Tag Archives | bureaucracy

The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

Continue Reading →

Office Quest

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

If you ever played one of those old 80s text-adventure games, you’ll remember with frustrated fondness how difficult it was to make yourself understood. This is because the program only understands a limited and specific set of vocabulary and procedure, and has very little appreciation for context. What a sense of accomplishment and possibility when you finally stumble across the right formula and the game allows you to progress!

Bureaucracies are like text-adventure games.

You find yourself in an office. What would you like to do?
>> Ok, so what are we trying to do here?
>> Talk to colleague
Who do you want to talk to?
>> Talk to researcher
The researcher is in a meeting. Try this afternoon.
>> Talk to supervisor
“Have you got anything to show us yet?”
>> Ask supervisor what they want me to do
The supervisor asks you to produce a report for the department meeting.
>> Get background paper
You read the background paper. It refers to a research survey that has since been carried out.
>> Do you want me to interpret findings?
You cannot INTERPRET FINDINGS without the survey data.
>> Get survey data
The survey data has been emailed to your computer.
>> Go desk
You are at your DESK.
>> Use computer
It won’t log in.
>> Use login details
It won’t log in.
>> Get login details
You already have them.
>> Log in with login details
You can’t do that.
>> Call helpdesk
You call the helpdesk but no-one answers. Would you like to LEAVE MESSAGE or REMAIN ON HOLD?
>> Remain on hold
After a while someone answers. “How can I help you?”
>> Get help to log in
“Do you have a login account?”
>> Give login details
“It seems your account hasn’t been activated yet.”
>> Activate account
>> Give job request form
You don’t have it.
>> Get job request form
How do you want to get it?
>> Get job request form from intranet
It won’t log in.
>> Get job request form from supervisor
The supervisor is in another OFFICE.
>> Call supervisor
You are already on the phone. Continue Reading →

Getting the Visa

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

Getting the VisaI arrived at the rather colonially named Ministry of Manpower a few minutes before my appointment and was greeted by a furtive young Thai-looking man who told me I was late. He asked me to follow him quickly while making a gesture which I understood as ‘stay here’. Unsure what to do, I opted for what in hindsight was the most ridiculous option — following gingerly until he turned around, whereupon I would affect an attentive, though stationary, nonchalance.

This left us hovering awkwardly in front of an unattended counter. “I need to see your Visa, passport or MasterCard”, he told me. Looking him carefully in the eye while processing this information, I countered with “It’s all here in this file” and produced a credit card. “You haven’t paid yet?” he exclaimed. He took my documents to a lady around the corner, making the same ‘stay here’ gesture while telling me to follow and muttering “very bad, very bad.”

I should mention here that the young man’s behaviour seemed very out of character with the rest of the place, which was quietly bustling with proprietary efficiency. MoM is well signed, easy to find, and perhaps most surprisingly for a Saturday afternoon, open.

I took all this in while waiting in a comfortable chair near a little sign that read ‘Your sunshine, our support’ — a familiar customer service message delivered in that quaint and understated way that is so characteristic of Singaporean English. Continue Reading →