It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
That familiar adage came to mind this morning as I prepared for work, listening to TV commentators arguing about President Obama’s approach to the most recent crisis in the Middle East. Regardless of the merits of U.S. military action in Syria, conversations about the decision have often focused on the President’s decision to take the matter before Congress for approval.
Those in favor of “forgiveness” suggest that the process of seeking consent from balky legislators and a war-weary public wastes precious time, imperils the chances of passage of the plan, violates recent presidential precedents, and reveals fissures in support for the action, thereby undermining it — even if it ultimately is approved.
Proponents of “permission” cite the constitutional role of Congress in approving military actions and the benefits of securing buy-in for such a significant incursion into a foreign conflict.
As I write this, the decision has not been made. Whatever is decided, however, I suspect that the disagreements about the process employed will extend long after the decision itself. After all, each of us has faced situations in which we have been forced to choose between forgiveness and permission. It may be easier to seek forgiveness than permission, but is it more ethical?
This tension most closely resembles the justice-vs.-mercy dilemma, wherein justice argues for accountability — in other words, following established policies, processes, and guidelines. Mercy suggests context — second chances, teachable moments, and, in the case of Syria perhaps, urgency and the harms of delay.
If forgiveness and permission parallel justice and mercy, both are compelling goods. It is good to act adroitly when the situation demands it and later sort out process (forgiveness), but it is also good to follow established processes (mercy). Perhaps ethics come into play when other motivations lead to the selection of one strategy over the other.
There are several problems with the ask-forgiveness-not-permission strategy, however. They include:
- “I knew they would say no.” Some folks are programmed with a negative response as their default setting. Over time, their subordinates and colleagues take steps to forego the inevitable, soul-crushing response of, “That will never work.” In these instances, post-hoc permission is understandable. But sometimes “no” is a rational and wise response even if it’s also the all-purpose default. And sometimes one simply assumes (incorrectly) that the answer will be no. In either case, the decision to act preemptively deprives the other party of the chance to say yes, provide input, strengthen an idea, or avert catastrophe. If layers of approval are unnecessary or one layer is a consistent barrier to progress, then changes should be made so that the processes and people in place have meaningful roles to play in decisions. Otherwise, expect everyone to carve their own paths around the barrier.
- “Don’t fence me in.” Put less succinctly: “I don’t know what they will say, but if I seek input, then I am stuck with it. My freedom increases if I go it alone” or “It would be worse to get input and then ignore it, therefore it is better not to get it in the first place.” Hopefully “permission” has some additive value or else layers of accountability would not be in place. If it does not add value (see Bullet #1, above), change the process or policy. Otherwise, this person should examine the motives to go it alone, trusting only their own instinct. Is this an isolated incident or a pattern of behavior? Why the need to go rogue instead of play with the team?
- “It would die in red tape” (aka, “It would take forever”). Frankly, I find this a compelling reason to forego permission. I also know that sometimes my perception of urgency is self-imposed and that the process of permission can protect me from rash and ill-considered actions. Admittedly bureaucracy can be a nightmarish maze of irrelevant hoop jumping. If that is the case, the solution should be to change the system, not incentivize everyone to circumvent it. And yes, I have worked for the government and no, I didn’t say change was easy.
- “The rules don’t apply to me.” This individual represents a larger character and managerial problem that will probably have more corrosive implications than simply seeking permission after the fact.
- “I can get away with it.” Sometimes this attitude is associated with the problem cited immediately above, but it also can reflect the realities of how the world works. Research shows that individuals judge situations more harshly in advance than they do in retrospect. It also is easier for officials to say no when asked than to spontaneously stop someone from doing something. A child asks to have a popsicle before dinner and is told no, but the child who gets a popsicle and starts eating it is less likely to be stopped and have the treat returned to the freezer. Once the act has been commenced, it seems we are prone to let bygones be bygones.