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The foundation of rules

February 7, 2012

It’s been said that tiny minds like rules. A lot. But maybe that’s a bit simplistic, because there are different kinds of rules.

There are religious rules that must never be violated, even when there’s no apparent reason for them. Like not working on the Sabbath, or not marrying a dude if you’re a dude. Of course when the lack of foundational reason is pointed out, a bunch of reasons will be made up on the spot. But they fall apart on even casual examination.

There are secular rules that are basically politically compromises, like tax code and speed limits. Yes, there are reasons for them, but there can also be arguments against them or different ways of handling them.

Then there are rules that derive entirely from good reasons, like slowing down on icy roads, or washing your hands before you make someone a sandwich.

I’ve arranged them in this order because they are distinguished by the kind of trouble you are in if you violate them. In the first kind, it’s all authority-based trouble. You stepped on the wrong crack and now you’re in the soup, brother. In the second kind, it’s a mix. In the third kind, you’re likely to cause real harm even if the authorities never know you did it.

Rules work best when they’re internalized; when you understand the reasons for them and agree and basically would never think of doing whatever. And that’s fine: you don’t litter because you’re sick of seeing litter all over the place, and we get a better world in the bargain. It doesn’t even matter what the authorities say about it.

But trouble starts when people internalize rules that don’t have any real reason for them. Then you get religious fanatics yelling at school girls for immodest dress, or gay kids in school driven to suicide by a relentless campaign of blame and ostracism.

Sometimes authority-based rules began as reason-based rules. But over the years people obeyed them because the authorities said so, instead of the original reason. And like a game of generational “telephone” the rule became its own reason for existing.

One input to the different kind of rules is the kind of authority from which they derive. There’s “because I say so” authority and there’s “because I know what I’m talking about” authority. The first kind tells you to feel bad about some personal quirk, and the second kind tells you to wash your hands when you make someone a sandwich.

That’s all I have time for right now; I have to go to work. Because if I don’t, stuff won’t get done and if enough stuff doesn’t get done I won’t have a job. At my age, that’s no joke.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 7, 2012 at 08:12 | #1

    Thought provoking –yes. Do I have anything to add–no but I’d like to hear more from you on this!

  2. February 7, 2012 at 09:33 | #2

    Reminds me of the story about the woman who cut both ends off a ham roast before roasting because that’s what her mother did. She never asked about the reason for the “rule.” Turns out her mother cut the ends off so it would fit in her small roasting pan …

  3. February 18, 2012 at 21:42 | #3

    Is this blog broken again?

  4. decrepadmin
    February 18, 2012 at 21:49 | #4

    The writer has been having some problems with pain management lately resulting in difficulty concentrating. Past couple days a bit better, hip stopped hurting with some careful stretching and a bit more drugs than usual.

    New post on its way, as you were typing this. Pleas stand by.

  5. iota
    March 1, 2012 at 12:28 | #5

    I have read this article at least a dozen times and keep coming back. It is simple and clear and correct. A philosopher could have said the same thing in five hundred pages or more. I love it!

    • decrepadmin
      March 1, 2012 at 14:54 | #6

      Thank you!

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