I recently read an interview with Jada Pinkett Smith in which she discussed the lack of traditional rules in her children’s upbringing. Instead of giving them lists of dos and don’ts, Jada and Will negotiate agreements with their children about what is and is not permissible. “Kids are little people and we’re in life to guide them.” Jada said, “Trying to rule someone is always an illusion and it’s no different with children.” Jada’s statement prompted me consider the nature of rules, and what the rules enforced by an organization say about its relationship with its members.
Rules, as I understand them, are ‘do’ or ‘do not’ statements meant to achieve the optimal result in a given situation. If we define ‘ethics’ as “the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions,” then rules are essentially ethical statements. The circumstantial (and thus subjective) nature of rules dictates they cannot be self-contained in their purpose. Stop signs do not exist to halt cars arbitrarily, or even at any finite number of intersections. The purpose of all stop signs is to promote the principle of safe driving. Road-governing authorities decide the meaning of the word ‘safe,’ which is then translated into traffic lights, signage, and road markings. In other words, rules–like stop signs–exist to promote a greater ideal. As the greater ideals from which rules derive their meaning, principles transcend rules, and are thus more reliable as behavioral guides. They are ‘moral’ statements, often positive remarks on the nature of circumstances governing a situation.
I tend to think of principles as ‘the spirit of the law,’ which like spirits, are often quite nebulous. Yet the ambiguity of most principles makes them indispensable when founding a society. Broad ideals (e.g. ‘Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’) have the power to unite people on a grand scale, even as disagreements over interpretation create local divisions (e.g. political parties). I think of rules as ‘the letter of the law,’ the various interpretations of a principle which are more specific, circumstantial, and (often) divisive.
Some people strictly adhere to the letter of the law as it was handed down to them by an authority figure. They treat it like an heirloom, never painting or refinishing it for fear it will lose value. I’m not sure there is anything inherently wrong with abiding by a familiar behavioral code, but my personal gripe with heirloom ethics is that the moral principles which once served as their foundation are often neglected, or completely unknown by adherents. When behavioral codes are emphasized above the principles they were intended to support, a culture of legalism results. Rules cease to be instruments of order and are instead spiritless letters (Zombie laws?), which have the potential to yield moral-ethical dissonance. (Contextually interesting bible verse here.) Detached from their intent, rules may become redundant, even counter-productive to the greater goal they were intended to support.
We see moral-ethical dissonance when bureaucracy gets between teachers and their ability to educate. Religious restrictions on the use of car and telephone become morally and practically problematic when challenged by the need for immediate medical attention. A hospital policy restricting visitors to critically ill patients may admit abusive or estranged family members while keeping non-blood loved ones at bay. Rules are circumstantial and thus may become outdated; unexamined, heirloom ethics (rules) in particular run the risk of undermining the very morality (principle) they exist to promote.
While it’s troubling or obnoxious in daily life, I find ethical-moral dissonance most disconcerting when institutionalized. Millions of people abstain from sex and meat or engage in religious rituals, not for, but regardless of their emotional health, physical fitness, or spiritual growth. Sometimes this results in hypocrisy, such as vegetarians who maintain poor diets and virgins who nurse pornography addictions. This dissonance and resultant hypocrisy are often then projected upon Object of Devotion (usually the personality adherents believe authored their law), causing the Object to be perceived as a bully to be appeased by arbitrary ritual. But perhaps most unfortunately, moral-ethical dissonance denies people the opportunity to gain a more ‘spiritual’ understanding of their ethical system.
Many religious institutions buy into the myth of rulership Jada Pinkett Smith mentioned in her interview. These churches attempt to control members by encouraging the idolization of rules, instead of promoting the cognitive maturity required to apply principles to daily life. The attempt to control, on some level, reflects a denial of the adherent’s humanity and personal agency, just as over-controlling parents deny their child’s complete and individual personhood. There are many theories about the exodus of millennials from Western church pews, but mine is that most churches do not encourage critical thought, but reward submission to heirloom ethics, and millennials are noticing.
The person who only follows directions does so regardless of their quality and even when variables alter the circumstances presupposed in their writing. I don’t want to be follower, I want to be a map reader–a navigator–grounded in the morals behind my ethics, and capable of adjusting my route when necessary.