Made to be Broken

Humans are very easily hoodwinked by ritual, and the ritual surrounding “rules” is perhaps one of our deepest blind spots.

If I said to you, “It’s Tuesday night, so I think you should eat tacos,” then you’d rightly consider that no more binding than if I suggested a song you might like. Not only is it only an opinion, but it’s not even a particularly good one (though tacos are fantastic), and it’s odd that I would even suggest that you adhere to my personal preference. You’d get all that. Maybe tacos would sound like a good idea and you’d take the suggestion and maybe you wouldn’t, but at no point would you think of it as anything deeper than that.

But as soon as people hear, “by law, you have to eat tacos on Tuesdays,” they just do it. Of course; it’s a rule. A law. Most people don’t stop to consider that after you strip away the ceremony surrounding it, a “rule” that you have to eat tacos on Tuesdays is no different than somebody just telling you to do it.

Rules are just suggestions with consequences.

But all decisions have consequences, and all suggestions are made by people, so the only difference between a rule and a suggestion is the salad dressing, so to speak.

Sometimes rules happen to describe good actions. For instance, you shouldn’t murder people. But whether or not you should murder people has nothing to do with whether or not it’s against the law. If you were living in the movie The Purge, murder would still be wrong even on the night that it’s legal.

Sometimes rules happen to describe actions with good consequences. There’s nothing morally wrong with swimming right after you eat, you just might get a painful cramp and have an unpleasant time. But that’s true whether or not a lifeguard or a parent tells it to you – even if there were no rule against it, it might be worth it to wait.

But actions aren’t morally good or have good consequences because of the rules. Which means that the rules themselves aren’t evidence that the rules are good – but that kind of circular logic is pervasive among people of all walks of life.

Here’s an example: let’s say I advocated the full legalization of drugs. Now, you might argue that drugs, if legal, would have a stronger negative impact on society and that’s a reason to keep them illegal. You might argue that their legalization would have a disparate impact on the most vulnerable and thus should be kept off the streets as much as we’re able. You might even argue that the human body is a temple that shouldn’t be sullied by such substances. Whether I agree or disagree with any of those arguments, they’re at least real arguments. But a substantial number of people would in fact say: “Doing drugs is a crime, and therefore it’s bad, and therefore you shouldn’t legalize doing them.”

You see the problem? You’re using the existence of the rule as justification for existence of the rule. The business version of this is the dreaded phrase “but that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

You remember the movie Aladdin? The whole setup of the movie is that the princess has to marry a prince, and the Sultan is all distraught because his daughter keeps rejecting suitors and he’s worried she won’t find a husband by some deadline. Then the whole movie happens, Aladdin becomes a prince and then subsequently stops being one for some reason, and then he and the princess (who have of course fallen in love) are very upset because they can’t be wed.

And then the Sultan just has this epiphany where he says (I’m not kidding) “Wait a minute, I’m the Sultan, these rules are literally dictated by me and me alone, so I’m just going to say you can marry whoever you want.” That’s it! Whole movie solved, events of the actual plot unnecessary.

That’s all of life! Here’s the thing about most rules. Not all, but most rules fall into one of two categories:

  1. Rules that made sense for a particular time, place, people and set of circumstances, but have persisted far beyond their appropriate scope due to inertia or bureaucracy or something like that.
  2. Rules that even originally were made to further a particular person’s or group’s agenda and never represented an attempt to codify good morals or good consequences into easy instructions.

It’s really rare for a rule to be both Good and Timeless. Which means you should take them for what they are – suggestions. Calibrate your moral and intellectual compass elsewhere, and make your own decisions.

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