Everyone Needs a Hippocratic Oath

[Tim Lee]

A couple of commenters suggest I'm questioning the motives of adoption officials and pet shelter volunteers. Take Freddie, for example:

The natural thing to assume, of course, is that these employees genuinely think that what they are doing helps the animals, and are perhaps misled in thinking that. Ah, but that doesn't get you approving links from libertarian bloggers; that doesn't "take someone down a notch"; that doesn't, in short, ridicule and condemn.


Look, every time I go to the airport, I have to stand in a long line, take off my shoes, empty out my pockets, dump out any bottles of liquid I might have, put any small containers of liquid in a 1-quart "zip-top" bag, and have my ID checked against my boarding pass. There is, in fact, precious little reason to think that most of these rituals make anyone safer. For example, as Bruce Schneier put it to TSA head Kip Hawley in an interview:

You don't have a responsibility to screen shoes; you have one to protect air travel from terrorism to the best of your ability. You're picking and choosing. We know the Chechnyan terrorists who downed two Russian planes in 2004 got through security partly because different people carried the explosive and the detonator. Why doesn't this count as a continued, active attack method?

I don't want to even think about how much C4 I can strap to my legs and walk through your magnetometers. Or search the Internet for "BeerBelly." It's a device you can strap to your chest to smuggle beer into stadiums, but you can also use it smuggle 40 ounces of dangerous liquid explosive onto planes. The magnetometer won't detect it. Your secondary screening wandings won't detect it. Why aren't you making us all take our shirts off? Will you have to find a printout of the webpage in some terrorist safe house? Or will someone actually have to try it? If that doesn't bother you, search the Internet for "cell phone gun."

Now, I have no doubt that virtually all TSA officials sincerely believe that relieving me of my bottle of water is crucial to preventing the next September 11 attack. Part of this is that they aren't very smart. Part of it is that they're trained to follow instructions without engaging in a lot of critical thought. But in any event, I have no doubt that they're sincere.

That doesn't change the fact that most of what happens in an airport screening line is a waste of everyone's time. An enormous amount of time is being wasted for little to no increase in security. Bruce Schneier coined the apt phrase "security theater" to describe the process: the goal isn't to make people safer; the goal is to make people feel safer.

I think much the same thing is happening in the adoption process and at the local animal shelter. It's not that adoption case-workers or pet shelter volunteers are consciously wasting peoples' time to make themselves feel more powerful. I'm sure they sincerely believe that their efforts are helping kids and cats, respectively. But I think they're wrong.

A big part of the problem is that people have a natural tendency to over-estimate their own importance. Nobody takes a job he believes is a waste of time, and people self-select into professions they happen to think make a big difference in society. So TSA security screeners believe they're making air travel safer, even when the evidence says they're not. Patent attorneys believe they're promoting innovation, even in industries where the evidence says otherwise. And adoption officials naturally believe that they play a vital role in ensuring kids get placed in loving homes.

Now, I'm sure that adoption officials do a lot of good. But it's possible to do too much as well as too little. Virtually every profession that involves an element of coercion needs a version of the Hippocratic Oath. In the case of adoption, that means that adoption agencies should err on the side of permitting adoptions unless they have good reason to think the home will be abusive or neglectful. Adoption workers should approach their jobs with an attitude of humility, recognizing that the vast majority of adoptive parents will do a better job than the foster care system.

This isn't about questioning adoption officials' motives. I have no doubt adoption workers sincerely believe they're acting in the best interest of children. But the fact that they believe it doesn't make it true, and it's precisely because adoption professionals have a tendency to pursue sincere but misguided policies that we need to constrain their discretion. The ban on race-conscious adoption decisions in one such constraint.

Photo courtesy of adjustafresh