Rules Cannot Replace Wisdom

Is judgement useful?   How important are principles?  Apparently, the social system is moving towards the simplest of all guides – rules.

There are many sectors of our society where the distinction between rule based and principle based structure is important.  Policing and Education are two.  Both deal with complicated situations.   In both sectors, rules have overtaken principles and judgement.

A case in point is the recent arbitration award to the Chief of Police and his deputy in Peterborough, Ontario.  Their contracts provided them with severance pay if the police service was replaced by a new entity.  Possibly the OPP.  In fact the service split into a big part and a small part with the small part being taken over by the OPP.  The larger part retained the chief and his deputy with the same pay, same job description, same benefits and even the same office. Nothing was different.  Not a day was missed.

However, they were, under their employment contract, entitled to severance pay and they claimed it. A bit over $450,000.  The city objected but an arbitrator sided with the chiefs.  There has been a public outcry and national news coverage of the award.

The chief’s response is interesting. 

“A deal’s a deal.” 

His belief apparently is that a contract trumps reason.

People who believe rules can describe every situation and that necessarily, “A deal’s a deal”, lack judgement.  Life is too complex to describe every possible situation with rules and contracts.  Judgement is the key to dealing with anomalies.  Over-reliance on rules results in bitter conflict.

Policing should involve rules but judgement and principle should be the go-to option when the rule is inadequate. Usually because the context of the present situation is one that the rule never considered.

The principle of policing is to maintain order in the society.  To use the force of the larger society to deal with those who have mistreated another member of society.  To provide fundamental fairness.  Policing principles should not include the intent to “catch people” who break some rule. Police officers who see enforcement exclusively as a rule thing should not be officers.

Rules are, at their very best, no more than a guideline or template.  They cannot define everything that could happen.

I agree with the chief that contract law matters.  I disagree with the chief that a poorly worded clause matters when it conflicts with the principle that it attempts to cover.  Making that distinction is a judgement thing.  Not many will see how severance pay is reasonable and intended when nothing is lost.

Replacing judgement with rules does not work.

Policing has lost respect over the past 50 years.  Part of the reason is that rules have taken priority. Trivial rules outweigh people and the reasonable objectives of society.  Contract law and rules are important but only to the extent that they are strong recommendations about behaviour and other interactions.

Baseball great, Nolan Ryan once commented that umpires complaining about lack of respect could easily overcome that issue.  “If they want more respect, they have to umpire better.”

Rules and careful adherence to them never describes wisdom while principles and judgement do.

Don’t get me started on education.  Comparatively, policing is brilliant.

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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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