The virtue of discretion – When the rules break down, you must judge what to do on your own. Discretion is necessary for navigating the muddle of life

From Aeon:

It is midday, the sixth hour, sometime between Easter and Pentecost, at a Benedictine monastery, and the monks are gathered for the main meal of the day. It could be any century between the 6th and the 21st, and anywhere from southern Italy to South Korea. Although each monastery is autonomous, governed by its abbot, the order prescribed by the Rule of St Benedict regulates every particular of the proceedings. The monks eat in silence, except for the sound of biblical passages read aloud for their edification. Fare and portions are specified in detail: two cooked meals (no meat), one pound of bread, and a cup of wine daily, no more, no less. Every aspect of life is stipulated: how and when the monks may sleep (all in one room, dressed and belted, with a light burning all night); the order in which the Psalms are to be sung each day (with an added ‘Hallelujah!’ between Easter and Pentecost); clothing (two tunics and two cowls, plus shoes and socks for the monks who work in the fields); bed linens (one mat, sheet, blanket and pillow per monk), when to get up and when to go to bed. If micromanagers have a patron saint, it is surely St Benedict.

Yet each of the 73 chapters that make up the Rule of St Benedict foresees exceptions and mitigating circumstances that may soften the apparently rigid order. The monks may not eat the flesh of four-footed animals – unless the abbot grants permission to the weak and sick who need stronger sustenance. Silence reigns at meals – unless the abbot gives permission to entertain a guest with conversation. Monks are allowed one hemina (around half a pint) of wine and not one drop more – unless they have laboured all day under the hot summer sun. Private possessions are forbidden – no book, no writing tablet, no stylus, nothing whatsoever – unless the abbot wills otherwise. No precept is so rigid that it cannot be bent if the abbot judges that circumstances warrant an exception: it all depends. The abbot’s discretion does not contradict the Rule of St Benedict; it is the Rule.

Discretion is the faculty of it-all-depends. When a general rule collides with recalcitrant particulars, it is discretion that sorts out the resulting muddle. No rule can encompass all the situations to which it may have to be applied, and the shuffle of human affairs is constantly dealing us wild cards. Even in the ordered world of the Benedictine monastery, circumstances fluctuate. One reason why the Rule of St Benedict has survived for so many centuries in so many places is its flexibility. In contrast with the short lives of so many other would-be utopias and ideal communities, which rarely last for more than a single generation, the Rule of St Benedict – originally composed for Benedict’s own monastic community in Monte Cassino in southern Italy in the early 6th century CE – still provides the blueprint of the organisation of Benedictine monasteries all over the world, as it has for 1,500 years. Not for nothing does St Benedict call discretion ‘the mother of all virtues’. When universal rule and particular situation don’t align, it’s discretion that leaps into the breach. We couldn’t live without it.

And yet we’re uncomfortable living with it. We like our rules clearcut and unambiguous, and above all consistently applied. We equate rules applied the same way to all people in all situations with equality and predictability, two cardinal virtues of the rule of law. Exceptions immediately trigger suspicions of special pleading, unfair treatment or wanton caprice. The power to exercise discretion, whether in the court, the classroom or a government office, invites gimlet-eyed scrutiny for the least sign of abuse – or simple error. Distrust shadows discretion like a private eye shadowing a suspect, just waiting to catch the culprit red-handed. As a result, discretion has been driven underground, still in constant but now clandestine operation. It’s become the indispensable faculty that dare not speak its name.

How did this happen? The decline in the fortunes of discretion is part of the history of rules. That history is long and labyrinthine, and rules have always meant many things: the rules of arithmetic calculation, of games, of warfare, of cookbooks, of parliamentary procedure, of traffic, of musical composition, of marriage and divorce, of spelling, and on and on. There is no known human culture without rules, and almost no human activity that slips through the tightly woven mesh of rules. But amid this dazzling diversity and ubiquity, we can make out two broad categories: thick rules and thin ones.

The Rule of St Benedict is a sterling example of how thick rules and discretion work hand in hand. Thick rules announce a directive about how or how not to behave, clearly and succinctly, but then they go on to fatten that precept with examples, exceptions and appeals to experience (call them the three exes). For example, an early 18th-century treatise on siege warfare contains what sounds like a self-evident rule: ‘Always attack the enemy’s stronghold at its weakest point.’ But exceptions immediately follow: if a good paved road that made the transport of heavy cannons and munitions easier led to a stronger part of the fortifications, then the attack should begin there instead.

A thick rule requires the ability to discern among cases that may, at first glance, seem alike

Take another obvious-sounding rule from a 17th-century handbook on how to play various games: in chess, don’t sacrifice a piece worth more for one worth less. Yet in the next breath comes an exception: should your adversary seem to have a penchant for playing a particular piece – say, a knight – then you should do your utmost to put the knight out of commission, including sacrificing a piece of higher value (say, your bishop), in order to discombobulate your opponent and gain a psychological advantage. Thick rules are learned by example and from experience, and they are constantly being stretched by exceptions – the three exes (and perhaps a fourth ex, for extenuating circumstances). These are part and parcel of the rule itself, the woolly coat that cushions the rule against unforeseen circumstances.

A thick rule requires discretion to follow; the ability to discern among cases that may, at first glance, seem alike (for example, what the monks will be served for dinner) but, in fact, differ in significant respects (eg, this monk is strong and healthy, and that one is sick and weak). But what exactly is discretion, how does it work, and who is qualified to exercise it?

Discretion is not the whole of judgment, but it is an essential part. Judgment is the ability to bring together universals and particulars, a two-fold task. First, we must decide, which universal – which law or rule or maxim or principle – applies to this particular case at hand? The judge who arraigns a suspect must figure out what charge to book; the doctor must decide the diagnosis and treatment for the individual patient. Because this kind of judgment is all about cases, it is sometimes called casuistry. The pages of newspaper advice columns are full of everyday conundrums that mobilise casuistry: ‘My husband is an anti-vaxxer. Should I lie to him about having our child vaccinated?’ Here, judgment must decide which moral principle takes precedence: the principle of trust and truthfulness between spouses, or the principle of parental responsibility for the child’s welfare. Casuistry tries to figure out which rule or principle should dominate in this specific case.

So discretion is the second form of judgment, mustered after that first decision about universals and particulars has been made: this is indeed the right universal for these particulars, but its rigid application without some adjustment to these particular particulars would cause some unintended harm. In the case of the parents who disagree whether their child should be vaccinated, we are likely to want to know more specifics about both the marriage and the risks run by the child, in order to temper the application of whichever principle we have decided should trump in this case. Either marital trust or the child’s welfare may suffer, depending on the decision, but there is a further duty to try to minimise the harm.

What kind of harm depends on the kind of general rule. In a court of law, injustice might result from, for example, applying the full rigour of the law against theft to a poor, hungry person who stole food. In the kitchen, following the cake recipe’s instructions about the amount of baking powder may result in an oven explosion if you’re cooking at high altitude. In a spaceship launch, not taking into account how far the launchpad is from the equator when calculating the amount of fuel needed for a rocket to reach escape velocity can crash the rocket and its payload. These are all cases in which the unambiguously apt universal – the law forbidding theft, the recipe for this kind of cake, the calculation of escape velocity – must be tailored to fit the particulars at hand, just as the abbot granted the weak and sick a portion of meat at dinner, or the guest at dinner a courteous conversation partner. Casuistry pits one universal against another in the case at hand; discretion tweaks the apposite universal to the particulars of that case. Both casuistry and discretion are feats of judgment, but not the same feat.

. . . .

We exercise discretion all the time, but we can’t give rules for how we do it

Link to the rest at Aeon