A Command Is a Command

32 - Salute (iStock_000005426456XSmall)Captain George Little served with distinction in the United States Navy.  So, after obeying the order of his Commander-in-Chief, he never expected to find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit, liable for damages in the commission of his duty.

In 1799, war between the United States and France appeared inevitable. In preparation, Congress passed a law allowing President John Adams to seize any vessels bound for French ports. However, Adams took this power a step further, ordering the seizure of vessels heading to and from France. Captain Little, commanding the USS Boston, captured the “Flying Fish,” a Danish ship, as it arrived in St. Thomas from France. And he carried out his orders to the letter. After all, refusing to do so would certainly have him court-martialed, perhaps even executed.

So how could he have been liable for civil damages for carrying out a clear order from the President? The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that “instructions cannot change the nature of the transaction, or legalize an act which, without those instructions, would have been a plain trespass.”[1] In other words, orders from a superior officer—even the Commander-in-Chief—do not release a person from his responsibility to do what is right.

Chief Justice Marshall admitted his personal conflict with this decision. He sympathized with Captain Little, who merely acted in good faith, and he worried that the ruling might undermine the integrity of the military, which depends upon the implicit obedience of its members. But, in the final analysis, much more would have been lost if he ruled in favor of the hapless skipper. Continue reading “A Command Is a Command”

The Cost of Changing the World

Well-known physical formulaIn the early 1960s, Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he coined the term “paradigm shift.” When scientists can no longer make sense of their data using the established theories, someone stumbles upon a new perspective that sparks a scientific revolution. The facts don’t change; we merely change our way of looking at them.

A quick review of history reveals that paradigm shifts almost always result in dramatic improvements for humankind. Yet, for all the undeniable benefits they bring, paradigm shifts are rare and precious events in human history. That’s because adopting a radical new perspective is a costly venture. To embrace a new paradigm, we must accept no less than four conditions or else accept the limitations of the old way of thinking.

First, we must be willing to accept that the generally accepted perspective has become more harmful than helpful. While the old way of thinking served our purposes and has perhaps done great good, we must be willing to set it aside when the old paradigm makes problems worse rather than better.

Second, we must be willing to challenge what we believe to be true. This is not a denial of truth; merely a willingness to put our understanding of truth to the test and to let it stand on its own, or fall away. This is undoubtedly the most difficult condition, and what keeps paradigm shifts from occurring more often. This requires humility, admitting we may have defended and promoted a faulty perspective. It also demands faith, genuinely trusting that our perspectives and truth are not the same. And it calls for courage, a steadfast confidence that truth will prevail if we keep a relaxed grip on our perspectives.

Third, we must be willing to go back to the very beginning and rethink everything we now take for granted. While the exercise often feels like reinventing the wheel, it is necessary. A faulty assumption, no matter how innocent or small, can potentially undermine an important breakthrough.

Finally, we must be willing to be misunderstood. People who do not see the need for a new perspective (usually because the old paradigm has not failed them) zealously resist change and tend to regard anyone arguing for change as an enemy. Consequently, the integrity, intelligence, qualifications, or motives of those embracing the new paradigm will be called into question.

Revolutionary thinkers pay a terrible price for their innovations. Most die penniless and persecuted in their own time, only to be celebrated as heroes when their radical idea becomes the standard view. Eventually, their sacrifice becomes humanity’s reward.

Do you have a crazy idea? Do you have a vision for how things could be different? What price are you willing to pay in order to see it through?