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Home arrow Religion arrow The Theological Roots of Christian Gratitude

Keep to the Rules

One option is to fall back upon compliance with external standards. To this end, businesses, professional and voluntary bodies, and even government departments publish codes of conduct. The codes conform to legal frameworks and frequently have statutory authority. Some are couched in terms that make it clear that more is demanded than mere technical efficiency and superficial compliance. They may, for example, implicitly assume the fundamental importance of honesty and courtesy.

Complete satisfaction of the demands of compliance is, however, virtually impossible. Not only may I fail to put in place every jot and tittle required by the system, but no rule-based system can cover all cases and remove the necessity for personal judgment. And we know it is self-defeating to demand the impossible of oneself; every football referee will affirm this. Those who are responsible for drafting Acts of Parliament know this only too well: not even the most subtle drafting can prevent an ingenious lawyer from identifying legally defensible exceptions to the legislation. Tax law is a conspicuous case in point.

Notwithstanding that we know no system can remove personal responsibility, it is still tempting for the professional to seek satisfaction by complying with external rules. But it does not work; it is personally unsatisfying. Therefore, while I may fulfill to the maximum extent possible the requirements of my profession as defined by “the system,” I may still feel personally dissatisfied, and so may my client. Technical efficiency is a necessary condition of good practice but is rarely, if ever, sufficient. Satisfaction of the law may be a virtue, but it does not make a person virtuous.

If compliance is ultimately impossible and personally unsatisfying, another route to fulfilling my professional responsibilities would be to set my own personal standards of excellence and to try to fulfill them. But there is no end to this process, which would be personally debilitating. To be seduced by the illusion that I could, if I tried harder, fulfill all my responsibilities would likely give rise to scrupulosity, a psychological disorder arising from a pathological sense of guilt about supposed moral failings or religious malpractice, which will threaten my sense of self. Nurses are particularly prone to scrupulosity and the personal stress that can undermine their confidence.

However, while the questions raised may be testing, if I believe myself to have harmed another by not taking responsibility when, on reflection, I should and could have done so, I must find reasonable and commonsensical ways of coming to terms with my failings and at least learn to pick up the pieces so as to recover a positive working relationship with the person I have failed. Public and personal perspectives figure in my moral situation. A personal apology may offer a way forward, and I examine this approach later. But first, what am I responsible for?

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