Thursday, February 18, 2010

Subsidiarity: More on Laws

Last week a commentor asked a rather curious question, about which law one ought to obey when the law of a smaller organization is precisely opposed to the law of its containing organization. I actually had to laugh, because the first thing that came into my head was the words "Why do you tempt me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the coin of the tribute." [Mt 22:18-19] Without implying anything about myself or my questioner, I must state that the answer is the same. But the question is worth examining since it leads us on to the next point of our discussion.

This sort of problem is easy enough to work out once one has read Rerum Novarum - which we all should if we wish to ever begin to understand Subsidiarity, and in fact the whole realm of Catholic Social Teaching. (Not to mention GKC's work on such topics, or my own.)

Anyhow, I mention Rerum Novarum since its section 72 quotes another authority which ought to clarify the unspoken assumption in the question at hand, that is, if one law is precisely opposed to another, one of them must be formally evil or somehow "wrong". So what do we do then? Here is the answer:
Human law is law only in virtue of its accordance with right reason: and thus it is manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is not law at all, but rather a species of violence...[Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II Q93 A3 ad 2]
Obviously, when a law of one level is in precise contradiction to the law of another, we must first consider whether one or more of them is really a "law" at all. There is a priority to such things, as is well known: human "law" cannot usurp the laws of nature or of God. I am told that Canute commanded the tide not to rise; I was also told that the Legislature of some midwest state adopted 3 as the value of pi. Both were well worth laughing at. Incidentally, it may be worth noting here that the Bible gives the same value - see 3Kings 7:23. Who are you going to believe: God or some mathematician? Hmm. (hee hee)

But presumably we are not considering that sort of matter, or the question would be futile. Let us therefore assume that both laws are just. This is not paradoxical - that group A commands one law, and group B (its parent) commands its precise opposite - it is merely one of those odd human things, as we shall see.

We must therefore contrive a case (I will use the human realm, rather than the cable TV one) which has two levels, each with its own laws, and among which legal code is a law governing the same matter in both levels, and where both laws are fully just in all senses of the term: yet the law of one level is completely opposed to the law of the containing level.

For example:

Let there be an "English Club" somewhere in the United States of America, possessed of several dozen acres, within which is erected a village (with pub, and an Anglican church, which of course had once been a Romish Abbey) and a moor with quicksand and a hound, (oh boy!) and lavender, and many other lovely English things - including the rolling English Roads with Roman milestones. The owners have done what might be called a "Mackinac" (like the island near the northern end of Michigan) to this little enclave - that is, they have made it inaccessible except by water-craft, so that it is impossible to drive there.

Also, since this is an English Club, they have adopted, in utter disregard for the laws of their native America, the curious and quite sinister (!) inversion of chirality which puts the driver's seat on the right, and hence the motor-cars of our enclave all drive on the left. (They have of course forbidden dextrose and only permit levulose in their tea. Subtle chemistry joke there, hee hee!)

Hence we have a perfect example of the issue under discussion, and we can then ask your question: in this example, do we obey the law of the proximal system (the nearby, or inner level) - or the law of the distal system (the further, or outer level)?

I expect that you can finish the argument for yourself, but if you have questions, please see the TA after class.

And now, let us proceed to today's topic, some more about what happens in a system using Subsidiarity when the laws are violated.

No - let us first consider some more about laws, and try to get some more understanding of the idea of how they fit together, and how they can be broken.

In the paper the other day, I read an odd little article about mathematics, by someone who was apparently not a mathematician. The funny thing was not the part about multiplying by 11, though that was funny enough. It started out by telling kids "one way" - which happens to only work for a handful of examples. Then it showed how you can get the wrong answer using that way - amazing enough, but then it showed "another way" - as if it was something not quite kosher, or not suitable for use on the Sundays of Ordinary Time! It was expressed very poorly - again, rather demonstrating that the person was not very familiar with the concept of multiplication - yet, strange to say, it actually was a vague expression of the CORRECT way of performing multiplication! But that wasn't the funny part either.

