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.