Principles vs. Rules

OK, maybe I'm not THAT old...

I confess, I’ve always had a bit of a problem following rules. Ask anyone, from my youngest days toddling around the mall where my Mom worked, I didn’t understand this whole idea that I couldn’t just walk off with all the toys. And why can’t I talk to the interesting lady in the hat? I asked her name, what more do I need to know? And by the way, when you’re done with that typewriter (I asked the kindergarten secretary as she typed my registration) can I have it? No? How about that pen?

Why not?

The problem I had then, and still sometimes have now, is that people told me the rules and didn’t bother explaining the principles. “No, you can’t” is a big difference from “No, you can’t, and here’s why.”

Which is why I was so happy when I first heard the phrase (I’m not sure where) “If a man has principles, he does not need rules.” In fact, I still can’t find out the exact quote after a cursory google search, so if you are aware of it, please let me know! The closest I can find is:

“Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”-Franklin D. Roosevelt

The neat thing about this is, I can explain the principle behind this particular rule!


It all comes down to the fact that we can’t know it all.

Rules are designed to be procedures we follow in the event of a given situation. They are used because they are efficient ways to either get things done or to prevent disasters from happening. That’s great assuming two things:

  1. You know what disasters are going to happen, and
  2. You know how all the people and other factors in the disaster are going to behave.

It’s pretty evident that both of those aren’t the case, and if it’s not evident, you haven’t watched Jurassic Park or tried to manage a grade-school birthday party or a family holiday dinner. We can make predictions, but we can’t cover every eventuality, and the eventualities we do cover are unlikely to progress in a way that we expect.

Maybe “unlikely” is too strong a word. There are entire fields of study devoted to better predicting both of these things. But I’m betting most of you aren’t experts in those fields, and if you are, you know that I’m right anyway.

So having a rule makes things easier and faster, but doesn’t necessarily accomplish the mission. In fact, what it is more likely to do is take you down the wrong path, much like following an out-of-date map, or GPS without paying attention to what’s going on around you.

To risk a brush with Godwin’s Law, when you follow the rules blindly – such as “just following orders” – you can end up with some pretty horrific results.

Principles Rule!

A principle, on the other hand, is more focused on the end result. “We want to have all the children safe and accounted for,” is the principle behind fire drills, for example. Which means that if the smoke alarm is going off and the teacher sees flames outside the window, he is better off coming up with some plan other than leading the children through the approved exit into the brushfire outside.

A principle could also be focused on a state of being, such as my friends the poly-anarchists who have no rules about their relationship at all, but rather rely on one overriding principle: mutual happiness. That’s what they want, and everything they do with each other comes out of that. No rules about “don’t look at another man!” or “You’d better be home by 10!” or “No, you can’t have the remote!” They are probably the cutest and happiest couple I know. Not only do they avoid being complacent by being within the rules (“Whaddaya mean I don’t love you? I put food on the table, don’t I?“) it gives them the opportunity to come up with new and better ways to maintain that principle.

If you think about it, progress is always made by people breaking some rule (i.e., the way things are “supposed to be done”) in favor of a new way that gets it done better.

It Ain’t Easy

Of course, rules are much easier to deal with. If you know the rules, you have the comfort of enjoying a predictable environment. Games are based on that: both players agree to follow the “rules” of a game, and therefore you don’t have my pawn spiralling in across the board in a kamikaze attack on your bishop to score a touchdown. You get surprises that are permutations of the rules, but you can see how it happened, and if anything you feel even better because now you are more prepared for the next time!

Following principles requires you to be imaginative. Requires you to acknowledge not only that you may not be able to predict all possible eventualities, but also that you can’t even be sure of the results of a given series of actions (because if you were sure, you’d just follow the rules, right?). It’s a risky business.

In my opinion, it is simply a matter of acknowledging the way life is (unpredictable) as opposed to how we’d like it to be. However, I know one thing: it makes life a lot more interesting.




* Momma told me so.

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