Saturday, 29 December 2012

Dogs on the beach and the vexing question of rules

I began this blog a little more than a year ago with a photograph I had taken of a sign warning visitors not to get too close to the cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland. 

I then asked some questions about rules and authority.  I said:  

Does the fact that so many folks are blithely disobeying the sign say something about our general attitude towards rules and authority?  We are so surrounded by commands and dictates and warnings and advice and cautionary words.  Coffee cups tell us the startling news that the beverage we are about to enjoy may actually be hot.  If you look at the signs in some of the city parks in Vancouver the list of prohibitions is so long that you sometimes wonder whether there is really anything permitted at all?  And so are we just tuning it all out?  ...

A year later, I thought it would be fun to post a photograph of another sign.  This picture was taken in at a city park in Sydney, Australia in late November.

Unlike the sign at the cliffs of Moher, this sign has not been defaced.  I am not going to suggest that this bespeaks some profound difference between the Irish and Australians.  After all, many Australians are descended from Irish immigrants.  Some of whom were sent to Australia, well, involuntarily!  And having spent three weeks there I can tell you that Australia is a country that loves to warn people about all of its many dangers.  No, I just like the fact that this sign actually welcomes people to the Sydney Botanical Garden and encourages people to do the things they typically want to do in a park: walk on the grass, smell the roses, eat picnics, and relax.  There are prohibitions, of course, but they are placed at the bottom of the sign, where they belong.

That’s where I think most rules belong.  At the end of our consideration of rights and responsibilities, a sort of last resort, if you will, rather than a first recourse.

I suppose this attitude makes me something of a libertarian.  But not so much because of my belief in our freedom, as because of my view about the importance of our responsibilities.  Because I think that when we choose to regulate something by a rule, we change the way we look at it.  Instead of responding primarily to the issue that caused us to think about making a rule, we think instead about the rule itself. 

To take the best example (and I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating), the question we usually ask ourselves when driving is not whether we are driving safely, but whether we are driving at or under the speed limit.  Our primary consideration is the rule, not safety.  We have in a very real, deliberate, but largely unconscious way, delegated that question of safety to someone else - the person who set the speed limit.  And in fact, for most drivers, the issue is really what speed we can get away with driving without getting a ticket.  So it’s not about safety at all, it’s just about getting caught breaking a rule. 

The whole reason for speed limits, of course, is safety.  But to a considerable extent the effect of legislating speed limits is to replace our moral responsibility to drive in a manner that does not create an unacceptable risk of harm to others with a quite different concern about rule compliance.

That’s what rules do.

On the island where my family has had a summer cottage for over half a century, we are part of a community of families that shares the use of a small beach.  The beach is so small that on summer afternoons, especially if the tide is coming in, there is not enough room for everyone.  In particular, there is not enough room for large dogs and small children at the same time.

Everyone in our little community agrees.  Most everyone also agrees that the best way to keep the beach safe for little kids is for the dogs to stay home.  There are lots of hours in the day - early in the morning, or late in the evening - when the beach is not busy, and dogs are welcome.  But just for a few hours in the middle of the afternoon, it’s safer if the dogs are kept away.

Even though everyone agrees with all of this, sometimes dogs are brought to the beach on weekend afternoons.

So the question is: what should we do about this?

There’s a pretty good chance that your answer to this question is: make a rule prohibiting dogs on the beach on weekend afternoons.

We haven’t done this yet.  In fact our little community has very few rules.  We have guidelines and expectations, but not that many actual rules.  We know that once we start making rules to regulate our behaviour, people will start disagreeing with each about what the rule says and how it ought to be applied.  And we will need to create sanctions and penalties and a process for enforcement, and a rule enforcement committee, and then we will have to decide how to choose the members of the rule enforcement committee.  And so on.  When what we really want is to keep our beach safe for little children.  And all we really need is the fortitude and the diligence to remind the person who has brought his dog to the beach that we all agreed it was not safe for dogs to come to the beach on busy afternoons.

Clearly what works for a small community where everyone knows each other doesn’t necessarily work in a large city where we are mostly strangers to each other.  I’m not for a moment saying we don’t need rules.  But sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves that law-making is not a panacea, and often is a poor, second-order substitute for individual or collective moral responsibility.  We could do worse than to spend less time making and enforcing rules, and more time just working out how actually to get along with each other.  Rules if necessary, yes, but not necessarily rules.

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