5 Arguments in Favor of Rule-Following

In a post-god world, one might ask: why follow the rules, when rule breaking holds so much potential? Breaking the law leads to more fun, breaking social rules leads to interesting and amusing situations, and breaking moral rules can bring you personal advantage. If you steal, you can get all kinds of extra stuff. If you cheat, you can win what you don’t deserve. And if you lie, you can get away with it.

Some schools of thought champion rule breaking. Individualist anarchists tend to condemn externally-imposed rules as oppressive. Nietzsche glorified the Übermensch, who could see past the moral rules of society and develop his own system. Certain forms of neo-Taoist thought view the ideal state of the individual as being one of constant free flow, unconstrained by rules. And some artists feel that any rules at all are stifling.

Here’s the thing: many rule-followers have heard these arguments, understand them, “get it,” and still decide that following the rules is a better option. This is because rule-following has some strong arguments in its favour. Here are five:

1. Rules allow us to work together

Say you’re interviewing two candidates for the job of babysitter. Here’s babysitter #1’s pitch:

“I’ll burp your baby hourly, won’t leave her unattended unless she’s in its crib, and pick her up when she’s crying. I’ll give you an honest report at the end of the day. My references will attest to my character: I never lie, never steal, and always keep my word.”

Here’s babysitter #2’s pitch:

“I don’t believe in truth. My words aren’t a reflection of any so-called “objective reality,” but a creative expression of what I find most aesthetically pleasing in the moment—unbounded by such limiting concepts of “truth” and “lie.” Nor do I believe in applying rules to baby care—how I approach the baby can change moment to moment, depending on where the muse takes me.”

Now, you might check up on babysitter 1’s references, and confirm she really is as reliable as she claims. But if you’re a sane parent, there’s no hope in hell you’re hiring babysitter #2.

Rules make people predictable. Whether they be social, moral, or legal, rules set out clear patterns of behaviour, metrics for gauging how well people conform to those patterns, and penalties for those who don’t. This system allows us to have a level of automatic trust with strangers: if we follow mutually understood rules, we can predict one another’s behaviour within certain broad strokes, making it possible for us to work together. Rules also allow us to contain problems: if babysitter #1 is honest, but lacking in key skills, we’ll at least know what’s going on and be able to address the problem.

2. Rules allow us to build trusting relationships

When you’re in a relationship with a chronic rule breaker—someone who lies, steals, and breaks all social norms—your life turns into a funhouse.

Let’s say you’re in a relationship with rulebreaker Ed. Ed tells you this: “I had a problem with my knee again, so I went uptown, but the doctor wasn’t in, so I visited uncle Al and paid him the money I owed him, but unfortunately it was the money you gave me, so I’ll need a bit more to tide me over til payday on Friday.”

From one angle, things seem in proportion: Everything could be as Ed says it is.

But move a bit to the left, and the picture balloons into something ugly and distorted: you know Ed has lied about his health in the past. Was he really visiting the doctor? Or was he stopping by Al’s for another reason? Was he even in the neighbourhood at all? Or hold on—maybe the knee part was true, but the visit to uncle Al a fabrication. It should be okay to lend him money though, since he has a payday on Friday—or does he? Lying about having a job is just the kind of thing Ed might do.

Dealing with people who are unbounded by rules is exhausting. If someone is a liar or fabricator, trying to find the path from their words to reality requires massive mental computations: the permutations of possible truth and lies are endless. You need to understand rule breakers to the depths of their being to even begin to be able to predict their behaviour.

But hold on—how do you come to understand them? If someone like Ed can’t follow the basic moral rule of “don’t lie,” getting to know him turns into its own funhouse: you’ll never know whether the path you’re going down is some carefully constructed lie or a true disclosure. As a person becomes less bounded by honesty and authenticity—and all the arduous moral rules that go with them—his persona, the mask he presents to the world, becomes totalizing, and his true self becomes lost to the outside world, and eventually, to himself.

3. Rules allow us to build wealth in society

You may have space in your life for one such rule-defying, all-consuming relationship—but what if everyone was like that?

Imagine if your boss was a rule breaker. He pays you when he feels like it, but withholds your pay otherwise. He’s equally capricious in his behaviour with investors and customers.

In a country with a strong legal system, your boss would be called a criminal and quickly brought under the sanction of a larger rule-based system: the law. But what if the enforcers of the law are also rule breakers? What if your boss shares some of your stolen paycheck with the cops in exchange for them leaving him alone?

The wealth in the company would erode. Other businesses would be reluctant to work with your boss, as would customers, and you’d seek another job. Unless, that is, all bosses were like your boss.

If this were the case, people would be less likely to take jobs altogether, since there’d be no guarantee they’d get paid. They’d be less likely to enter into contracts, since those contracts could be broken at will, with no repercussions. Commerce would slow, and with it, all nice things that come with commerce: technology, furniture, housing, and, eventually, food.

But as we’ll see, without rules things would quickly get even worse.

4. Rules prevent the collapse of civilization

At this point things start to resemble conditions of a third-world country. But even third-world countries known for their corruption have systems of rules: constitutions, semi-functioning government institutions, and customs around bribing.

Once all that falls, you’re in the fall of Rome. In a world without government, law, or ethics we return to a second dark age, worse than the first because at least during that one the Catholic Church maintained some semblance of order. In this second dark age, people will behave like tigers, armed to the teeth, keeping their distance from one another and trying to make off with whatever they can.

But wait. Wouldn’t people start working in groups, form alliances? Perhaps—but those alliances would be based on certain agreements: we don’t steal from each other, we share food, we follow a code of honor…

In other words, they’d be based on rules.

Any hope of cooperation and community relies on rules. Without rules, we live and die alone.

5. Most mutations kill

We’ll end this list with an admission: sometimes rule breaking is necessary. Rule breaking at the right place and time can let in the perfect amount of chaos to spark creative achievement, innovation, and positive revolutionary change. Rule breaking is necessary for greatness.

Rule breaking is a lot like genetic mutation in an organism’s DNA. Mutation can even be thought of as genetic rule breaking. Most mutations are detrimental to the organism, but a minority are beneficial. A certain amount of background mutation is useful for a species, as it lets in enough chaos for the species to evolve. But genetic rule breaking can’t be the norm: reliable, well-functioning DNA replication must be the default, or the species would face extinction.

For society to function, rule following must be the default, and rule breaking the exception. And out of the rule breaking, it’s inevitable that only a minority will achieve greatness, while the majority will become destructive, or be destroyed.

If you want to be a rule breaker, there’s a chance you’ll be the Steve Jobs beneficial mutation: but more likely you’ll be a junk mutation, relegated to the dustbins of genetic history.

In your own life, rule breaking follows the same pattern: It may open up important creative possibilities, but will more likely lead to destruction, which will reverberate down the corridors of your life and require much effort to repair and contain. If it even can be.

Moreover, creativity isn’t the rule-free process it’s often portrayed as. In fact, creativity tends to flourish when constrained by rules, creeping along their solid walls and into their cracks climbing vines. All the good things that supposedly come from the lack of rules actually come more from a negotiation between judicious rule-following, and careful, deliberate rule breaking.

Problem is, rule breaking can also be destructive. And there are no clear meta-rules for determining which rules should be broken and when. If there was, then rule breaking wouldn’t really be rule breaking. Humanity’s relationship to rules may be one of the great existential questions of history, to which there are no easy answers, only open-ended wisdom and questions which lead to more questions which lead to more questions…