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A Tale of the Sea

This anecdote was sent to me by a correspondent – NS.


I chanced to be speaking to a chaplain who works with a mission to seafarers in a British port, and had the following tale from him.

One of the seamen he knows is a guy – let us call him John Smith – who is fine provided he remembers to take his meds but not so fine if he forgets. On a working ship, daily life is structured and John reliably remembers to take his meds, and if he did not, the captain would look into it, or John would be given medical evacuation. However the control regime is different in port.

Recently, John’s ship was sent to port for several months awaiting a new cargo or scrapping. Presently the chaplain was summoned by port security. When you are asked to the main security point, things are serious. When they offer you a cup of tea, things are really serious. Security told him that John had clearly not been taking his meds, was doing things that were not dangerous in themselves but “violated security protocols”, so they’d have to act in a way that they would prefer to avoid, unless the chaplain could make something better happen.

The chaplain contacted the Port Health authority and was told, “Well, you know, a seaman has rights. If we get involved and the result is to say he’s unfit or whatever, he could sue for loss of earnings or whatever …”

He contacted the company that contracts John’s labour. “Oh well, we’d like to help but seamen these days have a lot of rights. If we get involved and it’s later ruled we did not respect all of them …”

He contacted the union rep, whose first words were “You do know John has rights, don’t you?” and who then pointed out that John’s ship “is not my flag state, so I can’t come aboard uninvited.”

The chaplain solved that one by saying pointedly, “I’m inviting you to come aboard with me.” So, with the union rep in more or less literal tow, the chaplain went aboard, and was told by the captain, “Do whatever you can and I’ll back you.” He had a long and sometimes very strange talk with John, at the end of which John swallowed his meds, whereupon a very hyper man swiftly became calmer.

This example was in the context of the chaplain’s explaining to me how much of his job these days was doing what none of the jobsworths dared to do, even when some of them were not such creeps as not even to want to help. As he put it, “Sometimes the one with no formal power is actually the only one with any remaining power to act.”

31 comments to A Tale of the Sea

  • Mr Ed

    Did Nelson have this problem?

  • Umbriel

    “Sometimes the one with no formal power is actually the only one with any remaining power to act.” — A wonderful observation. I’ve long suspected that the world only continues to function at some level because a few souls still live outside the sclerotic world of hierarchy and protocol, and still think in terms of doing what needs doing.

  • Thailover

    “John, you fucking asshole, take your goddamned insane pills or I’ll toss you overboard so you can have a meeting with the sharks.”

    Problem solved, one way or the other.

  • bobby b

    He’s the only one who faces little legal risk for acting.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Note that at least one of the agencies that was afraid to act was an arm of the state.

  • Laird

    Events such as this are the inevitable result of the perversion of the concept of “rights”.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Rich Rostrom and Laird,
    Yes to both your points: even for the two supposedly non-state bodies, it was the the extension of state-mandated laws into their spheres that made them (rationally) afraid to act. And, like the state-mandated “right” to a minimum wage, being granted the “right” to sue for the sort of reasons that would never have been agreed to in a free contract is a poisoned chalice.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, quite a few of the old private-eye TV shows and movies involved a hero who had left the cops (usually having been disinvited), and who now, as a private citizen, could get away with doing stuff that the cops couldn’t legally do. And since he’d managed to stay on good terms with a few of the now-higher-ups on the Force, he occasionally managed to do the right thing in spite of the Lawr that kept the police department from doing it.

    Which poses (or re-poses) the interesting conundrum of when it is morally correct to break the law…a question that crossed my mind a few hours ago, as it happens.

    And in light of which, we now find ourselves back on that mountainside….

    I realize, of course, that your point here is more particularized, and I’m not arguing with it. Although, the law is what it is, and unless the agencies themselves lobbied for it, I don’t see that they’re in the wrong because I don’t see what else they could have done, if they value their necks (so to speak). Whereas, like the P.I.s, the “civilian” could do the necessary without undue fear of reprisal.

    This is sounding more and more like a brief for the defense, isn’t it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “Agencies”: Two governmental — Port Security, Port Health Authority; one (presumably private) business firm, the labor contractor; and the seamen’s union, whatever it’s called, also private. Just to be clear.

  • Rob

    So ‘rights’ are a two-edged sword, or rather a two-edged entitlement – the person, who has the ‘rights’, and ‘officialdom’, who can evade responsibility by hiding behind those ‘rights’.

    Human life is a bit more complicated than Progressives know, isn’t it?

  • stilyaqi

    I’m surprised that this chap is even allowed to go to sea.

  • Andrew Duffin

    @Rob, the two edges work the other way around, too.

