Procedures and Proceduralism

At some point, all of us have run up against policies that, in our concrete circumstances, simply don’t seem to make any sense. I’m not talking about bad laws, like the forced conversion of minorities — large-scale policies have been around for as long as there have been large-scale political arrangements. Rather, I’m talking about running headfirst into a procedural wall that was designed to be helpful, but in certain contexts seems to thwart the good.

Sometimes proceduralism can restrict us in rather benign ways.

Hypothetical example: I love cardamom in Turkish coffee, though I’m allergic. I love sharing what I love with other people. (So far, nothing hypothetical.) Yet if I were an airline host, could I bring cardamom regularly –or even one time– on flights with me with an eye to offering it to guests? No: too much of a liability. Go through official channels; perhaps the airline will change its policy and stock it. Unlikely: not enough demand to warrant the cost and storage space. For this fictional situation, we can imagine that I might easily make reasonable accommodations to ensure that no one became sick from bad or unsanitary cardamom, and would be able to eliminate allergic reactions by restricting distribution to people who say that they’ve had it before. Most of us register how eccentric such an act would be; most of us would be alarmed if, on a flight, we were offered food not given by the airline. It seems unusual, uncontrolled, and so risky.

So I may not bring cardamom to enrich.

The procedure prevents so many expressions of hospitality for the sake of a predictability that filters out a much larger group of unwanted gestures. And while sameness may not allow for a full and rich inventory of caring and concerned behaviors, but it does sanitize against a host of evils.

Sometimes proceduralism can restrict us in rather wicked ways: one local outlet of a major coffee store chain throws out all of its baked products every night. Every night. The volume fills two large 3′ tall waste barrels, plenty to feed those in need some fresh bagels, muffins, and sweets. The store had, in the past, given its excess to the poor, but a homeless woman claimed she fell ill from one of the bagels, a shrewd lawyer got wind of her plight, and she sued the coffee store for something like $50k. The policy then changed: no donations, everything must be discarded.

So they may not feed the poor with their excess.

Is our litigious culture to blame for the rise of proceduralism? No.

In some ways, it is the rise of the merchant class and the spread of the marketplace that ensures proceduralism: there is no way to secure a reliable good on a large scale without consistency of product, predictability; predictability allows for consumers to anticipate the goods sought and for service providers/vendors to anticipate gains and control losses. Procedures are necessary for the stability of the product, the very occasion of the transaction itself, and to ensure the product’s reliability and safety. Procedures minimize risk.

There are more than mercantilistic interests in play, however: without proceduralism, there is also no way to secure other goods that we all value, goods that live independent of the marketplace.

We can attempt to rectify past social evils, such as the institution of slavery and the economic fallout of prolonged racial bigotry, by addressing the continuing effects of these past evils on a wide scale — i.e., procedurally. Look at affirmative action here in the U.S. Are there African-American men and women who are hired for a job instead of, say, various American male or female candidates of European descent — candidates who are otherwise better-trained and better-suited for certain jobs? Yes: it happens. The procedures are not about addressing this local matter of “injustice”, however, but the much larger backdrop that has created a disadvantaged socio-economic situation for African-Americans, and this particular African-American. In short: the African-American needs these protections because of the social and economic history that has disadvantaged them. As with any system, there will be a remainder: in this case, there will always be a relatively small number of ethically spurious individual black men and women who take advantage of this justice-minded policy. Without the procedure of affirmative action instituted at a State level, however, there does not seem to be any agent with means capable of immediately and adequately beginning to address the enduring and wicked legacy of this past social evil. Because the procedure aims at an entire set of people, some individuals in local situations will be neglected, while others will fall through the cracks and fail to be benefacted by this legislation.

It’s not only past social ills that we are empowered to face through proceduralism. We can mobilize large relief efforts rather quickly, because there are political mechanisms in place to shuttle aid to people in most parts of the world. Earthquakes, floods, famine, disaster: the human toll of these can be mitigated because we have mechanisms, procedures, by which we can move large groups of people around relatively quickly, or move aid to them. There will always be outliers, those who fall through the cracks, and moments of paralysis, but it beats being utterly unable for something so enormously large as, say, a State to take immediate action.

Proceduralism may limit certain gestures of kindness between individuals in very local contexts that are controlled by the procedures, but this is the tradeoff we have opted for in the modern world, a tradeoff for the sake of large-scale economic and social benefits as well as reliable products. The old laws of hospitality may still apply, but we are forced to exercise them in different ways whenever in the house of procedure’s dominion, as the recipients for whom procedures exist are enormous: they are bigger than individuals; they are whole groups.

Proceduralism is a permanent part of the modern world, whose scale has grown beyond anything that individuals, local communities or even cities have traditionally ever had to deal with. Proceduralism has an analog in the modern skyscraper, which is out-of-scale with the human eye, and with the natural flow of human life, but which enables optimizations (such as with space) otherwise impossible. In a sense proceduralism is a species of technology and the libido dominandi (the desire for mastery) that underlies modern science. Yet in this case, the desire for mastery is entirely aimed at the establishment of justice, and security: two very central –and very human– concerns of the modern world.

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