Thursday, March 18, 2010


"As a Mother..."

I've spent the last week or so slowly reading Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground. It's only about 200 pages and the prose isn't dense, but it's sooooo depressing that it's hard to read quickly. I'm still reeling from it.

It's about the ways in which people in various service and management roles bend rules they find inhumane to help people who need it. Dodson focuses mostly on three settings: workplaces, schools, and medical offices. In each setting, the core dilemma is the same; rules drawn up based on certain assumptions about people frequently don't fit the reality on the ground, and enforcing those rules as written would badly damage some very vulnerable people. Dodson examines managers who look the other way when employees take unauthorized time off to deal with child-related emergencies, physicians who bend rules to get needy patients into medical studies, and teachers who actually bring in food for students who they know don't get enough to eat at home.

The details of the stories are horrifying -- I'll admit having a hard time facing some of the things people do to children -- but the underlying logic is consistent. In Dodson's view, the economic facts of life for the working poor are absurdly bad and getting worse, and the consequences of that are most obvious in children. (The description of the connection between asthma and poverty was alone one of the most disturbing things I've read in a long time.) In her discussion of the reasons that practitioners of underground morality use to explain why they bend rules, she notes that many of them preface their explanation with a sort of demographic autobiography: "as a mother..." "as a black man..." "as a cancer survivor..." Those alternative narratives gave ways to defy the dominant cultural narrative of the free market.

Dodson's book reminded me of a nearly-forgotten classic. In the late '90's a wonderful book -- Avoiding Politics, by Nina Eliasoph -- offered a different interpretation of the "as a mother..." stories. Eliasoph noted that many politically active people had a hard time owning the theoretical sophistication they actually possessed, so in conversation, they would explain their politics by retreating to "as a mother..." Those autobiographical touchstones became a form of retreat from argument -- a way of avoiding politics -- that excused political participation as a sort of personal quirk. They gained a certain political authority by hiding their politics behind autobiography. In doing that, Eliasoph argued, they inadvertently contributed to the cultural default assumption that politics is somehow bad and private life good.

Although Eliasoph framed "as a mother" as a retreat from larger issues, and Dodson framed it as the beginning of engagement, I'm not sure the positions are really that different. It may be less a question of entering or avoiding larger issues and more a question of legibility. I have only the vaguest sense of how the economy works, but I have a pretty good sense of the basic obligations I have to my kids. If the rules in a given situation seem to compel me to treat people in ways that years of parenting tell me are wrong, it's easier and faster to get to that reaction than it is to suss out the particular reasons why. That's both good and bad, but it's probably unavoidable.

Any parent knows that there's a constant tension between the need for overall consistency and the need to recognize special circumstances. For example, we maintain pretty consistent bedtimes for the kids, but we make exceptions for travel and certain holidays. Similarly, anyone in a position to make decisions that affect other people at work -- whether it's managers and staff, professors and students, or whatever -- is constantly trying to balance the general rule that's "fair to other people" with the reality of the case in front of you. Over the years, you learn some rules of thumb to help with that balance. For example, the rule I wish all administrators would learn on their first day of work is that Secrecy Doesn't Work. If you cut someone a special break, you can bet money that others will find out about it. (The same holds with siblings.) Worse, if you don't explain the rationale behind it, they'll invent rationales to fill in the vacuum, and what they invent will often be far worse than the truth.

There's a basic dilemma, too, in palliating individual cases: you may actually prevent the wholesale change that's actually needed. In my perfect world, the rules would be fair enough that we could just enforce them as written and call it good. But we're not there. Some rules are outmoded or silly, but people's 'moral underground' adjustments have postponed the day of reckoning long enough that we just haven't had to fix them yet. I'm not a huge believer in forcing a crisis, but sometimes you have to rip off the band-aid. Too many side deals can amount to 'enabling' a lousy rule to outlive its usefulness.

I've done a few 'moral underground' actions in my time, as I imagine we all have. At the end of the day, you live with your own conscience. Sometimes it's just hard to know whether you're righting a wrong or enabling a greater wrong to continue. This one really struck a nerve.

Things don't change until they do.

I wouldn't worry about a decision not to sacrifice people on the altar of hoped-for systemic change. It may not come in our lifetimes, or ever. But human decency demands that we solve what's in front of us.

We live in bad times. The problems we face are ones our brains, evolved to manage social conflict in small bands, are poor at managing. And the ones worst at it are the ones most insistent they aren't.

Or, better put, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
In each setting, the core dilemma is the same; rules drawn up based on certain assumptions about people frequently don't fit the reality on the ground, and enforcing those rules as written would badly damage some very vulnerable people.

Political theorists have long argued that the source of those ill-fitting rules is scale--Big Free Market and Big Government. The bigger the scale of social interaction the farther those rules must necessarily be from the diversity of individual lives. This isn't about "dominant cultural narrative of the free market," it's about the narrative that people in DC or NYC should establish rules for how people here in Appalachia (or wherever) treat each other (be that by government or corporation).

