Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Pondering

A core part of constructing nice selections is knowing the rationale behind earlier selections. If we don’t perceive how we bought “right here,” we run the chance of constructing issues a lot worse.


After we search to intervene in any system created by somebody, it’s not sufficient to view their selections and selections merely as the implications of first-order pondering as a result of we will inadvertently create severe issues. Earlier than altering something, we must always ponder whether they have been utilizing second-order pondering. Their causes for ensuring selections may be extra complicated than they appear at first. It’s greatest to imagine they knew issues we don’t or had expertise we will’t fathom, so we don’t go for fast fixes and find yourself making issues worse.

Second-order pondering is the follow of not simply contemplating the implications of our selections but additionally the implications of these penalties. Everybody can handle first-order pondering, which is simply contemplating the quick anticipated results of an motion. It’s easy and fast, often requiring little effort. By comparability, second-order pondering is extra complicated and time-consuming. The truth that it’s troublesome and weird is what makes the flexibility to do it such a strong benefit.

Second-order pondering will get you extraordinary outcomes, and so will studying to acknowledge when different persons are utilizing second-order pondering. To know precisely why that is the case, let’s think about Chesterton’s Fence, described by G. Okay. Chesterton himself as follows:

There exists in such a case a sure establishment or regulation; allow us to say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected throughout a highway. The extra fashionable sort of reformer goes gaily as much as it and says, “I don’t see using this; allow us to clear it away.” To which the extra clever sort of reformer will do properly to reply: “When you don’t see using it, I definitely received’t allow you to clear it away. Go away and suppose. Then, when you’ll be able to come again and inform me that you simply do see using it, I could help you destroy it.”


Chesterton’s Fence is a heuristic impressed by a quote from the author and polymath G. Okay. Chesterton’s 1929 guide, The Factor. It’s greatest generally known as being one in every of John F. Kennedy’s favored sayings, in addition to a precept Wikipedia encourages its editors to comply with. Within the guide, Chesterton describes the traditional case of the reformer who notices one thing, comparable to a fence, and fails to see the explanation for its existence. Nevertheless, earlier than they determine to take away it, they need to work out why it exists within the first place. If they don’t do that, they’re prone to do extra hurt than good with its elimination. In its most concise model, Chesterton’s Fence states the next:

Don’t take away a fence till you understand why it was put up within the first place.

Chesterton went on to elucidate why this precept holds true, writing that fences don’t develop out of the bottom, nor do individuals construct them of their sleep or throughout a match of insanity. He defined that fences are constructed by individuals who rigorously deliberate them out and “had some cause for pondering [the fence] could be factor for any individual.” Till we set up that cause, we’ve no enterprise taking an ax to it. The rationale may not be or related one; we simply want to pay attention to what the explanation is. In any other case, we could find yourself with unintended penalties: second- and third-order results we don’t need, spreading like ripples on a pond and inflicting harm for years.

Elsewhere, in his essay assortment Heretics, Chesterton makes the same level, detailed right here:

Suppose that an incredible commotion arises on the street about one thing, allow us to say a lamp-post, which many influential individuals want to drag down. A gray-clad monk, who’s the spirit of the Center Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, within the arid method of the Schoolmen, “Allow us to to start with think about, my brethren, the worth of Mild. If Mild be in itself good—” At this level he’s considerably excusably knocked down. All of the individuals make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and so they go about congratulating one another on their un-mediaeval practicality. However as issues go on they don’t work out so simply. Some individuals have pulled the lamp-post down as a result of they needed the electrical mild; some as a result of they needed outdated iron; some as a result of they needed darkness, as a result of their deeds have been evil. Some thought it not sufficient of a lamp-post, some an excessive amount of; some acted as a result of they needed to smash municipal equipment; some as a result of they needed to smash one thing. And there’s warfare within the evening, no man figuring out whom he strikes. So, step by step and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the following day, there comes again the conviction that the monk was proper in any case, and that each one is determined by what’s the philosophy of Mild. Solely what we’d have mentioned below the gas-lamp, we now should focus on at nighttime.

So simple as Chesterton’s Fence is as a precept, it teaches us an vital lesson. Most of the issues we face in life happen once we intervene with techniques with out an consciousness of what the implications could possibly be. We will simply neglect that this is applicable to subtraction as a lot as to addition. If a fence exists, there’s seemingly a cause for it. It could be an illogical or inconsequential cause, however it’s a cause nonetheless.

“Earlier than I constructed a wall I’d ask to know
What I used to be walling in or walling out,
And to whom I used to be like to offer offence.”

— Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Chesterton additionally alluded to the all-too-common perception that earlier generations have been bumbling fools, stumbling round, setting up fences wherever they fancied. Ought to we fail to respect their judgement and never attempt to perceive it, we run the chance of making new, surprising issues. By and enormous, individuals don’t do issues for no cause. We’re all lazy at coronary heart. We don’t prefer to waste time and assets on ineffective fences. Not understanding one thing doesn’t imply it have to be pointless.

