A Jefferson County, Alabama School Board “Motrin case” exemplifies a problem with any formal system of rules or laws. In that case, widely reported in the news, presumably for its unreasonable harshness, since school punishments do not normally make the news, an A/B honors student was suspended from school for 30 days because she had Motrin in her possession for menstrual cramps, instead of her parents’ leaving it at the nurse’s office, as school rules require. The Board’s comment was that they are one of 129 districts in the state under a “zero tolerance” policy by the Alabama Department of Education, which is essentially a version of “We are only following orders.”
Formal systems are those where the merit of any outcome depends only on whether it was arrived at by the prescribed procedure and the applicable rules, not by whether the outcome makes any sense or is fair. When stated that way, formal systems seem to be pointless, since surely no one would want to follow rules that lead to wrong or arbitrary results just for the sake of adhering to a procedure. Yet much of what we do in life is based on formal systems. And we are taught from early in life that we all need to abide by the rules.
Our legal system is a formal system, as are most sports. The problem with any such system is that it is entirely possible, and from time to time it happens, that results are declared right by the system, results that everyone knows are a travesty of justice, fairness, and reason. The clearest cases are those in sports where referees make obvious and egregious, mistaken calls that millions of people see over and over on television and that can not be overruled within the rules of the game either because there is no instant replay rule or because the coach has already used up his allotted challenges. Many football games and some national championships have turned on such calls.
The problem is not so much that mistakes can be made, since that can happen in any system. The problem is that in formal systems there is no way to rectify mistakes when they are identified from outside the system itself. It does not matter that tens of millions of people see a receiver get his feet in bounds while in control of a football if the ref mistakenly thought he did not. In the record books and on the field of play, it was just an incomplete pass.
Another problem is that there can be bad or inadequate laws or rules, many of which do not show up as bad or problematic until something happens that gives a result which is obviously flawed but cannot be remedied from within the system at the time because there is no mechanism for recognizing exceptions.
The reason we have formal systems is to try to lend objectivity to judgment of those in power. But for this to be a reasonable procedure, there must be some way to make the rules themselves be reasonable and moral. For anyone who accepts obviously wrong results merely because it follows procedures that have no good rationale, or any reasonable remedy, is ignoring his or her actual moral obligations. Now there are various systems for trying to enact and ensure only reasonable and fair rules, but since people are not omniscient or infallible, sometimes bad, or eventually inadequate, rules will be enacted. Intentionally ignoring when that happens is to confuse objectivity with blind obedience.
Without some way of allowing judgment to override rules in a particular case where that would seem reasonable and fair to do, formal systems can demand unreasonable, unfair, or morally wrong results. Compliance then yields morally wrong, not morally laudable, behavior.
The typical argument for having to follow bad rules until they are changed is to uphold the social order and prevent chaos or anarchy. However, there are at least six responses to that. First, the kind of cases where the problem arises, as in the Motrin case, are not wholesale cases of rule abandonment and total anarchy. No one is arguing that because the Motrin rule punishment in this case is ridiculous all rules and laws should be ignored. We do not have to fear that young women who carry Motrin in their purses in school are thereby fomenting violent revolution and wholesale destruction of the social fabric.
Second, obeying rules no matter what they are is simply another version of “following orders”, and following orders or obeying rules does not justify wrong behavior. One cannot claim a wrong act is right because it falls under a rule any more than one can claim there is nothing wrong with killing someone for hire because one is obligated to honor contracts. Choosing to follow a rule that gives a wrong result in a particular case is no different from doing wrong without having a rule to follow. One is still choosing to do the wrong thing.
Third, following bad rules (or punishing people for breaking bad rules) can be more immoral, and worse for the social fabric and for mankind, than breaking them. Rules requiring Germans to report hidden Jews in the Nazi era, rules requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their “owners”, and rules requiring children to have to remain with abusive parents were all rules that were better to break than to obey. These are obvious cases now, though the child abuse and slave return cases were not obvious at the time.
But rules do not have to be matters of physical punishment, slavery, or execution to be bad enough to deserve exception or disobedience. There is nothing sacred about following bad rules at all even if they are rules whose penalties are not physically severe, as if it were okay to harm people a little bit more than they deserve, as long as you don’t harm them to the point of slavery, death, or permanent physical impairment. In the Motrin case, the rule that requires suspension of the student is a bad rule, because the penalty far exceeds the nature of the supposed transgression, and its enforcement was a miscarriage of moral justice. In some cases, suspensions result in a life sentence of missed opportunity for a simple mistake. It showed a flaw in the system and the moral sense of those who administer it more than it demonstrated a flaw in the student’s behavior or moral character.
Fourth, slavish adherence to bad rules, as well as enacting bad rules in the first place, in any social system probably causes more disrespect for a system which permits and encourages that than does making exceptions in reasonable cases.
Fifth, it is difficult to get many bad rules changed because they often affect only a few people that insufficient others care about to get the rules changed. It is easy to say “the student and her parents should have known better; and she deserves the punishment” if it is not your child or a child you care about, or if the rule is one you do not think will ever affect you or your family.
Sixth, getting rules changed may prevent future people from suffering under a bad rule, but it does nothing to prevent or remedy the injustice to the current victim of the injustice. The duty to get bad rules changed for the future does not erase the duty to prevent their doing harm and injustice in the present.
Formal systems of justice need to have some mechanism to allow for discretion when rules
conflict with reason. If not, then people must use their discretion in choosing between following
the rules or doing what is fair, just, and reasonable. Contrary to what many claim, rules do not
eliminate choice, nor does blindly following them absolve one of responsibility for the results.
Those who follow bad rules are exercising a moral choice to do so and are thus morally culpable
for any hurtful actions the rules demand. It is never true to say one has no choice but to obey the
law. Obeying the law is itself a moral choice. Formal systems need to recognize and reflect that.