Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rules, Regulations, and Rubbish

Well, I've had one of those conversations recently. The kind one has with one's spouse every now and again, where there is much frustration and non-communication, and nothing really gets better as a result. But since I've had this one a couple times before, it's been sitting the back of my head, simmering, and now I think maybe I have part of an answer. Of course, you don't know the question, so I'll frame it for you:  why do I find it necessary to question rules and regulations wherever I find them?

And the short answer is simple: I don't.

There are lots of rules and regulations that I accept. Speed limits, for example. I don't necessarily obey them to the letter, but I know what they're fore, and why they exist, and by and large I approve of them. On the whole, anyhow.

Speed limits are an excellent example, in fact, because they are precisely the kind of rule that was never written with someone like me in mind. And here we come to the crux of my argument. Allow me to be a little arrogant, for just a moment: I need you to accept, for the sake of this argument, that I'm a little smarter than the mythical Average Jo. There's reasonable evidence of that assertion, but I don't think I want to go into that here, so let's just accept the assertion for the moment.

What does that mean, anyhow?

Well, I'm not wholly sure. In my late forties, I'm still finding out exactly what 'being a bit smarter' means with regard to my relationship to the norms and behaviours of the bulk of the human race. I know this, though: I don't actually need speed limit laws.

I don't need them because I can clearly understand the consequences of driving too quickly, and of doing so on a road system full of other people driving too quickly. More: I understand what 'too quickly' really means, and I moderate my driving as a result. Slower in complex conditions. Faster in clear, open, hazard-free driving conditions. This is simple sense, as far as I'm concerned. I don't actually need the speed limit signs, because I will voluntarily limit my own speed purely for my own well-being, that of my passengers, and of other people and creatures on the road.

And yet there are speed limits, and laws to enforce them. Why is this so? Why is it necessary? Well -- as gently as possible, it's because not everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car thinks about it in the same manner. I'm not talking about the petrolhead who loves his car, and picks an open stretch of empty highway to crank up his project car. To me, that's someone else who has examined the situation and worked out what speed limits are for. The petrolhead may be risking his life, but if he's done his homework, he's not risking anybody else's life. And hell; a lot of petrolheads drive pretty well. Maybe he's not even risking himself significantly. But like me, our putative petrolhead isn't exactly representative of Average Jo.

Politeness is another example. My friends will tell you, if you ask them, that around them I'm not particularly polite. That's because I've thought about politeness, and I understand what it's for, and where it works. Politeness is a specific verbal and behavioural code designed to signal others that we are limiting our actions in specific ways, and can be relied upon to continue observing those limits. Politeness signals people we don't know that our intentions are non-harmful, and we can be negotiated with. Politeness signals to people that we do know that the conversation or behaviour has gone past the understood limits of our existing relationship, and we need to proceed carefully.

My friends don't need that from me. They know me. They know the limits I place on my own behaviour, by and large, and they accept that behaviour. Of course, it's different strokes for different folks. There are friends who are comfortable with some behaviours and not others. That's fine. It's a matter of learning the boundaries, and trying to observe them. (That, by the way, I regard as 'courtesy' or 'respect', not mere politeness. I am often very polite to people that I do not respect at all. It's considerably easier that way.)

So how does this lead to the issue of 'questioning rules'? Simple, really. Given that I don't really need most rules because I understand them, and the purpose behind them, it follows that when I don't understand the need for a particular rule, my radar goes off. If I haven't understood the reason for a rule, it suggests there may be a danger or hazard for which I'm not prepared, and obviously, I don't like that. And of course, the simplest and most logical way of discerning whether or not there's something genuinely important behind the rule is just to ask.

So, yes. Nat's right. I do question rules. Pretty much all of 'em. And why not? Is there some kind of rule against that? And if there is such a rule... why does it exist?

Now there's something to think about.


  1. Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

    Henry David Thoreau

    For me laws have a different meaning. Law of Gravity, Law of Thermodynamics, Law of Entropy.

  2. Hey. I question those too, buddy.

    Love the Thoreau quote, however. Where'd you find that? It's bloody fabulous.

  3. 1849 Essay "Civil Disobedience".

    And that's what I mean in science the 'laws' listed above are all regarded as provisional until a better model is developed.

    In the case of thermodynamics/entropy its recognised as more a statistical expectation that even permits the temporary complete opposite of the 'law' ie a broken teacup might coincidentally reform itself as it bounces.

    1. Should have known it was the one on civil disobedience. He really got some great shit into that essay. I really must make it mandatory reading for my offspring.

  4. Not sure it's entirely correct to characterise the law as being about those unable to think through the consequences of their actions for themselves. Laws are the main instruments of policy. They create the framework in which such thinking is done. In Sartrian terms they are not a direct constraint on freedom, rather they modify the situation, the collection of constraints supplied by context.

    I do appreciate what you say about questioning and wanting to know the purpose for rules that you haven't come across before. They are not necessarily very well thought through (unintended consequences and all that). But that's to be expected since policy itself can be very unclear, so the laws that express it can be even more so.

  5. I should add - modifying the situation can mean lifting constraints as much as imposing them. So if you come across a mysterious 40 zone well away from a school or obvious hazard, maybe it's been done to make that street more bike friendly. So mofidying expectations about the speed you can go on that street encourages more cyclists to use it, enhancing their freedom. This is not something a driver could be expected to decide for themselves, but it's an expression of policy and a positive thing still.

    1. ...and a perfect example of the kind of law I would actively question, until I got a reasonable answer.

    2. And this is the sort of reason I think our libertarian friends only see one dimension in a 4-12 dimensional universe.

  6. If those making the rule/laws were smart enough it wouldn't be such a problem. Our Victorian knife laws are a fine example. I carry a knife as a tool however if that breaks the law I may as well carry one as a weapon thus the law actually has the opposite effect of it's intent.