Human intelligence is undervalued these days. We must do away with rulebooks and start trusting our own judgementby Richard Dawkins / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
How often do we petulantly mutter something equivalent to: “If I ruled the world, I’d…” Yet when an editor offers you the same self-indulgence out of the blue, the mind goes blank. Frivolous answers are easy enough to reel off: ban chewing gum, baseball caps and burqas, and equip all trains with mobile phone jammers. But such pettiness is unworthy of the editor’s generosity. How about the other extreme, the utopian, pie-in-the-sky decree of universal happiness, and abolishing starvation, crime, poverty, disease and religion? Too unrealistic. So here’s a manageably modest yet still worthwhile ambition: if I ruled the world, I would downgrade rulebooks and replace them, wherever possible, with humane, intelligent discretion.
I’m writing this on a plane, having just passed through security at Heathrow. A nice young mother was distraught because she wasn’t allowed to take on board a tub of ointment for her little girl’s eczema. The security man was polite but firm. She wasn’t even permitted to spoon a reduced quantity into a smaller jar. I couldn’t grasp what was wrong with that suggestion, but the rules were unbendable. The official offered to fetch his supervisor, who came and was equally polite, but she too was bound by the rulebook’s hoops of steel.
There was nothing I could do, and it was no help that I recommended a website where a chemist explains, in delightfully comedic detail, what it would actually take to manufacture a workable bomb from binary liquid ingredients, labouring for several hours in the aircraft loo, using copious quantities of ice in relays of champagne coolers helpfully supplied by the cabin staff.
The prohibition against taking more than very small quantities of liquids or unguents on planes is demonstrably ludicrous. It started as one of those “Look at us, we’re taking decisive action” displays, the ones designed to cause maximum inconvenience to the public just to make the dimwitted Dundridges who rule our lives feel important and look busy.
It’s the same with having to take our shoes off (another gem of official wallyhood that must have Bin Laden chuckling victoriously into his beard)—and all those other exercises in belated stable door-shutting. But let me get to the general principle. Rulebooks are themselves put together by human judgements. Often bad ones, but in any case judgements made by humans who were probably no wiser or better qualified to make them than the individuals who subsequently have to put them into practice out in the real world.
No sane person, witnessing that scene at the airport, seriously feared this woman was planning to blow herself up on a plane. The fact that she was accompanied by children gave us the first clue. Supporting evidence trickled in from the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard and, finally, from the absurdity of the notion that her tub of ointment could, in a million years, be magicked into a high explosive—certainly not in the cramped facilities afforded by an aircraft loo. The security official and his supervisor were human beings who obviously wished they could behave decently, but they were powerless: stymied by a rulebook. Nothing but an object, which, because it is made of paper and unalterable ink rather than of flexible human brain tissue, is incapable of discretion, compassion or humanity.
This is just a single example and it may seem trivial. But I am sure that you, dear reader, can list half a dozen similar cases from your own experience. Talk to any doctor or nurse, and hear their frustration with having to spend a substantial proportion of their time filling in forms and ticking boxes. Who sincerely thinks that is a good use of expert, valuable time; time that could be spent caring for patients? No human being, surely—not even a lawyer. Only a mindless book of rules.
How often does a criminal walk free on a “technicality”? Perhaps the arresting officer fluffed his lines when delivering the official caution. Decisions that will gravely affect a person’s life can turn on the powerlessness of a judge to exercise discretion and reach the conclusion that every single person in the court, including the criminal and his defence lawyer, knows is just.
It isn’t as simple as this, of course. Discretion can be abused, and rulebooks are important safeguards against that. But the balance has shifted too far in the direction of an obsessive reverence for rules. There must be ways to reintroduce intelligent discretion and overthrow the unbending tyranny of going by the book without opening the door to abuse. If I ruled the world, I would make it my business to find them.