Aren't these acts of moral rebellion a statement that the concrete local problems they confront are more important than an abstract quest for some platonic form of the "rules of the perfect world?" IMHO, the choice to put abstract consistency of principle above human diversity is, literally, inhumane.

In my Asian Politics class we just finished talking about the Khmer Rouge's decision to forgo palliative care in favor of "perfect rules." Knowing what happened to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, any time I hear someone suggest that it might be better to sacrifice individual human lives in a utopian search for "perfect rules," I get the urge to buy a gun. And speaking of Asia, if you ever get upset about what the "free market" does to children, you might take a moment to study what the lack of a free market in North Korea does to children.

You say:

In my perfect world, the rules would be fair enough that we could just enforce them as written and call it good. But we're not there.

Really? Do you think we'll ever get there?
I don't understand how the free market, either in theory or in practice, is incompatible with helping people.

I don't understand how the free market, either in theory or in practice, is incompatible with helping people.

The goal of the free market is private profit, not public welfare. If a profit-taking organization does anything to help people, that's a coincidental effect of the overriding goal--maximizing profits for shareholders.

Practical example: the health insurance industry. The goal of these companies is increase premiums as much as possible and pay out as little as possible for health care claims. The more effectively these companies restrict health care, the greater their profits. Note that this is not a moral condemnation of the people who run health care companies; it's just demonstrating the incentives that drive organizations in a free market system. If a health insurance company CEO's primary goal were "helping people" by reducing the cost of health insurance, she would be replaced by someone who more effectively maximized profits.
Rubashov -- perhaps we should look instead to the free market paradise of Somalia.
DD, can you say anything more about the physicians who " bend the rules" to get patients into medical studies? There's a difference between giving a dying patient access to an experimental drug, which I think is morally right, and formally including someone in a study when s/he doesn't fit the criteria. Adding extra variables to the experiment makes it harder to interpret the data on the drug's effectiveness, which could (in a worst-case scenario) allow a useless or dangerous drug to go to market. A physician in the "moral underground" could wind up killing someone else. Sometimes, rules have reasons that are not always obvious to the people on the ground.
I don't understand how the free market, either in theory or in practice, is incompatible with helping people.

Milo hit the nail on the head. Free market does help people, but it also doesn't. Free market gives incentives for businesses to perform in order to maximize profit. They have the choice to decide exactly how to maximize this profit.

But clothing/feeding the homeless is not a profitable business. Getting people into rehab is not profitable (for 90% of the country). If there were a way to profit from these areas, I'm sure business would be very competitive (imagine a world where soup kitchens competed with each other!). But I'm afraid that the only way to exploit a profit system from these helpful programs would be through very immoral means.
"IMHO, the choice to put abstract consistency of principle above human diversity is, literally, inhumane"

this is a slippery slope, as is the subject of the blog post. the problem with the above statement is that, you need an abstract consistency of principle to decide exactly how far to carry the statement. for instance, if behavioral consistency be damned, then should people who were caught speeding on the same road, at the same speed be punished differently just because we, as a society, had higher expectations out of driver A over driver B?

we have a cookie cutter system because, in a country of 300+ million, there is no way to handle things on an individual level and stay sane (and profitable). we have to apply a template to every day life, and then hope that there is a subculture of working adults who are charitable, hopeful, and who haven't given up. we hope that these people become super heroes within their professions, and that they take care of those who cannot survive within the normal system. we have the same hope within our own professions, down to the department/team level.

and things get insanely complicated with children, but i think the "exceptions to the rule" situations can be handled in a household, as the number of participants is small enough to manage. a government trying to manage 300+ million, each in his/her own distinct way is unfeasible. but i don't think it is beyond our capabilities for a mom and dad to handle 2-3 kids individually (in terms of modeling/molding/rewarding/punishing/allowing their behavior). the ratio is small enough that it is workable (key word is "work"). i would say that Rubashov's argument applies here (and agree that it is a matter of scale, where a small, family style scale is doable). i guess a good question would be: are normal, nuclear families based upon a free market system or a "big gov't" system?

i don't know why, but i'm reminded of a situation that i have seen. what would be your reaction if your 17 year old child gets unruly? what if he challenges you to a fight? most of us like to think we would teach him a lesson and put him in his place. but what if you are a 5'10", 185lb dad, and your kid is a 6'3", 280lb monster whom you couldn't stop (as was the case with my brother and I). i think, at this point, each parent's reaction would be different, and that is acceptable and understandable. but if you think about it in broader terms, and asked the question "what should be the government's reaction when a 6'3", 280lb citizen gets unruly? what should be the government's reaction if he tries to instigate fights with normal citizens?", reactions would become very, very similar, because the resources needed would be similar.
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