense.
Aristotle defined practical wisdom as the combination of the want and ability to act morally right. A wise person knows when it's morally right to go against rules and instructions. Or you could say, that a wise person doesn't need rules or instructions to act morally right.
Barry Schwartz, a professor in Swarthmore College, whose thoughts this column is based on, has shed some light on practical wisdom through janitors. Janitors of hospitals often have over 200 tasks, such as mopping the floors, changing light bulbs and removing the trash. None of these tasks require any interaction with other people.
Even so, when janitors have been interviewed, they tell how they sometimes guide a delusional senior citizen back to their beds, talk with lonely patients or even act as messengers between patient's relatives and the staff. One janitor made it a matter of pride to clean a young comatose patient's room twice in a day, as his parent's were heartbroken and they appreciated that his room was kept clean.
A janitor's position has been developed as such, that if and when a robot clever enough is constructed, it could take over the janitor's tasks. But no robot could replace what they do outside their rules and regulations. They use their wisdom, show empathy and serve the common good.
Looking at these factors in the background, it's mind-numbing to see that when there's a catastrophe somewhere or things didn't go as they should have, the automatic reaction is to tighten the the rules, coming up with new regulations and creating better incentives for following them. For all the aforementioned reason I simply don't believe that rules and regulations will bring us toward a better world. I also don't believe in better incentives, as previous experiences show that they often help lead to a worse result than the one that started it all.
A good example of incentives failing completely comes from Switzerland. Psychologists went around the area and asked people if they would be OK with nuclear waste being deposited in their neighbourhood. Surprisingly more than half said 'Yes'. First of all, the waste had to go somewhere. Secondly, they thought it was their responsibility as Swiss citizens, who have benefited from nuclear power, to receive the waste.
In another area people were asked if they would receive the waste if they would get half a year's extra salary for the rest of their lives for accepting. This time, only 25% said 'Yes'. The economic incentive wasn't "enough" - it never is - but it also brushed away a person's internal, natural incentive - the sense of national duty.
I think this speaks volumes of the harmful effects of high incentives for chairmen or other notable leaders. When someone is offered a monetary incentive, they ask "What do I get from this" and they often stop working for simple gratification or sense of pride for accomplishments.
I don't mean that there is no place for incentives in a better world. Of course there is. However, if we introduce them to all aspects of our lives and resort to them too much, they will rob us of something much, much more important. We aren't born into this world as wise. We aren't born as morally perfect. Morality is actually something that one has to practice. In their interviews, the janitors stressed that it takes a lot of experience to know when it's acceptable to meddle in other people's matters.
We need a society that supports and encourages people who dare to do the morally right thing - without care for rules and regulations. Teachers who don't just teach, but care; mayors who don't just govern, but look after our children in trams; and hospital janitors, who make themselves available -
...even if it's not a part of the job.
Does Crichton smoke? Does a bear shit in the woods? -Rex
"What's the point in being an outlaw if you've got responsibilities?"
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