No More Rules, Please!

At the risk of being criticized for ad hominem reasoning, I can’t help saying: I love this man! Barry Schwartz doesn’t “just” develop practical wisdom or phronesis, he embodies it. Unlike principled or consequentialist ethics, virtue ethics, which is the variety of ethics developed here, pivots on being the best version anyone can possibly be of oneself!

This rule fetish stems from a preoccupation with getting things right and being prudent in the adoption of good judgment. No one is likely to fault these principles, but am I alone when I say “Big Brother outta my way!” Since when did good and prudent judgment become the privileged responsibility of administrators of everything? FYI: Legislatures are only a single faction amongst all these “do gooders”. What ever happened to entrusting good judgment to that person in whose hands the practice of their craft, the management of joint enterprises, and administration of blocks of inter-human arrangements was given?

What worries us most? Is it the fallibility issue or the moral issue? Do we worry that people, the experts in their field, really don’t know what they’re doing? Is it that we worry that the expertise of such people might be put to further their own selfish ends?

I could argue that the fallibility argument is bogus since it applies all the way down the line to all practitioners of judgment, and make the further point that the expert in a given field is less likely to err in the capacity of their craft than their watchdog whose expertise is…well what is their expertise really? But I won’t. I’ll resist to make another more human or humane point instead.

This time I shall speak at the risk of being called a Marxist (FYI:  I did write my MA thesis on Marxism. 🙂 ) Standardized methods have created a mechanistic professional culture that ultimately deprives us of our right to think for ourselves, and devalues and undercuts the creative process. This streamline effect finds the concrete individual factored out of the equation and as a result she not only becomes alienated from the outputs of her professional activity (alienation from the products of labour in Marxist lingo), but also from herself. She becomes an automaton, no longer recognized as the agential subject unto self. Like an outer garment hanging from a mannequin, she is no longer actively engaged in an activity that can be described as anything but a hollow imposition (alienation of the worker from herself in Marxist lingo).

Is it any wonder that doctors, teachers, lawyers and economists as Barry Schwartz contends, are failing us? A thoughtful being experiencing the brunt of this alienation will wrestle with aligning herself with expectations and affirming herself in her work as an embodied, purposeful activity. But often, very often (sigh!), gaining in notoriety, acquiring a successful career with substantive monetary returns, dulls our more human propensity for self-appropriation, and our investments turn to the execution of tasks requiring our expertise, and away from the needs and desires of those for whom our services were designed to accommodate. Though Barry Schwartz seems to suggest that the failure of professionals begot rules – I’m not at liberty to provide a diagnostic overview – I’m fairly certain that he would not object to my rendition.

So bring more rules to meet the failure of professional involvement – scripts for teachers, a list of mandates for judges and so on – and incentives to realign the “self-interest” of these professional experts with the interests of the recipients of their craft. So let’s bring in mandatory assessment policies – in the case of education, standardized tests to ensure that students are acquiring the “knowledge” teachers are expected to impart – and promotions and monetary incentives.

But what does this bring? The further cultivation of a rule-based system of automata that derive satisfaction from success that is valued monetarily for the most part. The basic principe of utility suggests maneuvering oneself to cash in on the monetary ends of one’s endeavours at the lowest possibly cost. The example of the educational consultant, Ms. Dewey, illustrates this nicely. So, work the system. More rules please. Let’s realign these self-serving tactics to better serve students, and clients…again…and again…and again. Rules beget more rules ad nauseam.

Barry Schwartz offers an outline of Aristotelian virtue ethics as a counter-position. We need to get back to the people and to speak to their authentic desire to creatively and virtuously employ their talents and capabilities. Specifically he speaks of practical wisdom or phronesis as ‘the practical will to do the right thing and the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is’. This involves permitting each professional the space to “bend the rules” (fewer functioning rules as basic guidelines) in the service of the benefactors of her practices. This view is premised on that earlier Platonic position developed in The Republic, which traces the genealogy of all professions to basic and socially acquired human need. So, for instance, farmers, cooks, cobblers and builders address the basic human need for food and shelter. Farmers are in the service of providing fellow citizens with nourishing food and will be selected to serve their interests based on her capacity to master an understanding of agriculture. Of course today the politics of professional placement would be shunned, still the point remains that when one is permitted the luxury to cultivate personal virtues that are then put into the service of a professional career both the practitioner of the profession and her recipients are humanely satisfied. It is no longer the case of the interests of each individual offset against the other, for in this dynamic and concretely interpersonal exchange, the practitioner employs her expertise as an authentic externalization of one’s being – hence caters to her self-interest first and foremost of a complex human being – the recipient is no longer an expedient in a utility programmatic, but that concrete individual for whom one’s purposively orientation is in the service of.


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