Almost any rule, low or ethical principle can be deconstructed using what I call border anomalies. The first time I was aware of it was as a Harvard freshman in the late Sixties, when all assumptions, good and bad, useful and not, were considered inherently suspect. The college required all students to wear jackets and ties to meals at the student union, and up until my first year, nobody objected. But that fall, my classmates set out to crack the dress code, so they showed up for meals with ties, jackets, and no pants, or wearing belts as ties, or barefoot. (Yes, there were a lot of future lawyers in that class.) Pretty soon Harvard gave up, because litigating what constitutes ties, jackets and “proper dress” became ridiculously time-consuming and made the administration look petty and stupid. Of course, there are good reasons for dress codes—they are called respect, dignity, community and civility—-but never mind: the dress code couldn’t stand against those determined to destroy them by sending them down the slippery slope.
If any rules are to survive to assist society in maintaining important behavioral standards, we have to determine how we want to handle the effects described by the Ethics Incompleteness Theory, which holds that even the best rules and laws will be inevitably subjected to anomalous situations on their borders, regarding which strict enforcement will result in absurd or unjust results. The conservative approach to this dilemma is to strictly apply the law, rule or principle anyway, and accept the resulting bad result as a price for having consistent standards. The liberal approach is no better: it demands amending rules to deal with the anomalies, leading to vague rules with no integrity—and even more anomalies. The best solution, in my view, is to regard the anomalies as exceptions, and to handle them fairly, reasonably and justly using basic principles of ethics, not strictly applying the rule or law alone while leaving it intact. Continue reading