    As in – you want to check (e.g.) that your wife remembered to renew her car insurance – but the insurance company won’t tell you “because of Data Protection”; otoh, if the State decides to sell all your medical records to Google, it turns out that “Data Protection” has nothing whatever to say.

  • Watchman

    Not sure if the story actually proves anything other than that any form of large agency with an impersonal relationship with individuals is not going to move to help an individual without a mandate. This is hardly news. Historically, it has always been those with minimal actual authority but with social status of some sort (chaplains being indeed an ideal example – churchmen in general where the church was not the institution) who can easily make moves to help. This explains also why crime bosses remain relevant in modern society – they have the same sort of status without official role (and why the Mafia are doing so badly nowadays – they are effectively institutionalised).

    In effect this is another proof that the easiest way to get something done is to find an outsider who is not part of the social systems/organisations that are in place. The same logic lies behind the idea of external scrutiny in business for example (although here it is now abused), or the fact that to get results in the UK NHS you need to make a fuss yourself rather than use the official systems. Basically we need disruptors to break systems, as systems tend to work for themselves.

  • Watchman


    His captain is clearly happy to have him there, so that’s all that’s needed.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Julie near Chicago
    May 12, 2016 at 7:04 am
    Which poses (or re-poses) the interesting conundrum of when it is morally correct to break the law…

    …causing me to once more point out that “the law is the law” is the exact English translation of “befehl ist befehl.” Or at least, the abdication of personal responsibility to authority is exactly the same.

  • Julie near Chicago

    PfP, yes, but I didn’t intend my question in that sense at all — i.e., “The law is the law, so never break it.” Rather, I was thinking of the doctrine that it is one’s bounden duty to break an immoral law. Some libertarians lean in this direction, and some espouse it outright — George H. Smith, for one. There are others.

    The conundrum has two parts.

    The first difficulty is in unpacking (i.e., interpreting) the statement. For instance, one has a DUTY to do X — here, to break the law? Oh yeah? Is this a real duty, that is, one that a person can consider and accept or not in his own conscience or per some actual contract, or is it a Humean “duty” that “just IS,” that needs and can have no justification? (Further dilation on the con-job of the “is/ought gap” deleted.) Also, “immoral” according to what definition? And whose definition?

    The second difficulty is, deciding when the level of the law’s immorality, as judged by whomever (in the light of the first difficulty), rises to the level that one “must” (whatever that means) break it.

    In common sense, one ought to consider seriously breaking laws that observably and also theoretically break “the moral law” that many of us see as the real underpinning of valid statute law. Such laws as do real harm [shortspeak to avoid going off-track] to self or others, and where there are no elements in the law that restrain its abuse, i.e. its availability for use in the commission of evil.

    What about the case where the law is that all the food you grow will be put into the common pot, which will be shared among all, and where the penalty for not doing so is either a stretch in the gulag or a firing squad? Do you have a duty to break this law? Even though breaking it will result in your execution?

    My point is that there are real difficulties with this position as an absolute rule, noble as it appears superficially. (In any case there are very few absolute or “blanket” rules for behavior that really are valid in all times and places and circumstances.) Cases have to be judged according to the real offense inherent in the law as against the consequences of breaking it, and therein lies the can of worms.

    There is no doctrinaire, cut-and-dried, absolute solution to the problem of the worms. That’s what I was getting at.

  • lucklucky

    I think this is not a tale of the sea but a tale of fear in democratic society. Fear of regulations.

  • Deep Lurker

    Here we see that John Smith’s meds do a lot of good for people around John Smith, but do they do good for John Smith himself? Maybe they do, but if they do, why does he need to be pressured to take them?

    How does one make a principled distinction between John Smith being nannied into taking his meds, and the rest of us being nannied into adhering to the Virtuous Progressive Behavior Pattern du jour?

  • Laird

    PfP, this is a bit of a detour (if not an actual frolic!) from the central issue here, but my understanding of the proper translation of “Befehl” is not “law” but rather “command”. The German word for “law” is “Gesetz”. I don’t consider the two to be synonymous (although possibly the Germans do).

  • Alisa

    How does one make a principled distinction between John Smith being nannied into taking his meds, and the rest of us being nannied into adhering to the Virtuous Progressive Behavior Pattern du jour?

    John Smith presumably wants to work, and if he does, he must behave in a way that is acceptable to his coworkers (in this case his fellow seamen). If what it takes is taking the pills (which, granted, he may not like – as these may have negative side effects), then he will take them – or go work elsewhere, or stay at home. Nothing Progressive about, as far as I can see.

  • Alisa

    Julie, I’m not sure your example regarding police work is always a good one: I’m actually fine with police not being allowed to do some things private citizens are. Of course there are also instances where I’d be happy for police to be allowed to do things they no longer are – which I presume what you were getting at.

