Monday, September 20, 2021

Authority, Responsibility, Freedom & Ordered Liberty: How a Basic Management Practice Clarifies Our Civic Duties

In the past year or two the Covid pandemic has prompted serious questions about our civic responsibilities and individual freedoms. Vaccination and mask mandates, business and school closures, travel restrictions and other attempts by public health officials to control the spread and reduce casualties from the disease have been met by fierce opposition from some folks while being welcomed by others. Many of those opposed to the mitigation measures feel that their individual freedoms are being trampled. 

In this essay I'd like to explore how a widely accepted business practice, that of balancing authority and responsibility, has clarified and inspired me to think differently about these issues. In particular, I'd like to suggest that these are not so much legal or constitutional questions as they are questions of morality. 

Authority versus Responsibility: Why the Balance Matters

Let's start by defining some terms. The following video distinguishes authority from responsibility and shows how balancing these is simply a matter of fairness. 
To summarize the video:

  • Authority is the full empowerment to take action. It is the authorization to use money, tools and people to get a job done.
  • Responsibility is the state of being held accountable for the completion of certain actions. For the responsible party "the buck stops here" in terms of a specified task completed or a given result attained; he or she bears the consequences of having exercised authority.
Clear lines of authority and responsibility help project team members, middle managers and senior managers sort out who should be doing what, when. But at its essence, balancing authority and responsibility is about achieving a fundamental fairness. A lack of that balance can lead to confusion, victimization, resentment and generally bad relationships within the organization.

Civic Freedom as Authority

In a sense, our civic freedom is a kind of authority. By granting this freedom to each other through our Constitution and Bill of Rights we are all empowered (i.e., authorized) to act on the world. But unless you are absolutely alone, far from any other humans, your actions can have have consequences that affect others. In a civilized society, where we necessarily share public spaces and resources, we have a duty (i.e, a responsibility) to be aware of the consequences of our actions and adjust them in order to respect the boundaries of our fellow citizens and their freedom to act.

The Lion and the Gazelle: A Case Study in Absolute Freedom

Consider this example. Imagine a primordial African savannah. There are no shared resources, no shared spaces, no protections. Each creature is absolutely free to act on any impulse without regard to the impact on any other creature. The gazelle has no right to safely enter a particular space. Nor does the lion have any obligation to defer to any of its fellow creatures.

The lion and the gazelle have no agreement to share their world. There are no roads, no schools, no shared firefighters or police protection, no shared public spaces, etc. In short, the lion exercises its absolute freedom, devouring the gazelle and dominating whatever territory it chooses.

My Fist versus Your Nose: The Concept of "Ordered Liberty"

There's an old saying, “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.”  What this means is, in contrast to that primordial savannah, a civilized society recognizes some mutually agreed-upon limitations to individual freedom, originating in our shared public spaces and resources.

In fact, our framers codified this perspective in the concept of "ordered liberty" when they were debating what provisions of the Bill of Rights were to be upheld by the states. (See Webster's "Ordered Liberty" legal definition.) explains (my bold added):

"A loosely used term, diversely applied in scholarly literature and judicial opinions, 'ordered liberty' suggests that fundamental constitutional rights are not absolute but are determined by a balancing of the public (societal) welfare against individual (personal) rights." 

In short, in moral and civic terms, our freedom extends only as far as it threatens or causes harm or loss to others. It's through this lens that we must view statements like, "It's a free country!"  Yes, we are generally free to act on our impulses. No, we can't act on impulses that endanger or constrain others. So my freedom to drive wherever I want does not extend to my ignoring stop signs or driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

And it's worth noting that these framers worked together in a cooperative fashion (though they were sometimes fiercely adversarial) to create a set of common boundaries for behavior. They were not individual rogues interested purely in self empowerment. They were crafting the rules of the road for an entire democratic society.

Of Masks and Vaccines and Civic Duty

Viewed in light of the balance of our freedom and civic duties, our current debate about mandatory Covid vaccination and masking is not so much a legal question as it is a moral one. We have a civic duty to NOT serve as breeding ground for a disease and potentially be an unsymptomatic, stealth carrier. And we have a duty to NOT breathe invisible aerosolized virus particles on our fellow citizens. And since we can't know, minute to minute, whether we actually are unsymptomatic carriers, we have a responsibility to protect each other by masking when we enter publicly shared spaces and by getting vaccinated.

