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A Short Course In Rule-Breaking

A Short Course in Rule-Breaking

By David Kelley

Near the beginning of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy is challenged to a knife fight by another member of his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Stalling for time, Butch approaches him to discuss the rules. "Rules? In a knife fight?" the challenger asks incredulously—and while his guard is down Butch disables him with a kick below the belt.

This scene always struck me as an accurate assessment of the value of rules.

By "rules" I mean self-contained prescriptions about concrete actions or situations, telling you what to do or how to do it. Fasten your seat belt. Don't smoke in elevators. Don't have sex on the first date. Don't drive over the speed limit. Don't hit below the belt. For many rules there is a rationale provided by some broader principle. But when rules take the place of principles, as is happening more and more often today, Butch Cassidy's response is the proper one: don't let them get in your way.

Rules—from Kiss to Consummation

By contrast with principles, rules are concrete and limited in scope, prescribing a particular type of action in a particular situation. "Don't smoke in elevators" is a rule. "To maintain good relations with others, it is necessary to treat them with courtesy" is a principle. Someone who followed this principle would not smoke in an elevator with others present—nor would he talk out loud at the movie theater, nor insult his host at a party, nor do any number of other things covered by the principle.

Large regions of social life that ought to be governed—and to a large extent used to be governed—by principles of courtesy, justice, and mutual respect have now been bureaucratized by rules. Movie theaters find it necessary to inform their patrons that talking during the movie is forbidden. Interactions between men and women in the workplace are now regulated by sexual harassment rules that attempt to replace the principle of respect and the exercise of judgment. At Antioch College several years ago, an official sexual-conduct code moved bureaucracy into the bedroom, requiring "Verbal consent [to] be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct.... The request for consent must be specific to each act" from kiss to consummation. What is offensive about this code is not merely its presumptuous interference in the most intimate of personal affairs, but its idiotic attempt to break the delicate and varied pas de deux into steps suitable for rules.

What to Do After You Don’t

Because they are so concrete, no set of rules could possibly cover every situation and action to which the corresponding principle applies. This defect is particularly serious in ethics, the field that provides the broadest and most fundamental level of guidance for human action. To appreciate the problem, consider the Ten Commandments. Leaving aside the first few, which deal with the worship of God, the list is not unreasonable as far as it goes. It's generally a good idea to honor your parents, and not to steal, kill, commit adultery, bear false witness against your neighbor, or covet his possessions. But these rules hardly cover the whole of life.

After you have refrained from doing these "Don'ts," what then? What values will you seek in life? How will you deal with other people, beyond respecting their rights? Is self-interest or self-sacrifice the honorable course in life? On these and countless other questions, the code is silent.

After you have refrained from doing these "Don'ts," what then?

The same problem applies to individual elements in the code. Bearing false witness, for example, is a specific form of lying, which is a specific form of dishonesty: trying to gain a value by faking reality. In my own case, not being given much to gossip, I doubt that I face the choice whether to state a falsehood about someone else's behavior as often as once a day. Even if we broaden the commandment into an injunction against all lying, as Christian moralists normally do, it is still a rule forbidding a specific type of action. There are many other forms of dishonesty, such as plagiarizing the work of others, pretense or phoniness in one's public persona, or self-deception, that are equally immoral but not mentioned in the code. By contrast, the principle that one should seek values by grasping and representing reality rather than by faking it gives us comprehensive guidance across a vast number of circumstances that could not be covered by a long list of discrete rules.

Rules, Principles, and the Conceptual Level

The advantage of principles is the advantage of concepts: They unite an open-ended number of particular cases under a single abstraction. The concept "man" is a single mental unit that stands for all human beings; without this concept, we could not possibly hold in mind a list of every human being as an individual. In the same way, a principle is a single mental unit that covers a multitude of actions and occasions. The principle that one should drive under control, for example, applies to every type of road, road condition, level of traffic, etc., for which one could not possibly specify a comprehensive list of discrete rules.

Of course we pay a price for this advantage of principles. Because it is so abstract, one has to apply a principle to a particular case by the exercise of judgment, taking account of the specific facts about the context. In the case of honesty, for example, the amount of information one is obliged to convey to others depends on the exact nature of the relationship one has with them. But this points to a second defect of rules. Rules are formulated for specific contexts, but they never fully specify the nature or limitations of that context. As a result, rules invariably have exceptions and they often conflict with each other. Someone trying to follow the rules without the benefit of broader principles will have no way to determine when he is faced with an exception, or how to resolve a conflict.

The choice is to be principled—or to be ruled.

For example, honoring your parents is normally a matter of justice as well as affection—giving them what they are due for having given you life and nurture. But the fourth commandment has exceptions. Some parents treat their children with such cruelty or neglect that no honor is due them; quite the contrary. The commandment gives us no guidance on this point. The principle of justice does. The principle, to begin with, has no exceptions—you should always treat people as they deserve, in light of the virtues and vices they practice, the benefit or harm they have done you, and the legitimate expectations they have on the basis of your relationship. It is therefore safe to rely on the principle in every circumstance. Second, the principle tells us how to identify exceptions to the more concrete rule: parents should not be honored for their vices, any more than anyone else should; and they should not be honored for nurturing their children if they failed to do so.

