Maybe Some Pegs Just Won’t Fit

We often try to address the complexities life throws at us by countering them with absolute moral clarity. I wonder if it isn’t better (and more moral) sometimes to adapt to the complexities instead. Ride it instead of fight it, like a wave?

Here’s a case study:

I have a friend who is a staunch believer in the honor of one’s words. He thinks there are no such things as “acceptable” or “little white” lies. He likes jokes but even there, he holds the jester responsible for communicating that what was said was not meant in earnest.

Sounds like a dull guy? Not in the least. Actually, he has this way of lying – in jest – extremely convincingly! It’s pitched perfectly, so that it takes you a second to realize that the content of his declaration is just too absurd to be true. But just in case you didn’t get it, he always makes sure to say, “no, I’m kidding…” or even more endearingly, he says, “no, that’s not really true” as though it really could have been!

Flowing naturally from this commitment to honesty, he also believes strongly in the enforceability of promises. ALL promises. Not just the ones that meet contractual requirements of bargain and consideration, but any promise made without coercion, according to my friend, should be legally enforceable (and therefore shouldn’t be made lightly).

I once told him about what is known in legal history as “heart balm” litigation. These are lawsuits over breaches of promise in the matters of the heart: broken engagements, cheating, seduction, etc. We don’t have those anymore; state statutes and common law jurisprudence have largely done away with them.

My friend, in keeping with his philosophy, thinks that these kinds of actions absolutely should be allowed. “Any promise that’s un-coerced,” he reaffirmed to me with clear conviction, “should be enforceable.” He is an intelligent guy, with a pretty good grasp of the nuances of most ideas – so I was surprised that he thought this standard was attainable. But he is convinced one could be as clear as that.

In fact, the more I’ve got to know him, the more I’ve learned how strongly he believes in bright line rules. For example, when he talks about “coercion” invalidating a contract, he means nothing other than physical restraint or violence (or the express or implied threat of violence). He doesn’t consider things like the threat of being fired or publicly humiliated as real coercion, as long as you are free to walk away from the deal (even if unemployed and humiliated).

I told him that I think the rigidity of bright line rules of law can become oppressive. He seems to agree for the most part. But his answer is to do away with most laws rather than leave them open to too much interpretation. He thinks (and it sounds reasonable) that the more complex a rule is, the greater the intangible implications are, the less predictably it can be applied and that can be pretty oppressive too.

So, one of his favorite bright line rules: don’t break promises.

Yet, even with the best of intentions, he has had to break some promises. Big ones. He’s made hyperbolic pronouncements of emotional longevity to women he’s been in love with – promises that were sincerely meant in the richness of the moment but ones that he just couldn’t sustain in the long run. He’s got a good heart, and I didn’t want to hurt him by pointing this out when his last relationship ended. But I wonder if he thought about the heart balm cases as he ended it. Does his ex have a valid legal claim because he broke his promise to “love her for ever?” When he talks about her now in less than glowing terms, is that a breach of the promise to “always be on her side”? (I happen to know he made these promises).

I don’t think this is a moral failing. I think it’s just part of the intricate fabric of his humanity. Try as we might not to go back on our words, as it turns out, we can’t keep our words from going back on us. Maybe we’re just complex pegs that can’t be forced into simple holes.

Maybe this is the problem with bright line rules.

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