Take the case of supposedly hierarchy-free corporations. Somebody got here alongside and figured that having administration and an total hierarchy is an imperfect system. It locations extra stress on these on the backside and may even be damaging to their well being. It leaves room for abuse of energy and manipulative firm politics. It makes it unlikely that good concepts from these on the backside will get listened to.

Nevertheless, regardless of the quite a few issues inherent in hierarchical corporations, taking out this construction altogether belies a lack of understanding of the explanation why it’s so ubiquitous. Somebody must make selections and be held accountable for their penalties. Throughout occasions of stress or disorganization, individuals naturally are likely to look to leaders for course. With no formal hierarchy, individuals typically type an invisible one, which is way extra complicated to navigate and may result in probably the most charismatic or domineering particular person taking management, slightly than probably the most certified.

It’s definitely admirable that hierarchy-free corporations are taking the large threat inherent in breaking the mould and attempting one thing new. Nevertheless, their strategy ignores Chesterton’s Fence and doesn’t tackle why hierarchies exist inside corporations within the first place. Eradicating them doesn’t essentially result in a fairer, extra productive system.

Sure, doing issues the best way they’ve all the time been finished means getting what we’ve all the time bought. There’s definitely nothing constructive about being immune to any change. Issues turn into outdated and redundant with time. Typically an out of doors perspective is good for shaking issues up and discovering new methods. Even so, we will’t let ourselves be too overconfident concerning the redundancy of issues we see as pointless.

Or, to paraphrase Rory Sutherland, the peacock’s tail just isn’t about effectivity. Actually, its entire worth lies in its inefficiency. It indicators a chicken is wholesome sufficient to waste vitality rising it and has the power to hold it round. Peahens use the tails of peacocks as steering for selecting which mates are prone to have the most effective genes to move on to their offspring. If an out of doors observer have been to one way or the other swoop in and provides peacocks common, purposeful tails, it could be extra vitality environment friendly and sensible, however it could deprive them of the flexibility to promote their genetic potential.


All of us, at one level or one other, make some try to vary a behavior to enhance our lives. When you’re participating in a nasty behavior, it’s admirable to attempt to get rid of it—besides a part of why many makes an attempt to take action fail is that unhealthy habits don’t seem out of nowhere. Nobody wakes up sooner or later and decides they wish to begin smoking or consuming each evening or watching tv till the early hours of the morning. Unhealthy habits usually evolve to serve an unfulfilled want: connection, consolation, distraction, take your decide.

Trying to take away the behavior and depart every part else untouched doesn’t get rid of the necessity and may merely result in a substitute behavior that may be simply as dangerous and even worse. Due to this, extra profitable approaches typically contain changing a nasty behavior with , benign, or much less dangerous one—or coping with the underlying want. In different phrases, that fence went up for a cause, and it might probably’t come down with out one thing both taking its place or eradicating the necessity for it to be there within the first place.

To present an additional instance, in a traditional submit from 2009 on his web site, serial entrepreneur Steve Clean offers an instance of a choice he has repeatedly seen in startups. They develop to the purpose the place it is smart to rent a Chief Monetary Officer. Desperate to make a direct distinction, the brand new CFO begins in search of methods to chop prices to allow them to level to how they’re saving the corporate cash. They check out the free snacks and sodas supplied to workers and calculate how a lot they value per yr—maybe a couple of thousand {dollars}. It looks like a waste of cash, in order that they determine to get rid of free sodas or begin charging a couple of cents for them. In any case, they’re paying individuals sufficient. They’ll purchase their very own sodas.

Clean writes that, in his expertise, the result is all the time the identical. The unique workers who helped the corporate develop initially discover the change and notice issues will not be how they have been earlier than. In fact they will afford to purchase their very own sodas. However all of a sudden having to is simply an unmissable signal that the corporate’s tradition is altering, which may be sufficient to immediate probably the most gifted individuals to leap ship. Trying to save lots of a comparatively small sum of money finally ends up costing much more in worker turnover. The brand new CFO didn’t think about why that fence was up within the first place.


Chesterton’s Fence just isn’t an admonishment of anybody who tries to make enhancements; it’s a name to pay attention to second-order pondering earlier than intervening. It reminds us that we don’t all the time know higher than those that made selections earlier than us, and we will’t see all of the nuances to a scenario till we’re intimate with it. Except we all know why somebody decided, we will’t safely change it or conclude that they have been mistaken.

Step one earlier than modifying a side of a system is to know it. Observe it in full. Word the way it interconnects with different elements, together with ones that may not be linked to you personally. Be taught the way it works, and then suggest your change.

I am Christian Nnakuzierem Alozie (Kris Kuzie Alozie). A native of Eziama Nneato in Umunneochi LGA, Abia State, Nigeria. I am an inspirational writer and a motivational speaker. And above all, a lover of charity.

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