General Counsel and Outliers

Todd Rose starts his book The End of Average off with some really arresting stories that all make the same point: there’s no such thing as an average person. 

His most in-depth example is based on how the Air Force designed their cockpits in World War II and the years immediately following. They took the dimensions of hundreds of pilots (arm reach, chest circumference, leg length, you name it) and then used the average of those measurements as the template for their cockpit design. The idea was that an average-shaped pilot would fit perfectly. And, since most of the pilots would be average on most measurements, the cockpits would be a decent fit for everyone. That was the theory, anyway.

In practice, the Air Force was plagued with accidents that appeared to be related to pilots having a hard time using the controls. A twenty-something scientist named Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels had his doubts about the whole underlying theory, so he tested it out:

Using the size data he had gathered from 4,063 pilots, Daniels calculated the average of the ten physical dimensions believed to be most relevant for design, including height, chest circumference, and sleeve length. These formed the dimensions of the “average pilot,” which Daniels generously defined as someone whose measurements were within the middle 30 percent of the range of values for each dimension. So, for example, even though the precise average height from the data was five foot seven and a half inches, he defined the height of the “average pilot” as ranging from five seven to five eight. Next, Daniels compared each individual, one by one, to the average pilot.

Everyone expected that a lot of the pilots would match up closely to the “average pilot”, but the actual number out of the 4,063 who fell within the 30% range on all ten dimensions was… zero. 

Nobody was average. Not a single person. 

Rose has more examples like that, such as “Norma,” a statue created by averaging physical dimensions of a large number of women. In a contest to see which lucky woman could match Norma’s nine dimensions (this was in 1945) it turned out that nobody could. Only 40 of 3,864 entrants came close on five out of the nine dimensions used to define Norma and nobody matched on all nine. 

Reading this reminded me of an important quote from Elder Oaks that I’ve cited before: 

As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord. (From a CES Fireside on May 1, 2005 in Oakland, CA)

It got me thinking that maybe we Latter-day Saints have in mind an image of an “average Saint” that’s just unrealistic in the same way that Norma or the average Air Force pilot failed to correlate to any real, live human beings. I decided to run a few simulations as a fun thought experiment. (If I wasn’t rusty and lazy I’d have  actually worked out the math, but… eh. Computers are fast.)

For starters, let’s say that the General Authorities give general counsel on twenty different topics. My question is: how many Saints would you expect to be exceptions at least one of these topics?

The variable here is the applicability of the counsel. So I ran a few really basic simulations with 10,000,000 iterations (please don’t make fun of me; I said I was lazy) of twenty topics assuming that the counsel for each topic applied 75%, 85%, 90%, 95%, and 99% of the time. Here’s what that looks like: 

Now, please keep in mind this is basically bar-napkin analysis purely for the purposes of spurring conversation. Nobody get all mad at me that my assumptions (e.g. independence of GA counsel) are unrealistic. 

With that disclaimer, here are a couple of general observations:

  • In every case except where the counsel applied 99% of the time, the most common segment of Latter-day Saints had at least one topic for which they were an exceptional case. 
  • Even on the opposite extreme, where counsel applied just 75% of the time, the vast majority of Latter-Day Saints were not exceptions to most rules. 

In other words, if General Authority counsel is applicable about 75% – 95% of the time (and if there are about 20 topics) then you’re going to find that the counsel applies to most Latter-day Saints most of the time, but that very, very few Latter-day Saints will have no exceptions at all. I think the range is (again, for bar-napkin math) not too bad. As long as you assume that the General Authorities are inspired men with both a lot of spiritual wisdom and access to generally applicable revelation, you have to presume that their counsel is significantly more applicable than 50%. But as long as you take Elder Oaks seriously, it’s also less than 100%. 

In that world, a typical Latter-day Saint is going to deviate from the general counsel on one or more topics.

At least, if there are about 20 topics. What if we fix the probability (say, at 90%) and then vary the number of topics? What happens to the number of Latter-day Saints who have at least one exceptional case as the number of topics varies?

This chart shows how the number of stereotypes (people who have a perfect match with general counsel) and exceptions (people who have at least one exceptional case) vary as the number of topics goes from 5 to 100 (with the probability of any given counsel applying staying constant at 90%.

The gist of this chart is that stereotypes will only be more common if the number of topics is very, very small. At 5 topics, 59% of the population matches every single one and 41% have at least one exception, but at 10 topics only 35% match on every single one (65% have at least one exception) and by the time you get to 50 topics practically nobody (0.5% for 50, 0.003% for 100) is a stereotype. 

This is interesting, because if the General Authorities are concerned with conserving institutional authority (which they naturally should be) then it provides a strong incentive for them to restrict their general counsel to a narrow range of topics. Even if any given piece of counsel applies to 90%, the more topics they cover the more often people find themselves (or their friends and family) to be exceptional on some of those topics. It’s an interesting glimpse into the incentives and tradeoffs that General Authorities have to make, which is something I think ordinary members rarely take into account when we’re thinking about what the General Authorities tell us and why.

So here are my basic conclusions and some additional caveats.

First, this whole post is about general counsel. Nothing here applies to commandments. I get that–as with the policy vs. doctrine divide–the line between counsel and commandment may be blurry in some cases. Fair enough, but the principle remains: when the general authorities deliver a commandment that’s no time to go looking for exceptions. 

Second, I do not believe–stereotypes of TBMs notwithstanding–that the Church has ever suffered from a surfeit of obedience. If you use this post as an excuse to dodge counsel that your conscience, common sense, and/or the Spirit say should apply to you, don’t blame me. That’s not why I wrote this.

Third, one thing I think is important as we consider this is that when we genuinely and sincerely believe we’re in one of those exceptional cases, we should not feel guilty or ashamed about it. And, what’s more, when we see someone else not following general counsel we should not rush to judge them. As a general rule, just about everyone is going to have at least one exception in their life, and it’s not up to use to police those.

That’s really why I wrote this. 

We live in a world that is not appreciative of moral nuance. All around us, the moral foundations of our society are dissolving in the acid of over-simplified rational analysis. Philosophers act like the Trolly Problem reveals something fundamentally silly or broken or at least irrational about human moral intuitions when all it really shows–if you ask me–is that human moral intuition is a very, very complex and sensitive instrument and when you remove it from realistic situations it stops working. That doesn’t mean it’s broken, any more than shooting a laser into the James Webb Space Telescope until its internal components melt would prove that it’s bad at collecting photons.

The practical upside? The dense tapestry of individual, familial, social, and abstract moral considerations that used to play a role in sexual ethics has been reduced–as far as the world is concerned–to consent. That’s it. The alpha and omega governing principle for some of the most complex, sensitive, and important human relationships has been reduced to a moral framework that would comfortably fit in a single tweet.

In this brave new world, trying to propound general counsel that is good, wise, and broadly applicable while also propounding that we should be non-judgmental and accepting of the outliers just gets you blank looks. Instead of allowing for exceptional cases, the imperative to simplify and streamline our moral universe leads to discarding any general principle that has exceptions… or any ideal that can’t be realized. Better to dispense with the general than risk harming the exception.

But there is another way. Instead of getting shallower, we can get deeper. Hold onto the the general principles while adding a greater appreciation for the fact that many and probably most of us will fall outside at least a couple of them. 

This post is not a call to listen to the General Authorities less. It’s a call to listen to them more, but then be a bit more thoughtful in our application of what we hear.

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