  • Paul Marks

    The parson did his job – the parish priest function of looking after a member of his flock.

    In this case convincing John to voluntarily take his medicine.

    No harm done.

    And if John does not want to take his meds – well as Alisa mentions he better find another line of work.

    Although Julie and others are also correct – John should not be forced.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa at 9:54: I didn’t say it in so many words, but I agree with you entirely. And actually, although I agree with also with the thesis of your second sentence, your first exactly states my own posish, and is closer to my main point.

    I put it as I did because I wanted to point out that the circumstance of outsiders being able to do what Agencies (as listed above) cannot isn’t exactly a unique occurrence — which point is made above by others also; and I hoped that my remark would be taken as suggesting that sometimes this is a good thing.

  • Alisa

    You and I are in a non-furious agreement then, Julie 🙂

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Paul Marks, indeed he should not be forced to take any pill. But in a saner world (like we used to have, at least in cases like this) there would be no danger of bad consequences to the Health Authority etc. if they took prompt steps to remove him from the ship if he refused to take the pills. That would be good for John Smith in multiple ways: (1) it would be another incentive to take the pills. (2) if he didn’t, he would be more likely to be in a hospital, or at least have a doctor know about his state. (3) it would be a safer bet to employ him.

    Alisa’s comment of 9:52 has already said something very close to (3).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes, but Natalie, there has to be some effective restraint on the Health Authority, or what’s to stop them from declaring some Dreadful Condition or other whenever they’ve a mind? Shouldn’t John have the ability to make them prove their case in some fashion, if they are proposing to force him to do something, or to hospitalize him against his will, and shouldn’t they make some proportionate redress if reasonable people (judge? jury? however lawsuits work) decide they overreached themselves? (Even if nothing comes of the H.A.’s attempts, for “the process is the punishment,” as we know only too well.)

    Furthermore, “John” won’t always be simply a guy with a treatable problem who dislikes the treatment but is — in his own (rational — i.e., when he’s in good mental shape) judgment better off if he takes the treatment. Sometimes “John” will be a guy who is perfectly normal and rational, but has transgressed in some way. Maybe this is the 1990’s Britain and he’s up for ARC-5 onaccounta he’s called out the PCD in various speeches abroad. Maybe he’s just some poor schlepp who got caught in the gears.

    It seems to me that Authorities of whatever flavour need to be severely limited in the unopposed exercise of their powers, or there will be the devil to pay. Indeed there IS the devil to pay already, such as in all those unwarranted child-snatchings in which your government and mine indulge. And, as a matter of fact, these can happen as the result of a grudge that the Authority or even some simple acquaintance of the victim has against him.

    This is (one reason) why it’s better to have a severely constrained Authority, with work-arounds by private citizens available at need.

  • Mr Ed


    ‘befehl’ is indeed ‘order’ in the bureaucratic/military sense, hence ‘befehl ist befehl’ a late-1940s term used in occupied Germany: ‘an order is an order’ or more resignedly, ‘orders, you know!‘ as the defence case for many murderous acts, and the private consolation to many a bureaucrat over the ages.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Julie, I don’t disagree with a word about the need for strong protections against people being wrongly imprisoned on spurious medical grounds. But in this case, as so often, the modern State seems to be messing things up in both directions, half the time lashing out against the wrong people and half the time too scared to act when it ought to.

    Brian Micklethwait once used the metaphor the of “the Big Dithering Fist” of the State.

    Things would be better if people who need to keep taking the tablets could, while in their right minds, agree to a clause in a work contract that indemnified the Health Authority or whoever against getting into trouble for taking whatever steps were necessary in their particular case. I realise that could still go wrong in both directions, but at least the terms would be set by the individual and tailored to them. Perhaps mental health charities could do something useful for a change and provide guidance to vulnerable people as to how to set the terms.

  • Alisa

    I think that the police-work example is taken from a wrong category, because police work is (debatably) a necessary function of the state, while the various health authorities are not. IOW, the authority given to police to do certain things should be limited, while the Health Authority should not even exist.

  • Alisa

    OK, I see it is the port health authority, so my previous comment may have missed the mark – sorry about that…

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, the indemnification idea sounds good on the face of it. Worth considering.

    It also occurs to me that you folks have Rotherham, where if the stories are true the PTB, including the cops, surely failed to do what they signed up for. We are having problems with civil asset forfeiture, and Waco and Ruby Ridge, and — not the cops this time — child snatchings and charges of abuse and neglect from Children and Family Services, and EPA and other bodies who curtail people’s property rights to the point where they are gone — all that’s left being the necessity to pay property tax every year.

    So that difference may play a part in our differing judgments about this difficult area.