Do we believe in rules?

19 Apr 2022

As always: improvise, ad-lib, yeah, but– verbatim, I can’t stress that enough, stick to the script
Amir Blumenfeld

There’s usually some kind of disconnect between a rule and the desired outcome of a rule. Sometimes people follow the rules to the letter, but still face backlash; for example, many people think it’s wrong to find contrived, but legal, ways to reduce how much tax you pay. On the other hand, most of us think that it’s ok to break rules in exception circumstances, like when defending ourselves.

This is uncontroversial to most people—so why do they seem to behave like they don’t believe it?

If a rule is predicated by anything extra, such as what situations it applies in, or whether a person “deserves” something, disagreements involving the rule are possible without being about the rule itself. This is a big problem! If we believe our rules are special, e.g. they are moral, then qualified rules introduce subjectivity and error into our judgements, and shift disagreements into non-special (non-moral) domains. Someone can know the rules, fully believe they’ve followed them, and still be punished. This doesn’t seem to concern many people!

For a rule to be universally and justly binding, everyone needs to be in agreement about when it applies. The only way this can happen is if it applies all the time, regardless of circumstance or how much good would come about by ignoring it, which are both subject to error. It needs to be purely about will and intent, or in Kant’s words, a categorical imperative:

Act as if the maxims of your action were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature.

Kant’s view is quite extreme compared to the average person’s. I’m not sure I endorse the categorical imperative. However, it does illustrate a choice we should be consistent about. When people want to break rules, they conveniently believe rules are imprecise and that there are valid reasons to break them, but when we want to punish people, suddenly they are hard and unambiguous. Which is it?

Is lying wrong? If someone lies in order to further bad goals, it seems like some treat this an extra sin over just having the bad goals. However, lying to someone who “deserves it” or for a good reason tends to be seen as more morally neutral, or even good. The same goes for violence. If we believe in rules, then to be conditional with them like this we have to properly qualify them, like “don’t hurt anyone, unless they deserve it.” The problem is that this is so subjective and circular that we’ve eliminated almost all judgemental power that the rule had.

So, we have a trade-off to make: either

  • we care a lot about rules/imperatives/duties for their own sake, and have rules which are highly applicable and unambiguous, but also unspecific and universal (deonotology)

  • or we care less about rules and more about the outcomes, having much more qualified rules but giving up some ability to objectively judge, and accepting that general rules will fail to capture what we want (consequentialism).

Some people seem to spend their whole lives collecting very situational rules, desperately trying to apply them and scorning others for not following them; either not considering the possibility or terrified of the idea that they might be subjective or even just made up. When religion was more mainstream, at least rules were often clear and had a divine backing which gave them weight. Nowadays, though, it seems like we’re fearfully alone.

Maybe it’s still true what Thomas Carlyle wrote of the 19th century: that it was an age “destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism.”

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