Two recent experiences have left me reflecting on rules.
I was cycling after dark on a fast dual carriageway. It did not feel safe. The adjacent footpath was deserted, so I cycled on that. Further on, an elderly man was on the footpath, so I slowed down to a walking pace and made sure that I kept well away from him.
‘There’s a road over there!’ he shouted after me. So I turned round and went back to him.
‘Is there a problem?’ I asked.
‘There’s a road over there!’ he repeated. ‘You should be on that.’
‘Did I cause you any harm?’ I asked. ‘Did I get in your way? Did I create any hazard for you?’
‘That’s not the point,’ he insisted. ‘You’re breaking the law!’
‘I know I’m breaking the law. But it’s a lot safer, and I’m making sure that I don’t cause any hazards for anyone else. I’m sorry if that offends you, but I’ll stick by it.’
The next morning I was out for a run on the downs. As often happens, a dog that was off its lead came running at me and around me. It ran away and then straight back. It looked like it might jump up at me. The owner was some way off, making no effort to call it back. I stopped still, as I didn’t want to take the risk that it would trip me up.
Once it relented, I carried on running. As I approached the owner, he said ‘Sorry. He won’t harm you.’ As I gave no acknowledgement, he then gesticulated at me, as if I was being rude.
So I stopped. ‘Is there a problem?’ I asked.
‘Well I said sorry, so … ‘ he tailed off.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘this happens to me a lot. Your dog has disrupted my running. The rules of the downs are that dogs must be under control. Your dog is not. It’s just running freely as it chooses. So I appreciate your apology. Most owners don’t offer one. But I’m not just going to say “It’s ok” because it’s not.’
Playing these incidents over in my mind, I was struck by the contrast in my being the rule breaker and the rule defender on the different occasions. Was I simply being self-contradictory? My rationalisation of it all goes like this:
Rules enshrine principles. But they are not pure principle. They usually are based on assumptions about contexts and circumstances. So whilst keeping rules is usually the best way of following their underlying principles, there could be occasions when those principles are better served by ‘breaking’ the rules.
So in relation to my experiences, highway laws are primarily concerned with safety. I genuinely believe that the safety of all road users was better served by my riding on the footpath – provided I took due account of pedestrians – than would have been by riding on the road.
Rules for the use of public open space are to ensure that one person’s use does not disrupt or disturb another’s. Keeping dogs under control is an example of that. My feeling aggrieved was not merely because a rule had been broken; it was because of the effect on me, the disruption to my enjoyment of the space.
So I can rationalise my superficially contradictory attitudes to the rules through appeal to my understanding of their underlying principles.
Hence to sexual ethics, a subject of ongoing heated debate within the Church of England.
There are those who, reading the Bible as enshrining rules, declare that same-sex sexual activity is wrong. There are others who read the Bible as establishing principles of justice and the avoidance of harm. They observe the psychological harm that appears to result from the condemnation of same-sex relationships, and so in light of the Bible’s principles, advocate for the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.
Despite several attempts to move forward constructively, the debate seems to be ever more polarised. I wonder whether one reason why the discussion can get stuck is because there is no self-evident or explicit ‘underlying principle’ behind the rule. Or, at least, there are several competing possibilities. Is it to avoid harm? Or is it about the holiness of God? Or is it to respect the created order? Or some combination, or something else altogether?
If we don’t know what the rule is ‘for’, so to speak, then we hardly have a basis for deciding whether it is sensible to ‘break’ it.
I am a rule keeper by nature. But watching the fact-based BBC drama SAS: Rogue Heroes, I cannot help but admire the boldness of those who broke a lot of rules precisely in order to achieve the purpose that the rules were intended to serve.
So a modest reflection on the current debates is that the challenges will not be resolved by affirming ever more strongly either
‘The rules say this!’
‘The important principle is this!’.
Both need to be taken equally seriously. That involves seeking to discern the extent to which any assumed context or assumptions lie behind the rules. And it involves searching for and substantiating the underlying principles that are enshrined in the rules.