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Are Rules Rules?

Thundery wintry showers


I've stated recently that I'm not a big fan of the phrase, "rules are rules".

Firstly, what does the phrase mean? It's often not entirely clear, but in general there are two main interpretations:

Definition 1. "Rules must always be obeyed and infringements must always be punished"

For example,
[i]X is prohibited.[/i]
[i]People who do X should therefore be punished for disobedience. If you allow people to get away with breaking rules you'll end up with anarchy.[/i]
[i]If people want to have the prohibition on X removed, they should campaign to get the rules amended.[/i]

One significant problem with the above is that when we campaign to get the rules amended, we often run up against the following "rules are rules" argument instead:

Definition 2. "The rules should be the way they are because they're the way they are".

For example,
[i]X is prohibited.[/i]
[i]People shouldn't do things that are prohibited.[/i]
[i]Therefore, people shouldn't do X.[/i]
[i]Therefore, X should be prohibited.[/i]
[i]There is no good reason to relax the prohibition on X, because everyone knows what the rules say, and if everyone obeyed them, there wouldn't be a problem. If we relax the prohibition on X then we'll end up with anarchy as if you give people an inch they'll take a mile.[/i]

Definition 2 amounts to a circular argument and is commonly used to prevent discussion on the correctness of a rule, the way it is interpreted and enforced, or whether or not it should have some discretionary flexibility.

I am a particularly big opponent of Definition 2, but there are cases where I would support Definition 1. Rules are a [i]normative[/i] thing, where we set up codes of behaviour that are considered acceptable, but prohibit behaviour that we consider unacceptable. Up to a point, we do need such cast-iron rules to help discourage irresponsible behaviour, be it subjecting others to pain, gaining an unfair advantage in sporting competitions for example, and it is generally a bad idea in those situations to allow exceptions.

However, because of the normative nature of rules, "rules are rules" is also a common argument for justifying ganging up against individuals or groups for being different (and is remarkably neglected in articles relating to bullying, racism and the like).

A peer group can set up rules of conduct like, "be heterosexual or be ostracised", and then justify ostracising homosexuals on the basis, "their homosexuality violates our rules, the rules are the rules, and so homosexuals should be ostracised by us"- they see it as equivalent to, say, being fined for stealing from a shop. As far as the group is concerned, it doesn't matter what you or I think regarding homosexuality, what matters is that the group doesn't tolerate homosexuality, it sets up rules accordingly, and "rules are rules".

Another point regards civil disobedience, in situations where people know that campaigning for the rules to be changed gets you nowhere. Was it right for the Jews to be executed by the Nazis for disobeying Nazi rules? An extreme case, but the point is clear.

I won't deny that I am no stranger to what I consider "civil disobedience". This has often included, when being ostracised for being different to the norms of a peer group, refusing to change to fit in with their behaviour. It has also included disobeying rules that prohibit behaviour to legislate for a a minority who abuse it (as campaigning for change to such rules usually fails to get beyond the arguments "rules are rules" and "the majority have to spoil it for the majority"). The danger with attempting civil disobedience though is that you can inadvertently end up behaving irresponsibly, by recognising that a rule is over-restrictive but deviating from it too far.

Overall, my objection to "rules are rules" is that morally speaking it only works (by definiton 1) if the rules are sound to begin with, and it is a way of preventing debate on the soundness of the rules.

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