Forget legalities and contentious, self-serving personal interpretations of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. These can be devisive abstractions. What we need to propagate are some key moral values related to the pandemic. Such values would embody appropriate civic duties that balance our freedom and manifest our "ordered liberties" related to the pandemic. Here are the most important:

  • It's not okay to threaten others' health and safety, consciously or unconsciously, by showing up unmasked, possibly as an asymptomatic carrier in public spaces.
  • It's not okay to thwart business owners' efforts to create a pandemic-free space for their customers by refusing to mask.
  • It's not okay to thwart the efforts of school administrators, museum directors, concert venue managers and all the others who are trying to serve as good stewards of safe public spaces by fighting masking policies.
  • It's not okay to remain unvaccinated when the widespread adoption of the vaccine represents a clear path to return to our normal freedom of movement and a robust economy.
  • It's not okay, either by refusing to mask in public spaces or refusing to get the vaccine, to contribute to overflowing healthcare facilities, penalizing the very people who have dedicated their lives to saving ours.

To place a Covid twist on that old saying above: "Your freedom to exhale aerosolized viral particles ends where my nose and mouth begin." 

So just get the shot. Just wear the mask. These are the fair and decent things to do. 


Other Articles You Might Find Interesting:

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Learn to Be Optimistic, Learn to Succeed. (an audio podcast)

Focus:  “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think…. On a mechanical level, cognitive therapy works because it changes explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic, and the change is permanent. It gives you a set of cognitive skills for talking to yourself when you fail.” – Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind & Your Life.

(Use the control bar below to download or play the podcast. Or scroll down and simply read the rest of the transcript. Enjoy!)

Transcript of this audio was originally published on February 24, 2009 [some links referred to below may no longer be valid]

Martin Seligman, former APA president and one of the founders of the research-based Science of Happiness tells us that individuals and teams can learn to be optimistic (and ultimately achieve greater success) by adopting an optimistic explanatory style. In his book Seligman provides examples from sports and business in which teams that have developed optimistic explanatory styles have shown a greater ability to "bounce back" from defeat and return to their winning ways more quickly than their pessimistic competitors. This is great news! But how, exactly, can you change (or control) your explanatory style? Well for starters, you need to understand its key dimensions and how these influence your self talk.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Accept What Is (an audio podcast)

Focus:  This audio podcast includes inspirational quotations, war stories, examples, a little philosophy and some practical challenges to help individuals and teams discover the power of accepting the reality of a difficult situation in order to handle it effectively. Only when you accept it, see it clearly without denial and hand-wringing, can you take appropriate action to remedy it.

(Use the control bar below to download or play the podcast. Or scroll down and simply read the transcript. Enjoy!)

Transcript of this audio originally published on April 19, 2009 [some links referred to below may no longer be valid]:

Imagine this situation: You are in your beautiful, newly remodeled kitchen wiping the counters clean after dinner.  Out in the hallway you hear your big labrador retriever galloping toward you. In a flash, he bounds across the tile to the table, plunks his meaty front paws up on a chair and begins sniffing the dinner plates for leftovers. Stopping your clean-up chores, you whirl to see what he's getting into and bam!... his big nose knocks over a nearly full glass of dark, purple grape juice left untouched by one of the kids. The tough plastic tumbler bounces all over the place, spritzing the walls with purple droplets, while a big puddle of juice begins expanding across the tile. It's flowing straight toward your new beige living room carpet.  Do you:

  • A. Deny that this is actually happening, telling yourself that you are a good, hard-working person who doesn't deserve this kind of misery?
  • B.  Find your spouse and begin an angst-filled review of your family's history of owning this dog, bemoaning the fact that while the dog is lovable, he has always caused too many minor disasters?
  • C.  Sit down with your wife and kids and imagine a future that has in it no potentially staining leftovers and no dog anywhere near the kitchen?
  • D.  Run across the room, placing yourself and your counter-cleaning sponge squarely between the expanding puddle of purple and the new carpet, thus preventing the major stain?