As most conversations tend to go, I can’t remember how it began. Somehow the three of us were sitting around the kitchen table engaged in-depth on the nature of ethics. I recalled at one point saying I was a rule-breaker, but before that, all I could remember was my housemate saying he was looking to buy a hatchback with a moon-roof, preferably from the 1980s.
I have to be careful and concise here, because as I was reminded this afternoon, discussing the rules is a topic without boundaries.
My trouble with rules is not following them, rather following them blindly. There is no distinct this and that in our world, but rules seem to address exactly that. Whether they are rules we establish for ourselves, develop with others, or are handed down from some moral or legal authority, they rarely can be relied on to distinctly decide any issue. But that is precisely what we use them to do.
The most fluid rules, and those we have the most control over, are those we establish for ourselves. These come up when the voices in our head use definitive words like never, always and only. For most of the population, these are influenced by other guidelines taught us by our family, community, government and the like. These are the most important because they allow us to evaluate the many rules, some opposing, we have been exposed to, and decide which to keep, which to amend and which to discard altogether.
Every rule has a breaking point. Take a simple example. Let’s say that a University student lives in the country, and has a 20 minute commute to the park-and-ride before taking the twice an hour shuttle to campus. One day, his dog gets sick on the kitchen floor. He cleans it up, but this sets him back a bit, and times it just so he misses the notoriously long traffic light in the center of town. From that crossroads you can see three counties. At this hour, there’s no one coming for miles. If he waits, he will surely miss the bus, and disturb the 100 student lecture when he enters halfway through class. Not to mention being set back himself. If he goes through the red light, he breaks the law. But no one but himself will ever have to know.
The argument, I suppose, is that if we all begin to take things into our own minds, we may begin to push the limits. Perhaps our friend will next time blow the light when there is a car coming, but still far enough away. But why not allow the citizenry more leeway? Surely the town officials, with their knowledge of early morning traffic patterns, could have made the light a blinking red before 8 a.m. and mooted the whole dilemma. Why not put an addendum on the rules, “This is the rule, but use your best judgement.”
We misuse rules the other way too, especially in our youth, with lines like “Nobody told me not to.” I gave my mother more than a few grey hairs when I would return home from my favorite diner or fast food restaurant with a menu, tray or piece of flatware. “That’s stealing!” she would say. But I saw no price tags, and so I thought it was fair game. More than a few adults I know still play by this rule. Individuals who would never dream of stealing anything, see a pint glass they like at the pub and slip it into their pocket or purse. And what about asking for extra bread, knowing full well you do not intend to take another bite with this meal. Is this different from grabbing a loaf from the kitchen on your way out?
There is no ultimate set of rules without exception. Even the biblically and legally enforced rule not to kill another being is given an “except” in both cases, referencing taking an eye for an eye, and through legal justice. Yet still we live daily adhering to an array of guidelines.
Take Bradley Manning, serving prison time for choosing one moral authority over another. Is it more right to let innocent deaths go unrecorded or to maintain loyalty to the government of your country?
Our country was founded on such moral decisions, but more and more we are becoming less willing to adjust with our world as it evolves.
Perhaps all rules should be more like yield signs. A collaboration of wisdom, compiled and exacted, but not made ultimate. Entrust the individual with her world. Perhaps she would be more inclined to take better care of it.