Rules are meant to be followed.

Rules are meant to be broken.

I think both of these folk sayings are true–but not always.  The trick is to know if and when, and perhaps why, one takes precedence over the other.  In fact, sometimes a rule should neither be wantonly broken nor rigidly followed, but applied with great care. Let us consider rules as they are found in games, courtesy, art, and morality.

Games                        Rules for games are usually arbitrary, although they often make sense within the context of the game.  Once set, however, they are as solid as granite.  Three strikes and you’re out!

Courtesy                   Rules for courtesy also seem arbitrary, and dependent upon the culture in which one finds oneself.  These rules seem to be more deeply rooted, however, in the soil of humanity’s social nature. Martin Buber is famous for his distinction between treating other people as objective things, or as conscious subjects.  When I treat a person as a thing, I objectify both her and myself.  Buber urges us to live in a world of I/Thou, where the gross use or manipulation of another human being becomes a travesty.  I also find this insight in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…”

We might call this the principle of inter-subjectivity, and I think it provides a beautiful context within which to live with each other.  It would clearly preclude egregious betrayals, such as lying, stealing, or murder.  But, for me, it also carries great weight in three areas of courtesy.  In each of these three areas, I think that the rules of courtesy can be either empty formulas, or profound spiritual practices.

First, in everyday exchanges.  By simply saying “thank you” to a service person, one is  acknowledging her humanity, rather than seeing her as a “change-producing machine.”

Second, I think it is terribly important to learn the forms of courtesy in foreign cultures.  Saying “Gracias” when leaving Spanish shops, or “Itadakimasu” before a Japanese meal, is a way of recognizing both the human depth of the culture, as well as of the particular persons with whom we are interacting.  The weave of the social fabric in Japan is so tight, in fact, that my students would invariably tell me that their first moral rules were table manners.  We Westerners do not often see the moral implications of courtesy quite so clearly, but I think this Oriental attitude affords an important window into the gracious unfolding of daily life.

Third,  I would underscore the importance of courtesy with our family members and friends.  It is so easy to take our loved ones for granted, and remembering the simply courtesies helps to maintain mutual recognition and respect.  I am thinking of Archie Bunker yelling to his wife “Get me another beer, Dingbat!”   The creators of the show were obviously showing the importance of familial kindness by demonstrating the ugliness of its opposite.   It is a lesson I try to take to heart.

Art                                     There are obviously rules in the arts.  Every beginning artist creates a “Color Wheel,” and every beginning musician learns the “Circle of Fifths.”   When a person glimpses Beauty through the window of an art, however, she joyfully engages with the structural rules that help emancipate that vision.  As Kandinsky said, “There is no must in art, because art if free.”  I have written about the interplay of form and emptiness, rules and passion, in my post  on Jazz   For now, let me just say that the mastery of the elementary rules allows an artist to soar into unknown territory, and to find “the dearest freshness deep down things,” as Hopkins has it.

Morality                         So far, so good.  The word “morality” however, carries an often negative charge, since it was introduced into most of our lives with heavy and terrifying sanctions.–and often incoherently.  The reasons given for moral behavior were sometimes patently silly (“you are only cheating yourself”, or “you’ll get warts on your hands”), and the rules themselves were easily circumvented–until the religious artillery was rolled out.  God saw it all, and did He ever have an awful punishment waiting for every nasty thought. Even Santa Claus was checking his list, so that morality became a fearful arena in which only “good” little boys and girls could play.

On the other hand, the modern world seems to have lost its moral compass.  Financial manipulations, wars, violence seem endemic.  Our leaders, spiritual as well as political, flounder in a moral vacuum.  Some have jeopardized their effectiveness and their legacy through a distressing lack of restraint, often but not always, sexual.  We seem caught between self-righteous on the right, and self-indulgence on the left.  Clearly, we need to return to the center, to rethink our values, and recommit to an ethic that empowers and inspires rather than bullies and shames.

The philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries CE did their best to find a rational ground for moral rules that sidestepped the Hellish, unreflective animal training of traditional religions.  In his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant developed a theory that relied upon the basic rational nature of human beings.  He taught the Principle of Universalizability, which said, in effect, that it was never right to exempt oneself from the human race.  If an act I was contemplating became non-sensical when applied to universal humanity, its irrationality proved it morally wrong.  This type of theory is called “deontology”  (duty ethics) in the schools.

John Stuart Mill followed Jeremy Bentham (with important differences) in formulating the principle of Utilitarianism.  It says that an action is right if it produces, or tends to produce, the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  Mill equated Happiness with a life  “made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as a foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.”  I am sure most of us could write several essays unpacking this definition of happiness.

M.C. Richards once said, “All the arts we practice are apprenticeship.  The big art is our life.”  This quote rings true to me, for it seems that life is more an art than an arbitrary game.  General moral rules save energy and time.  We don’t have to figure out whether we should rob or murder each other every time we meet.  But a slavish or thoughtless adherence to rules ruins both art and life.  Especially when followed, rules need to be applied with sensitivity, wisdom, and originality.

Here are two stories that exemplify what I mean.  The first is from 13th century Italy.   The family of St. Thomas Aquinas did not approve of his decision to become a Dominican monk.  After many trials, they introduced a prostitute into his room to convince him of his folly.  He grabbed a burning branch from the fireplace and threateningly chased her out of the room.  The story ends with his being visited by angels who gave divine approval for his adherence to the rule of chastity.

The second story is actually the same story from a different culture:  There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time. To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. ‘Go and embrace him,’ she told her;’ and then ask him suddenly: “What now?”

The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it.
‘An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,’ replied the monk somewhat poetically. ‘Nowhere is there any warmth.’
The girl returned and related what he had said.
‘To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!’ exclaimed the old woman in anger.’ He showed no consideration for your
need, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at last he should have
evidenced some compassion.’
She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.

Neither monk was called upon to break his commitment to chastity, but neither did they have to act without compassion and kindness.  They might have gently explained their commitment, invited the young woman to have a cup of tea and to tell them about her life.  It could have been an artful, life changing experience for both of them.

And so, like the old woman in China, I aspire to live a life of moral wisdom. As with any art, this takes devoted  practice energized by a loving and passionate commitment to the values of grace and beauty that the rules are meant to serve.  As the philosopher William Frankena observed, “Man is not made for morality.  Morality is made for man.”


1 thought on “Rules

  1. Hariod Brawn

    Dear John,

    May I ask, does the person with what you call in your closing paragraph ‘moral wisdom’, require, or consciously follow, any rules whatsoever? You touch on this question in the paragraph concerning M.C. Richards, there appearing to suggest that your answer might be a qualified ‘yes’ – are you able to go further?

    Thank you for this excellent article, and with all best wishes.




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