This article suggested that once one knows the rules, one can decide to ignore them - and gave, as an example, "cooking" of all things! Now I thought this was particularly funny. Not only is this writer not a mathematician (for whom rules are not discardable) but he is not a cook either - nor a philosopher. He suggests that a chocolate chip cookie recipe might be altered by putting in peanut butter - or something, I forget, it's irrelevant anyway. But I don't think he would have made his point if he had suggested powdered soap instead of sugar, crankcase oil instead of butter, or lug nuts instead of walnuts.

There is an exceedingly famous piece of Chesterton about law which is relevant here - and in fact there are two others which apply. Please examine them with care:
A woman cooking may not always cook artistically; still she can cook artistically. She can introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the composition of a soup. The clerk is not encouraged to introduce a personal and imperceptible alteration into the figures in a ledger.
[GKC ILN Apr 7 1906 CW27:161]

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely, probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.
[GKC Thing CW3:157]

The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden. An optimist who insisted on a purely positive morality would have to begin (supposing he knew where to begin) by telling a man that he might pick dandelions on a common, and go on for months before he came to the fact that he might throw pebbles into the sea; and then resume his untiring efforts by issuing a general permission to sneeze, to make snowballs, to blow bubbles, to play marbles, to make toy aeroplanes, to travel on Tooting trams, and everything else he could think of, without ever coming to an end. In comparison with this positive morality, the Ten Commandments rather shine in that brevity which is the soul of wit. It is better to tell a man not to steal than to try to tell him the thousand things that he can enjoy without stealing; especially as he can generally be pretty well trusted to enjoy them.
[GKC ILN Jan 3 1920 CW32:18-19, emphasis added]
Please read them again - but especially note the words in bold. That is another one of the master-quotes you ought to know by heart: It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden. Now, the interesting thing is that when we consider computers, we have almost the precise opposite of the situation, and thereby we can advance into our discussion.

In the computer, like in mathematics, and in the making of musical compositions and bridges and cars and cookies and other recipes of the real world, we must adhere to reality. That is, we compose things which obey rules, of harmony, or of combining power, or of logical combination. We expect things to go exactly as we have indicated - though we of course know that things can go wrong, and often do. (I think they call this Murphy's "law" but of course that is too illogically funny for words.) Now it is just this idea - that things can go wrong, even though we generally plan on them going right - that we need to examine if we want to understand about rule and error and Subsidiarity. And this is where my example helps.

You see, we do not typically write into the recipe what to do when a child dumps a can of tuna fish into our partially complete cookie dough. We do not annotate the score for what to do if the E-string breaks during the solo of our violin concerto. Generally we assume that the cook or violinist knows how to handle such things gracefully. We can, because these are humans, and we assume they are reasonable - that is, rational. They can reason out how to deal with such odd cases.

Ah, but in the writing of software, the programmer must - repeat MUST - give details on what to do when something goes wrong, because the computer is not reasonable, and will proceed to carry out its instructions, regardless of how stupid or dangerous they might be! Please do not get distressed if this is confusing. You do not need to grasp anything technical. I refer you to the famous story of "the Mouse, the Bucket and the Broom(s)", recounted in Disney's "Fantasia" - a very famous error which we study in computer science. Indeed - we call it the "infinite loop", or (in the recursive sense) a lack of terminating condition. What did the mouse do? He appealed to his superior for assistance. He had a lot of mopping to do afterwards, but I am sure he found that was way better than drowning. (It always makes me think of the story of Jesus in the boat asleep...)

But Doctor (you moan) not all errors are so terrible - and there are so many kinds! How can you clarify this without (as GKC told us) listing all of the things permitted - or rather forbidden?

Well, my dear friend... it was just about a year ago that I was asked this very question by an intelligent young woman who had been reading part of my Subsidiarity blogg. She wanted to know what happens when the rules are broken.

Obviously what will happen depends on the exact nature of the rule that is broken, and so we need to consider what rules are actually involved. I am only a computer scientist, and though we proceed like Scholastics in many ways, I have been known to make errors. (Ask my boss, or my co-workers.) But after some "sittin' and thinkin'", I added an entire chapter about this topic, based on a sketch of three layers of rules which must apply to any given case of the use of Subsidiarity.

