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The Nuremberg Defence

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Nuremberg Defence, also known as Superior Orders or the German term “Befehl ist Befehl” (orders are orders), is a legal defence involving whether a person can be held guilty for their actions when those actions were ordered by a superior officer, official, or manager of some kind.

I like to extend the idea to those people who claim that they are doing something which might seem to be unfair, or excessively bureaucratic, or pedantic, or immoral in some way because they are “just doing their job”.

I personally have come across a couple of instances of this recently but one I can’t talk about at this time. The other was a rather trivial example but it illustrates the problem of people “just doing their job” in a way that most people have some familiarity with.

The trivial example involves the actions of a parking officer (or what we often refer to in rather derogatory terms as a “meter beater”). When I leave work at the end of the day I stop at my wife and daughter’s cafe to help them clean up. The cafe is in the middle of town and parking is difficult so I quite often park in a paved area which isn’t strictly a car park but which I have used for 6 months with no complaints or problems.

Yesterday a meter beater, in this case a particularly annoying one who my my father-in-law would refer to in rather quaint and amusing terms as “one of those little three foot square sheilas” (translation: she’s short and fat and the word “sheila” just refers to a woman), gave me a $40 ticket for parking on a footpath.

When I saw her arrive on her ridiculous little scooter I sprinted out and asked if it was too late to move the car. She said “you should move it, but you’ll get a ticket anyway”. When I commented that that seemed rather harsh she said “just doing my job”. In that situation I thought mentioning the Nuremberg Defence would have probably gone over head (both metaphorically and literally considering her stature) so I just let it go.

As I drove up the street looking for another park I was very tempted just to nudge her bike on the way past but of course I would never really do that. And after driving around for a while I gave up on trying to find anywhere else and just went home, so my family had to finish cleaning up the cafe by themselves. When I got home I played a bit of “Clash of Clans” on the iPad and grabbed a beer so it wasn’t all bad!

The point is though: what was really achieved by this? Has the world ended, has anyone even been moderately inconvenienced by my parking in that area the previous 100 times? I don’t think so. The owner of the shop I park next to sees me do it and has never indicated that he has a problem with it.

The parking officer was just “doing her job” but the degree to which people do their jobs is at least partly up to them, surely. She could have just pretended that I wasn’t there. If she had received a complaint, could see that I was causing a hazard, or noticed I was parked there for long periods of time then fine, maybe I deserve a fine. But this just seemed too much a case of strictly following the rules rather than following common sense.

Most people get into situations where they might feel the need to invoke the Nuremberg Defence but it rarely happens to me. It’s not that I ignore the instructions of my “superiors” (surely that must be the worst possible description for them) because I am happy to use their opinions as guidelines, but I never follow any rules or regulations to the letter like my scooter-riding friend did.

Indeed, I think its unfortunate that more people don’t have the moral fortitude to use my strategy.

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