The exercise of judgment cannot be eliminated from human life, and the attempt to do so by erecting a network of rules has destructive consequences in public as well as private affairs.

In hiring an employee, for example, the factors one considers are not limited to those one can quantify, or even those one can name. An experienced interviewer may notice subtle aspects of the way a person presents and conducts himself and give them weight as signs of how he will perform on the job, relate to the other employees, etc. Employers seeking to avoid civil rights sanctions, however, know that they cannot appeal to such judgments if they are challenged in court by a member of a protected minority who has been turned down for a job. As a result, they have tended to rely more on checklists of external credentials, and some companies have even lobbied the government for explicit quotas as a way of protecting themselves legally. The result is not only the injustice of people getting jobs they don't deserve, but a general "dumbing down" of the whole selection process.

There is a final defect that rules have in virtue of their concreteness. It is the most serious defect of all, and it is, once again, most pronounced in the realm of ethics: Unless rules are anchored in principles, they cannot be rationally justified. A moral code must be validated by reference to a fundamental value, an ultimate good to which all other goals of action are means. For Objectivism, that ultimate good is the individual's own life and happiness. Moral principles identify the requirements for living successfully, given man's basic needs and capacities: Production is a value because it provides for our needs. Conceptual knowledge is a value because it makes production possible. Rationality is a virtue because it is the only way to acquire and maintain a conceptual grasp of reality. Honesty and integrity are virtues because they are the only way of keeping one's actions tied to one's grasp of reality. And so on.

Detached from this context, rules have no rational warrant. They can be accepted only on faith or authority—i.e., as arbitrary edicts. This is the primary reason morality is seen by most people as a constraint imposed on them from the outside. In fact, as Ayn Rand often said, morality is a vital need, something to be used and valued as an instrument of happiness. To someone who values his mind, for example, and takes pride in exercising and acting on it, dishonesty has no appeal. Without that understanding, however, moral rules will be experienced as an external constraint, a tax on one's pursuit of happiness, as in the old joke about the Ten Commandments: Moses comes down from the mountain and says to the people, "The good news is that I bargained Him down to ten; the bad news is that adultery is still on the list.”

Reason vs. Will

Properly formulated, a principle states the relationship between an action and a goal: "to maintain good relations with others, it is necessary to treat them with courtesy"; "to deal with other people rationally, it is necessary to give them what they are due"; etc. Principles are expressed in the declarative rather than the imperative mood. They are expressions of reason. Rules are imperatives: do this, don't do that. Unless they are short-hand versions of some principle, backed by its rationale, they are merely commands, expressions of someone's will. Indeed, one of the chief reasons that a belief in God survives in a scientific age is the assumption that morality consists in commands, and that where there is a law there must be a Law-giver.

In social contexts, rules laid down by an authority are sometimes necessary to prevent conflicts among people. It doesn't matter which side of the road we drive on—there is no rational ground for preferring the right-hand rule in America to the left-hand rule in England—but we do need to drive on the same side. Organizations need rules of various kinds to ensure consistency in practices and procedures. And the basic principle of individual rights means that an owner is free to lay down any rule he wishes for those who use his property—who visit his home, work in his factory, rent apartments in his building, patronize his bowling alley, or whatever.

But even in this context, rules have all the defects we discussed: they cannot cover every situation, they have exceptions, and if they are detached from rational principles they are an arbitrary expression of will. When rules are necessary, rule-makers have an obligation to make them intelligible. Rules that are arbitrary or issued chiefly as a means of asserting authority invite rule-breaking by those independent enough to bridle at subjection to another's will.

The Need for Objectivity

Human beings cannot live successful lives by acting on the impulse of the moment. We need objective standards to guide our actions and to coordinate them with the actions of others. Conservative moralists today are trying to counter the rise of subjectivism and the decline of moral standards in our society by urging a return to stricter rules of conduct, especially in matters of marriage, sex, and family. But strictness is not objectivity; it is merely confining.

The more honest of these moralists are quite explicit about the connection between rules, conformity, and authority. William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, complains that our society places insufficient "value on social conformity, respectability, observing the rules." Another conservative activist was quoted recently as saying that "students should be told that stealing is wrong, 'according to an authority—either God or parents, it doesn't matter.'" In regard to morality, however, there are no authorities. An expression of will divorced from reason is arbitrary, with no valid claim on our compliance. It is just another form of subjectivism.

We do need objective standards. But objectivity requires principles, not rules. The choice is to be principled, acting on one's own understanding of reality, or to be ruled—by an explicit authority or by the cramped and encrusted dictates of tradition. For anyone who values his own life and his own autonomy, that's an easy choice.

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David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include  Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses; and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society. 

TNI articles by David Kelley
        Atlas Society articles by David Kelley