The Little Bald Girl, The Ethics Incompleteness Principle And The Ethical Way To Handle Obvious Anomolies

Kamryn Renfro with her friend: obviously a troublemaker.

Kamryn Renfro with her friend: obviously a troublemaker.

In Grand Junction, Colorado, Caprock Academy student Kamryn Renfro was banned from attending her school after shaving her head in support of a friend undergoing chemotherapy to treat neuroblastoma, a rare type of cancer. Academy administrators told Renfro’s family that they would not permit the little girl to return to class after spring break because her shaved head violated a school dress code requiring that female students’ hair to be “neatly combed or styled. No shaved heads.”

This is obviously the kind of anomalous situation that calls for, indeed screams out for, a compassionate exception. Any school administrator who couldn’t see that is not just unqualified for his or her post, but not sufficiently intelligent or rational to be trusted with the welfare of children, or, I would say, to take tolls in the Lincoln Tunnel. If there really were a competition to see which enforcement of a “no-tolerance policy” would stand as the most outrageous of all time, I would suspect that this would be an entree. (It still wouldn’t win, though.)

As with many of these astounding examples of human cruelty and incompetence at work, this incident doesn’t even serve the school’s own interests. Terrible publicity is assured: anger from parents, cancer support groups, and the community is guaranteed, as is abuse and mockery from the national media and blogosphere. How can supposedly educated and responsible professionals be so foolish? How can people so foolish be involved in a field that would seem to require better quality of thought, like education?

It is a continuing mystery, but many of these fiascos could be avoided if the Ethics Incompleteness Principle were studied, learned and understood by anyone who may have to enforce a rule some day. I’ll republish the whole description from the Ethics Alarms glossary, just in case any aspiring school administrators are reading, especially those who might want to torture young children some day:

The Ethics Incompleteness Principle: Czech-born mathematician Kurt Gödel’s two Incompleteness Theorems, which relate to mathematical proofs, are  the inspiration for this observation that applies to normative rules, systems, moral codes, laws and other principles. The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will achieve its desired effects, that is work, in every instance. There are always anomalies around the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to temporarily abandon the system or rule and return to basic principles to find the solution. No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.

The EIP tells us that no rule is perfect, and since that is true, “no-tolerance” policies and strict enforcement of any measure, no matter how generally reasonable, are doomed to create ridiculous scenarios like publicly punishing a little girl for wanting to support a cancer-stricken friend. In this case, however, the Eithics Incompleteness Principle should not have been necessary. All that was required is some compassion, common sense and humanity by those on charge, and those qualities were lacking.


Facts: Raw Story

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31 thoughts on “The Little Bald Girl, The Ethics Incompleteness Principle And The Ethical Way To Handle Obvious Anomolies

  1. I’m more cynical. I don’t think that no tolerance rules and other such garbage are well-intended but fall victim to ethical incompleteness. I think they are a lazy way for educators to avoid having to make a judgement call. That’s probably a combined effect- making judgement calls is hard, after all, and even if you felt like analyzing situations and making calls you might make someone upset and they’d yell at you. A zero tolerance policy means that even if someone gets mad at you you can point to the policy and plead “my hands are tied!”

    Of course, one might wonder what possible pedagogical or educational principle is to be served by banning shaved heads, particularly a sex-specific ban.

  2. I love discussions of the ethics incompleteness theorem. Another good one.

    One quibble perhaps:

    “As with many of these astounding examples of human cruelty and incompetence at work, this incident doesn’t even serve the school’s own interests. Terrible publicity is assured: anger from parents, cancer support groups, and the community is guaranteed, as is abuse and mockery from the national media and blogosphere.”

    Let’s assume that the school IS in the right, but chose the wrong option because of “negative publicity”. Wouldn’t you then have chastised their behavior for allowing publicity to be a driving factor.

    If negative publicity should not be a factor in avoiding the right decision, then why should avoiding negative publicity be a factor in choosing the right decision?

    • Yes, bad publicity is non-ethical consideration in many respects. On the other hand, one could argue—hell, I might—that the school administrators have an ethical duty not to cause the school long term harm that in this case might argue for waiving the rule even if enforcing it was otherwise ethical, which it’s not.

  3. “Of course, one might wonder what possible pedagogical or educational principle is to be served by banning shaved heads, particularly a sex-specific ban.”

    In some areas, to avoid appearances of gang association (totally doesn’t apply here).

    Dress codes are usually not “zero tolerance” policies. I cannot image why suspension was the go-to response here; a five minute discussion would revealed that it was done in support of the cancer-stricken student, should that not have been immediately obvious.

    • True, I didn’t think of gang affiliation- as you said, doesn’t really work in this school, and you’d think that would be a unisex ban. I still bristle at the memory of a vice principal of my tiny rural school (think 100 or fewer kids to a grade) trying to suspend people for rolling up a pant leg when riding bikes to school to avoid the bike chain- apparently he read somewhere that different pant leg lengths are a gang sign. *Facepalm.*

  4. I’ve met a few reasonable school administrators in my day. Unfortunately they are the exception rather than the rule. I suggest we send Metamucil to the one’s in the district that made this ruling. Maybe it will help.

