I keep hearing a specific type of question in congressional hearings, television interviews, town hall meetings and news conferences. It grates on me like fingernails scratching a blackboard. Typically the question begins, “Can you guarantee that not a single … ?” This is so stupid that there should be a free pass to smack the questioner sharply on the head with a large stick.
Essentially nothing in human affairs is 100% certain, even with the best of intentions. No one should be asked any question that precludes an Act of God or even any unpredictable circumstances. It is certainly fair to inquire what specific actions someone is taking to avoid negative outcomes, or at least those that are at all likely. And the answer can be reasonably challenged on the basis of verified facts or even plausible predictions based on experience. But going beyond that is unfair, wrong and – worst of all – it annoys the hell out of me!
Of course the standard reply could be, “No. I cannot make a 100% guarantee.” But you know as well as I that this will be misinterpreted as callous disregard or even evil intent. In fact, that is often the entire purpose of such questions in the first place.
Take any bill offered before Congress. Can anyone be absolutely sure that it will work exactly as intended when implemented by fallible human beings? Can anyone be confident that it will not cause harm to even a single individual – ever, under any circumstances, and even if the individual is complicit in the damage? These are unreasonable standards and a recipe for inaction, which itself can be very harmful. Moreover every Congressional action or Presidential initiative involves a balancing of competing priorities. A sensible standard for ethical action was proscribed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham two centuries ago: the greatest good for the greatest number. But we must always be mindful that there are limits to what burden anyone can be asked to accept for the general welfare.
I have heard such questions aggressively tossed at the Director of the CDC on the topic of inoculations, at congressmen relating to some bill they support or oppose, and recently at an airline executive discussing overbooking and the FBI Director with respect to telephone eavesdropping. The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, regularly gets such questions from a press corps that surely must know better. I am grudgingly beginning to sympathize a bit with his lot in life.