Tuesday, October 04, 2005
On our obligations to bureaucrats
Anyone who has dealt with a bureaucracy knows that the rules and procedures followed by bureaucrats fail to have these qualities. Clients recognize, almost innately, that the rigidity of bureaucratic thinking is inconsistent with the plasticity required for successful navigation of an irreducibly complex world. Indeed, the frustration often expressed toward bureaucrats is a manifestation of this recognition.
The shortcomings of bureaucratic cosmology may not undermine the bureaucrat's own justification for endorsing the supremacy of bureaucratic law. They do mean, however, that the clients of a bureaucracy need not feel morally bound by its rules and procedures. Clients, that is, have not shirked an obligation merely because their actions fail to conform to bureaucratic law.
The particular shape of a client's encounter with bureaucracy may seem to create other obligations. Consider, for example, that clients are often required to make representations to bureaucrats about how things are, and that strictly truthful representations sometimes gum up the works of the bureaucratic mechanism. Thus, making strictly truthful representations to bureaucrats may prevent clients from accomplishing their ends. Importantly, this kind of situation can arise even in cases where the client's ends are such that they would have been approved had the bureaucracy's rules and procedures been appropriately sensitive to the granularity of the world. And yet, even assuming that the client's ends are permissible and that he has no reason to endorse bureaucratic law, there is a prima facie reason to think that he has an obligation to make a strictly truthful representation. Namely, that failure to do so would be an instance of lying to a person.
Kant's moral theory offers an attractive diagnosis of the wrongness of lying, a diagnosis which, when considered at a certain remove from the rest of his theory, seems to capture the core of our ethical concerns in this area. On Kant's view, lying to a person is wrong primarily because it interferes with the person's capacity to make reasoned choices. To lie to a person, on this account, is a way of short circuiting their rational processes so that they may be manipulated to serve your ends. Insofar as we have a duty not to treat people as objects to be manipulated in the service of our own ends, then, we have a duty not to lie.
Now, consider a case in which a false representation is made to a bureaucrat. In our imagined case, the client wishes to accomplish some end, but the end can only be accomplished through the action of the bureaucrat. Moreover, given a true representation the bureaucrat will refuse to act as needed. The purpose of the false representation, then, is to manipulate the bureaucrat into taking the desired action.
On the face of things it seems abundantly clear that making a false representation in such a case would be a violation of our duty not to lie. Take note, however, of the rationale that is available to the client here. That rationale fixes on two points: first, the fact that the rigidity of bureaucratic thinking is at odds with the practical need for plasticity; and, second, that the bureaucrat's fealty to bureaucratic law stands in the way of engaging the bureaucrat in reasoned discussion about her actions. If we look closely at the second of these points we will see, I think, that it is sometimes permissible to lie to bureaucrats.
The claim made by the second point is that the bureaucrat, in virtue of her commitment to bureaucratic law, has removed herself from the domain of reason. Since there is nothing we could possibly say to such a bureaucrat which would move her to reconsider the principle of her action, we have no choice but to view her as a cog in the bureaucratic machine. In this light, any representation we make to her – truthful or not – is best understood as an action taken for the purpose of manipulating that machine.
This is not to say that individuals who become bureaucrats are not persons. Rather, they are persons who have committed themselves to the project of being bureaucrats. To make a misrepresentation to such an individual in her role as bureaucrat is fundamentally different from making a misrepresentation to her as a person. This comes out in the fact that a misrepresentation to her as a bureaucrat leaves all of her commitments as a person untouched. Put another way, making a misrepresentation to her as a bureaucrat doesn't interfere with her capacity to make choices as a person. And the key fact here, I am claiming, is that insofar as she is committed to the project of being a bureaucrat, the individual has muzzled her faculty of choice. She is not, therefore, susceptible to manipulation in any objectionable way.