Rules and relationships

May 14, 2012

The other night I dreamed that my bosses had discovered that I was being paid more than the “rules” stipulated for irregular faculty and that they considered it an injustice, that I was being overpaid, and it was unfair to others. I kept repeating, but you make so much more than I do, to no avail. That did not matter. Only the rules.

That has been a major concern at the university in recent years. To codify. To make everything consistent, so that students are all treated by the same standards. Such a change from earlier colleagues who were if anything extremists in the other direction. The rule makers see this sensitivity to the needs of the particular student as weakness. They think that it makes for low standards. I think I stand somewhere in the middle. But mostly I feel confused.

This tension recalls the work of Carol Gilligan in In a Different Voice, who discovered that the teen aged girls she studied were not morally immature as previous scholars had assumed, basing their work on the principle-based ethical impulses of previously studied teen aged boys. For the girls ethics was all about relationships. They considered the human needs of the individual in pain in front of them before any arbitrary set of rules.

But an ethics based on relationships can lead to cronyism. And I think it contributes to the profound inequality that is currently undermining our social fabric. This latter because we seem to mostly be in relationship with those whose circumstances mirror our own. They are the ones who seem most human, most deserving.

And the alternative of a rule based ethics requires that the rules take into account the humanity of all. Otherwise they just become tools of exclusion, ways to carve up humanity by fiat. Of course, right now I am thinking about North Carolina’s recent passage ofAmendment One,  a rule that denies the humanity of a wide swath of people and relationships.

The key it seems is to expand ourselves to the point that we feel in genuine relationship with everyone and everything. It really is not too broad a goal. It will not dilute us. We will still love our grandchildren. But until we can do this we will still have cronyism and we will still have rules that destroy.