  5. Your suggested “wise response” is subject to the same limitations, so you should expect it also to lead to occasional trouble. For instance, schoolchildren might try to find out just how much they could get away with under it.

    • In which case a decent educator would be able to discern the child’s intent. (Or the parents as occasionally happens) I’ve seen both kinds of administrators, and I’m happy to say in my experience there are many more good ones than bad ones. My experience is only in Western states excluding California.

      • That’s missing the point, correct behaviour though it may be. The point was that the “wise response” is, itself, a rule, which means that it too can go astray in just the same way. The fact that you can resolve matters by not following a rule but by having individual discretion only helps until “having individual discretion” turns into a rule.

        This area gave rise to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century debate over “[government by] measures or men?”; since that was resolved in the U.S.A. in favour of “government of laws, not of men” – by force, not by reason – people with that background often have a cultural bias that way (whereas Confucianism tends to induce a bias the other way, from an approach that was partly a reaction to experience of problems with Legalism).

    • Why the scare quotes? You think punishing a girl for a compassionate act is wise? The problem here is that it’s also a stupid and arbitrary rule (do I have to post my giant bald head again?) Sure schoolchildren might try to find out just how much they could get away with, and competent administrators and teachers won’t let them. Problem solved. It isn’t wiser to teach a bad and destructive lesson—“kindness and sacrifice are wrong”—because teacher’s can’t handle nuance.

      • Those weren’t scare quotes, they are how to indicate that I was referring back to something mentioned before, or simply to mark it off in some way (unlike, say, “anomolies” if I merely wanted not to endorse the typo while continuing the sense of the wording containing it). The guilty flee where no man pursueth…

        I obviously didn’t make it clear enough that I saw a problem from that “wise response” hitting the same reefs, so “problem solved” is inherently wrong (it cannot cover all cases unless and until it provides a system for that – at or before which point it falls prey to the problems of rules); “problem addressed” is more appropriate. But I hope my reply to Wyogranny clarifies this, so see above.

      • Of COURSE [most] teachers can’t handle nuance. If it weren’t evident from their reliance on the crutch of absolute and zero-tolerance rules over decision making and analysis, look no further than how every subject is taught as absolute. History is a series of blacks and whites, English is largely rote memorization of the proper way to analyze the correct books, and math and science are each taught as the absolute truth without the slightest hint that you’re learning a simplified version. I still am grumpy about the amount of HS chemistry I had to totally forget in order to learn college chem.

  6. The more I think about the rule the more it boggles me anyway. If the cancer patient herself had been a student would they have told her she had to let her hair fall out in natural clumps rather than shaving it? What about a guy in the same boat as one of my friends- scraggly balding head by the time he was 16, which he shaved to preserve some dignity- perhaps we should develop a form for permission to shave and have them fill out a request for approval.

  7. The truly tin-foil-behatted among us might note that schools teaching a blind obedience to the rules – no matter the cost, extenuating circumstances, or personal preference – is exactly the lesson that modern public schools intend to teach. Stop thinking outside the box, and obey already, darn it!

  8. I’d guessed at the beginning that Kamryn had been punished under a hate-associated paraphernalia policy (i.e for resembling a skinhead). I don’t know whether the real case is marginally less ridiculous or a whole lot more.

    • True story: I once had to be prevented by roommates from going out in public wearing a plain dark T-shirt, jeans, red suspenders, and work boots, with a shaved head. Gotta love the accidental skinhead look…

        • I’m nowhere NEAR wealthy enough to start buying that sort of stuff. Of course, I do have a Nazi Mother’s Cross that I bought from my friend’s older brother when he was outof pot money, but that’s just for history’s sake…

          • Another true story: Last year, while checking out an antique store, I saw an army shirt that looked pretty nifty. I looked at the tag and was like, “Why does this cost 600 bucks…ohhh, that patch on the shoulder, right.” Said store had a lot of the souvenirs, weapons included. I haven’t been back since.

            That aside, I hope someone’s helping Kamryn and friend to get a book deal out of this whole business.

            • Wow… if they hadn’t known what they had and been charging for it I’d have snapped it up. Relics of history are awesome, even terrible history.

              • Probably not a good idea to show up an adult Halloween party wearing a WW2 Waffen-SS Uniform. However you could get away with a Marshall of the Soviet Army Uniform I’m sure, especially in the California bay area or in NYC. Anyway, either one would cost you a fortune.

  9. Godel and his wise theories notwithstanding, all this situation proves to me is that our schools are a shambles, run by morons, and are more detrimental, it seems, than no schooling at all. The lessons learned in today’s public schools so overreach a school’s mission (uh, education and academics?) as they intrude on every aspect of a student’s life that I am horrified. My son went to private schools, but when his private middle school — a great one — went to $30,000 a year, he was home schooled with a tutor. He’s brilliant, follows his own intellectual curiosity, can defend his position on just about anything with facts, and is also funny, and more important, kind. Didn’t learn that from a bunch of idiots blindly following rules that don’t apply across the board.

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