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The Ethics of Deciding between People and Rules

When human societies became bigger and more complex, it was necessary for human conduct to be guided by sets of rules and laws. The absence of guidelines for personal and social conduct meant chaos. Rules and regulations became the abstract markers for what we collectively deem acceptable and beneficial behavior.

Penalties and sanctions for unacceptable behavior were created for us to collectively understand the difference between good and bad. Immoral and moral. However, guidelines, rules, and regulations too must evolve. What constitutes “acceptable” has changed throughout the history. The education and empowerment of women is one such area. Before 1920, for example, it was illegal for women in the United States to vote.

Elma Berisha’s essay, The Ethics of Deciding Between People and Rules, discusses why rules and laws need to evolve because a fast-changing reality calls for evolving understanding. Berisha of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Institute of Finance has been involved in the study of public perceptions in Malaysia and Singapore, monitoring issues like public safety, corruption, and urban development. The full essay can be found in the book Leaders in Development: Enhancing Your Leadership Effectiveness in a Changing World.

The Quicksand of Changing Rules

Rules are sometimes difficult to follow. A social or cultural system of monolithic rules is confining if it does not allow room for alternatives. If a system of rules or norms is too rigid and fails to take into account the inevitable exceptions, it may come to embody an anti-life stance, for life, by nature, keeps evolving, and systems regulating the social interactions should follow suit. “Where roads are made I lose my way,” says Tagore. New situations are always arising, and if the rules do not change accordingly, they represent an anti-learning approach. Their rigidity suggests a failure to learn from emerging opportunities, from challenges and risks, from immediate surrounding.

Thus, ethical questions often arise not because some people do not comply with the rules but because there is a confusion about existing rules as they apply to unprecedented scenarios. The newly emerging and controversial fields of bioengineering, fintech, and geo-engineering are cases in point. On August 27, 2016, The Economist argued, “New technologies, from sharing economy apps to blockchain, offer routes around some of the trust deficits that stand in the way of growth. Yet, whether such solutions to problems of mistrust build on or undermine social ties is no easy question to answer.”

In pre-modern times, the life-overrule rate of change was slower and more manageable. Nowadays, this rate of change will only increase. Given the fast pace of technological developments, no rules are likely to hold for long. Our society’s rules will have to be reinvented quickly—but, at the same time, it will be necessary to maintain some form of permanency and longevity over time. If it is too easy to break a rule, then that rule has no meaning; people will simply find self-serving reasons to circumvent it. The challenge is that people are unlikely to abide by a regulation today that they know will change tomorrow. They will either simply  wait for it to change or rush ahead before the new rule is introduced, depending on their situations.

Therefore, norms and regulations, even if they are temporary, remain useful only if they are perceived as permanent and indispensable. That perception of stability is necessary for the “manufactured normalcy field to function. So, while globalization has helped us transcend parochialism, it also risks instituting a slippery slope of constant change, which does not fit well with our human need for predictability, familiarity, and stability.

By Elma Berisha