The other day I came across a good TED video of Barry Schwartz discussing the importance of making sure we don’t substitute following rules for using our good sense and practical wisdom. The great irony, he points out, is that rules can become a substitute for wisdom, and this, in turn, demoralizes people. Thus, ironically, rules can actually undermine virtue. Here’s the summary:
Barry Schwartz dives into the question “How do we do the right thing?” With help from collaborator Kenneth Sharpe, he shares stories that illustrate the difference between following the rules and truly choosing wisely.
It’s not that rules are always bad in themselves. But “they are like notes on a page — they get you started.” What we need are not people who thoughtlessly just follow the rules in spite of what the true intent may be and a spirit of mercy and generosity (see the Sermon on the Mount — we are to be more than just by being merciful as well), but rather people of virtue who apply the rules wisely while knowing how to exercise judgment, not just follow a script.
This reminds me of the time I went on a long bike ride, forgot my shirt (it was hot out), and well into the ride when I was really thirsty a gas station attendant wouldn’t sell me Gatorade or water because of the “no shirt, no shoes, no service rule.” (You can read about that here, along with the management lessons I draw out). Maybe that’s a good rule in general, but this was a clear case of a rule inadvertently being used in a way that denied the opportunity to serve a genuine case of human need (even if it was my mistake to forget my shirt and not take along more water!).
Here’s Barry Schwartz’s video: