Idle Theory Rules and Rulemaking

The exception proves the rule.

Rules as ethical shortcuts

Life is full of challenges and problems. Problems like how to walk and talk. How to use knives and open bottles. How to read and write. How to drive cars. Such problems may not appear to be ethical problems, but if one grants that there are different ways to open bottles (by smashing their necks off, or by pulling out the cork, etc) then one may grant that some ways of opening bottles are in some senses better than others. The same goes for every single activity anyone ever engages in.

Whenever someone faces a new problem, they have to find some solution to it, very often by trial and error. If every problem anyone ever encountered was an unique new problem, eveyone would always be engaged in thought and experiment and discussion. But in everyday life, most problems are not uniquely new. They are familiar old problems, long since solved, and the appropriate solution can be rapidly recovered from memory. And so, for any repetitive task, there will be an initial period of experimentation to find the best solution, after which the task will be habitually performed in in that manner.

Once people learn how to how to do something, they tend to do it in the same way thereafter. The solutions to the same problem may vary from person to person. Everybody walks differently. Everybody writes differently. Everybody drives cars differently. And in many cases habitual practice becomes so deeply ingrained that it is done without any conscious thought at all. It might even be suggested that some 99% of what people do is what they do habitually from long practice. It is only when they face new problems that they have to think, experiment, or seek advice.

And these remembered habits or rules are useful, because they allow problems to be solved quickly, tasks carried out rapidly. A life lived in accordance with memorised useful rules will be an more idle life than one in which every task is approached as if it were an unique new problem.

The development of rules or habits or customs is akin to the development of useful tools. Both require an initial cost in terms of work to develop and refine them, and the value of both lies in the time they subsequently save, which exceeds their cost if they are truly useful.

For the most part, in human societies, people don't work out solutions to problems on their own. They often learn from the example of others how things are done - like walking and talking. Or they can be shown how to do things by experienced old hands. When this happens, people tend to do things the same way as their peers or elders or teachers. For the most part, people learn to behave as others do, simply by copying their behaviour, behaving traditionally, or according to custom.

rule developmentIn making and using rules, the principal ethical effort goes into producing, rather than using, rules of conduct. Rulemakers have to think long and hard. Rule-users barely have to think at all. After all, the whole point of rules is to minimize ethical consideration, and speed decisions. Rules are ethical shortcuts, which allow for quick decisions, and a more idle life.

And, in such circumstances, much as people subcontract the manufacture of tools to skilled toolmakers, so they tend to subcontract the making of rules to skilled rulemakers. These rulemakers are in many ways just different kinds of toolmakers. Instead of making physical tools, they construct rules to be remembered. Good rulemakers, like good toolmakers, provide their users with useful tools for dealing rapidly with everyday problems and puzzles. And human society benefits from useful rules just as it benefits from useful tools. And the rules, just like tools, can become, as it were, rusty and chipped and in need of repair. Or they may be lost or broken, and in need of replacing. Or they may become obsolete. It is the task of rulemakers or lawmakers to maintain and repair rules.

What applies to ethical rules also applies to laws. If rules are ethical shortcuts, then laws are legal shortcuts. Any particular law is the consequence of the legal consideration of some particular matter, and provides guidance to courts in dealing with that particular matter, and in doing so relieves judges of the trouble of arguing every single case from first principles. Written law, legal statutes, serve to expedite justice.

Some problems with rules

Rules actually have to save time. A good rule is one that saves time and increases idleness. A bad rule is one that costs time and decreases idleness.

Rules have exceptions. There may be a law against shoplifting. But if a man is starving, then it is better that he steal food at some small cost to a store, than refuse to steal and pay with his life.

Since all rules have exceptions, the exception proves the rule. That is, the exceptions prove that the rule is only a rule appropriate in particular circumstances.

Rules should be kept to a minimum. Too many rules can result in life becoming harder as a result of them, rather than easier. A few road signs may assist drivers, but if there are road signs every 5 yards along a road, a driver is likely to spend more time deciphering the road signs than watching the road, or else slowing down, or even ignoring them.

It ought always to be possible to challenge any rule or law, by questioning its underlying rationality.

Rules only apply in restricted circumstances. The rules of the road, for example, apply on public highways, not private roads. They apply to vehicles, not to pedestrians. In a great many circumstances, there simply are no rules. This does not mean that anything goes, but instead that it becomes necessary in these circumstances to go back to first principles.

