Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Staying within the rules: losing your marbles

One distinction not much made in the case of MP's expenses is the one between rules and morals. Piaget wrote about the development of morals in children.

Before the age of five, he argues, children have little concept of either rules or morality (he calls this the stage of premoral judgment). The child simply doesn't understand other people's consciousness.

Next comes moral realism, where it is the rules that count. You keep to the rules because if you don't, you get punished. You may get a bad feeling anticipating such punishment and this may in fact feel like a moral sense. Bad effect is associated with wrong action.

After seven, says Piaget, we enter on the stage of moral relativitism that lasts the rest of our lives. We know rules are not immutable and that there may be moral reasons for changing them. We become aware of other people and their intentions. We argue. We relativise.


Well, that's Piaget and things move on. Nevertheless, I still can't quite see Westminster as an isolated moral vacuum, and there must be something in the distinctions made between keeping within the rules ("Still you keep o' the windy side of the law," says Fabian to Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, when encouraging him to write a potentially actionable letter) and the moral spirit that might have enabled members to bear in mind the world outside.

One conclusion might be that rules actually supplant morality. They stand in for it. Rules, argues Piaget (from the way children played marbles according to game rules), are social conventions and when everyone around you is obeying the same social conventions, you feel you are doing nothing wrong.

Rules normalise games and close out other considerations. The rules of a game override other social rules while you are in the game. I remember feeling irritated because, when playing Monopoly on one occasion in my childhood, my mother insisted on giving us back the houses we had lost. Her feelings ran outside the rules. She was bending them for the moral ends of making her children happy. In my irritated mode I might have argued that she wanted more to be seen to perform the grand gesture of making her children happy and therefore not preparing them for life, but let that go. She would then have been shocked to have her motives so questioned, and indeed she might not have had any such motive.

How complicated the mind is.

So one MP is entitled to a house he lives in some of the time and thinks: Why should my daughter not live there some of the time? It is within the rules. And it may be within the rules. The game rules accommodate whatever does not directly run counter to them.

Morality must encompass something far wider than local game rules. We feel outraged because they have not been bothered, or even able, to encompass that wider realm, the realm that includes us.

Game rules are mob rule too. One man may never think of crushing the head of another, but within the social game rules of the moment, he may feel justified in doing so. I have watched wrestling crowds baying for blood. Mostly it is pantomime. But the baying is within the rules.

So now, we bay. That too is within the rules.

As someone in a letter to one of the newspapers put it: those who have committed fraud should be charged as criminals; those who have consciously bent the rules should be sacked or be told to resign; those who have stayed within the rules but have acted immorally should offer themselves to the public for re-election.

Maybe the rules need to be torn up from time to time in order to be reframed as morality. Maybe that is what a revolution is.


Poet in Residence said...

"Morality must encompass something far wider than local game rules"

- Spot on. This is the crux of the matter. As an example, here in Austria we now drive on the right. It's the rule. A man called Adolf Hitler made the rule. It was a way to reinforce authority. Previously Austrians had to drive on the left. That was the old rule.

Be aware of the motives of those who make rules. That's your first rule.

James Hamilton said...

Somewhat OT, but you remind me of something I'd forgotten, namely how beautiful marbles often were. Like precious stones for schoolboys - but deadly serious sporting equipment at the same time. What could be better?

(How depressing the news is this week. I caught a glimpse on a silent TV screen last night of a wheelchair-bound little boy blowing into tubes to move onscreen lego and thought "I hope this means something new for people like him." Saw the same clip later with the sound on: the little boy dies and his distraught parents jump off Beachy Head with his body. That and Air France. Enough to make spiralling resignations from a government I support come over as material for the "And finally.." comedy spot).

George S said...

Yes, Gwilym. Though my case is that it is easy to mistake rules for morality. "If institutions that are to be respected have agreed these to be the rules, they must have acted morally, and therefore if I work within the rules, I too must be acting morally." In other words the confusion is natural if one extends it to other spheres. Much of the time, I suspect, we fly on moral auto-pilot, as some of these MPs must have done.

There is nothing to be done regarding the necessity for rules. We need them and want them in order to construct anything at all, whether it is a verse or a constitution. It is when rules dramatically conflict with the larger moral sphere - when they obscure and blank it out - that moral crime is committed. Is that the Catholic distinction between a mortal and a venial sin?

Is driving on the right inherently fascist? Or did it create more jobs in the motor industry, while demonstrating the power of dictat?


Marbles are beautiful. We have a glass jar of marbles in the window so the marbles catch the light. I don't think children play with marbles much now. Lovely photo link. Thanks, James.

Poet in Residence said...

"Is driving on the right inherently fascist?"

The short answer is probably YES.
An old Chinese saying goes something like: Travel on the left when going to visit friends and on the right when going to war.

I suspect that the reason for this bit of ancient Chinese wisdom is that in olden times (in England too) the traveller on his horse or on foot would go on the left, for the majority is right-handed, for the traveller would have his weapon with which to defend himself fastened on his left side. He could then defend against any outlaw coming towards him by drawing his pistol, sword from scabbard, belt etc. from its place with his right hand.
Militaristic nations marching their soldiers and cavalry about the place would naturally travel on the right to be able to overtake the donkey, horses, stagecoaches etc. travelling on the left. Oncoming travellers would of course simply have to get out of the way of the army.

Poet in Residence said...

I should add that with motorized transport everybody would have to travel on the same side of the road. In fascist states, or lands where large numbers soldiers were forever on the move and where the military habitually made the rules - driving would probably evolve to be on the right side.

George S said...

That's very nice, Gwilym. I didn't know the Chinese saying. And the detail that follows.

Mind you, in the days of Empire, the friendships engendered by the British driving on the left, might have been a little nervous.

Poet in Residence said...

Say you invade a country where everybody drives on the left and you order them to drive on the right and say the majority continues to drive on the left what then? You can't very shoot them all or put them all in jail.
There's an Benjamin Britten interesting quote about passive disobedience I've just posted by coincidence on my PiR. See review of chamber opera Owen Wingrave. And it works An Indian in a white sheet and a pair of chappals defeated the might of the British Empire.

James said...

..with a great deal of help from Hitler and ('45-8) the stipulations of the United States. If only Sophie Scholl, Janani Luwum, Aung Suu Kyi and co had been/could be so lucky.

And you can shoot them all, or put them all in gaol: the 20th century is littered with examples. 1939-45 apart, which is the most obvious, Soviet history demonstrates what you can do to specific populations if you have the will and the room.

On a lighter note, "you invade a country where everybody drives on the left and you order them to drive on the right and say the majority continues to drive on the left" sounds splendidly Dad's Army.

Poet in Residence said...

James, Hitler's strategy was straight out of a Karl May cowboy and indian book. First you give them hard time - (destroy the economy with punitive cross-border taxes) - then you say the grass is greener if only they will believe you (you promise the earth and all its bounty) - then you get them to give you all their treasure (e.g. to pay for thousands of VW cars they'll never see, and take all the gold from their bank) - then you tell them there's a common enemy (could be the British or the French or the Jews - it doesn't really matter who ) and so it goes on...
And if they do kill you it's probable in the spirit of they were going to kill you anyway.
On a lighter note: A town in Wales (perhaps Fishguard?) defeated a French Invasion fleet with a trick. They welcomed the French like heroes, said thanks for coming to save us from the terrible English, let's have a party to celebrate. And what a party it was. When the French sobered up they found they were all in prison. It was the last invasion of mainland Britain.