A. The first layer is the rules (more correctly, the meta-rules) of Subsidiarity, which themselves come in a triplet:
(1) the positive law (a higher layer must assist a lower in time of need)
(2) the negative law (a higher layer must not arrogate to itself, etc)
(3) the hierarchical structure implied since Subsidiarity is complete: it applies throughout the system.

B. The second layer is the rules which govern the system under consideration. In my own case it was the ad insertion system for cable TV, but it could be a company, a club, a sports team, a university, or the government of a city or country. You will note something never suggested by those who love to propose a measure of "independent thought" to apply to education, especially in math and science - these people never suggest that the young athlete apply his "independent thought" and run clockwise around the bases when he hits the ball out of the field, and so forth. I guess it shows how little I understand about problem-solving skills - if I were physically competent to ride a bicycle, I would keep one with me when I go to bat, so I could get around the bases faster - I mean, that's the same logic as giving children calculators, after all! Oh, dear. But then you see this layer compels an adherence to the rules of the game - that is, the precise nature of the system under consideration. A baseball game has certain rules, as regular as those for chess or calculus; if one preferred, one might field his own team of Gype or "Calvinball", both of which delight all Chestertonians - but even those have rules! You may recall what Chesterton said on this:
A wall is like a rule; and the gates are like the exceptions that prove the rule. The man making it has to decide where his rule will run and where his exception shall stand. He cannot have a city that is all gates any more than a house that is all windows; nor is it possible to have a law that consists entirely of liberties.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20]
C. The third layer is the underlying laws which govern that system - the laws of the "containing layers", whatever they may be: the Physical, Natural, Moral, Legal, Social laws which are relevant to the system or club or whatever is being discussed.

Obviously, when something goes wrong, we usually do not try to hunt up the precise spec and give the citation of what was violated, as a policeman must when he writes a ticket, or a physician when he summarizes a diagnosis - or writes a death certificate. But when people talk about "problem solving" they really never try to consider how vast the issue can be! It is funny to think about this, and it merely provokes me into writing anecdotes instead of a Scholastic treatise - which is as it should be, since I am not really a Scholastic.

In conclusion, I may not have been clear on very much today, but alas, I have greatly exceeded even my usual long-winded length. Nevertheless I must add one more brief citation, since I am struck by its aptness (even though I wanted something else, and even with AMBER I could not find it, alas!) It is apt, not only for us today, but also for my own larger work - and besides I know you'd rather read Chesterton than me.
The vow is a violent and unique thing; though there have been many besides the marriage vow; vows of chivalry, vows of poverty, vows of celibacy, pagan as well as Christian. But modern fashion has rather fallen out of the habit; and men miss the type for the lack of the parallels. The shortest way of putting the problem is to ask whether being free includes being free to bind oneself. For the vow is a tryst with oneself.
[GKC The Superstition of Divorce CW4:233, emphasis added]


  1. the case of the cars, I am guessing that the English Club may drive on the left side of the road because their cars do not go to the mainland. Thus, their "conflict" with the higher organization will cause no harm to the common good. Thus, the outside organization forcing the English Club to drive on the right side would be an infringement of Subsidiarity.

  2. If I were visiting the English Club, I'd definitely follow the local laws, if only in order to avoid a head-on collision.

    If I were in charge of the local or state government surrounding the English Club, I guess I'd think we should leave the enclave alone unless we had a good reason not to. On the other hand, if we did have a reason--say, visitors to the island were having a lot of accidents because they weren't used to the different traffic pattern--then maybe we'd have to think about getting involved. (Of course, we could also try a non-invasive solution--like just subsidizing new signage instead of enforcing the traffic laws--if we thought that would be effective.)

    If I were the president of the English Club, though, I'd want to first see if my traffic rules were legal. (Maybe they would be. I presume that the island is private property, or they probably couldn't have moated it off. Maybe the state's right-of-way laws don't apply to private property that isn't connected to public roads.) If the rules aren't legal, I think I'd petition the government before making up my own laws. After all, the English Club probably isn't a local government, with its own jurisdiction and charter. Even on its own private property, this self-appointed authority probably can't legitimately supersede applicable traffic laws, any more than it can supersede drug laws or building codes, or declare that certain homeowners on the island are serfs. I think this is a case of having to look at constitutional law before looking at laws of subsidarity, as Dr. T. discussed last week.


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