The decline of ethics in rule-based societies

A set of rules does not constitute an ethical code. A set of laws does not constitute a legal code. Rules and regulations, statutes and laws, are the consequences of ethical and legal debate. The answer to a mathematical problem is the result of some number of mathematical operations: it is these operations that constitute mathematics, not the answers they produce.

Since rules are a shortcuts which allow people to skip ethical thinking - the process of weighing up the pros and cons of an action - rule-using societies are liable to cease to engage in ethical debate, and to lose sight of the underlying reason for the various rules they use. After all, if nobody is actually thinking ethically, but just unthinkingly obeying some set of rules, the rules will come to seem more important than any underlying rationale for such rules.

For example, the underlying process of multiplying two integer numbers together is one of serial addition. Thus 5 X 8 = 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 = 40. But rather than go through this process again and again each time one multiplies two numbers, it is quicker in the long run to memorise multiplication tables and instantly remember that "five eights are forty." But people who know that "five eights are forty" may forget - or never know - that multiplication is serial addition, and when faced with multiplying two numbers they have not memorised - like 77 X 128 -, they will not be able to solve it, or get the wrong answer - unless they have been taught how to do long multiplication. People who have been taught by rote to memorise multiplication tables may well be able to accurately multiply two numbers together, but may have no idea why "five eights are forty". If asked, they may reply that "It's just so."

The example of the multiplication table points to another problem with rules, which is that they can be forgotten, or misremembered. Somebody may have memorised a multiplication table imperfectly, so that while they get everything else right, they may be convinced that "five eights are fifty". And the result is that while most of their multiplication is right, some of it is wrong. And lacking the underlying logic of multiplication, they have no way of checking if they remember correctly. Someone who does know the underlying logic of multiplication tables, however, can construct an eight times table by serial addition: Thus (1) 8 = 8, and (2) 8 + 8 = 16, and (3) 16 + 8 = 24, and (4) 24 + 8 = 32, and (5) 32 + 8 = 40, not 50.

Thus the danger of societies which use memorised rules is that they are likely to encounter situations where they don't know what rules to apply, or that over time they forget what the rules are. Either way, the likelihood is that the misapplication of rules, or the use of wrong rules, will result in life getting harder for rule-users rather than easier.

And therefore one may say that all rule-based codes of conduct, which involve no fundamental ethical thinking, are of a secondary, derivative nature. It might even be suggested that rule-guided behaviour is actually immoral - or perhaps amoral - rote behaviour, and that true morality only begins when people think about morality, wrestle with moral dilemmas. It is not enough for a society to preserve and obey rules. They must also preserve the skills needed to create rules. Rulemakers need not only to make rules, but also to teach apprentice rulemakers how to make rules - just as toolmakers need not only to make tools, but also to teach apprentices how to make tools.

With the decline of ethical thinking in rule-using societies, the rules or laws governing society form the entire ethical basis of conduct. "Knowing right from wrong" simply means knowing the rules, not knowing how to make such rules. In such societies, rules and laws become rigid and ossified, because they are no longer kept in good repair. And the letter of the law is enforced, not the spirit - which has been forgotten. Minor infractions of rules are punished harshly.

Anyone whose morality is rule-based is always likely to have forthright and unambiguous moral views. For them, teaching morality entails inculcating rules, and for them a person is a moral individual when they have learned the rules. By contrast, anyone who has encountered ethical dilemmas is likely to be relatively hesitant and uncertain in their moral opinions.

Rule-based societies are always likely to break down at some point, as rules become misused, confused, contradictory. And as rules and laws of a society fall into decay, then, just as if their tools had become rusted or blunted, life becomes more difficult, people busier, less idle.

A crisis ensues. The laws come into dispute. But without any rational means of resolving ethical disputes, such disputes become first become slanging matches, and then descend into violence. War is the ultimate expression of irrationality and inarticulacy.

It is then that ethical thought begins again, searching for deeper ethical principles than some set of rules. Moral philosophers essentially attempt to do something similar to speculative physicists who put together theoretical models to explain the behaviour of complex molecules or planets or stars. Moral philosophers attempt to put together moral theories from which codes of conduct can be deduced. Morality is reformed. Useful new rules are introduced, old and valueless ones discarded. Social idleness rises.

moral decay and reform

But with new rule and laws, the process of decay begins again. A cycle of moral decay and reform ensues.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: March 2005