What Rules Apply & When?

This was first written in (roughly) 2008. Keep that in mind as you read it.

I recently had two unique experiences that made me ask myself if every rule applies in every situation. Obviously, as with most absolutes, the answer is NO. Which means it’s not an absolute. That alone sparks an interesting debate which I’ve had with my daughter. Something I’ve been quoting for a long time is Everything is a matter of perception. My daughter points out that if everything is a matter of perception then the statement itself isn’t – therefore EVERYTHING isn’t. If EVERY rule applies in EVERY situation, then why does the word exception even exist in our language? Such questions are those asked by inquisitive children who want to challenge their parents. Recently my youngest son decided to ask me about rules – and when it’s okay to break them.

The two unique experiences that I had are as follows:

1) I read the book “Tempus Fugit” by Lawrence Lee Rowe Jr. The book chronicles the adventures of three historical figures after they’ve been brought to the year 2001. Those three figures are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The book is interesting simply by way of the little-known historical facts and personal characteristics surrounding three of our founding fathers. Beyond that it is quite an interesting read due to the fact that it presents those three men in a contemporary context – and details how they deal with each set of circumstances that challenges them. That their personal perceptions, beliefs and values are antiquated (but none the less valid and applicable) sometimes puts them in a situation where they have to choose between doing what they feel is absolutely right or doing what they must for the time being although they’d prefer not to. I view this as those men having to choose which rules to follow: those of moral behavior or those of survival – and quite often they can conflict.

2) I saw the new Star Trek movie (Directed by JJ Abrams, starring Chris Pine as Cpt. Kirk). Anyone who is a Star Trek fan knows that Captain James Tiberius Kirk has never been a stickler for following the rules. The new movie covers a time frame from Kirk’s birth to his entry into and graduation from Star Fleet’s Academy and his duties on the Enterprise under Captain Pike’s command. The movie introduces Bones, Spock, Scotty and other primary characters of the series. I think one of the things I enjoyed most about the movie was just how much the characters don’t really seem to care about the rules they consider trivial. Kirk obviously just always does “the right thing” and doesn’t much worry about whether or not rules governing his behavior apply. Bones does whatever his friends need him to do – and that simple mandate makes everything “the right thing” for him. Scotty keeps having to deal with rules of physics – and finding ways around them to answer whatever challenge is presented. In Scotty’s world of engineering, the better understanding you have of the rules as they exist, the more you can adapt the current rules to fit into the solution you want to have.

What inspired the question from my son was that we saw the movie Star Trek together. He happened to notice the smile on my face each time a character seemingly disregarded the rules to do the right thing. Afterward he asked me how he would know when he had to obey the rules or when he could ignore the rules if that was what was necessary to do the right thing. How do you explain something like this to your child?

I’ve previously written about the difference between right and legal. As I said then, I don’t believe we can legislate what’s RIGHT… all we can legislate is what’s LEGAL. However, as with all rules, the guidelines set forth – that which we call the law – can never anticipate every circumstance. So there can be times when doing the RIGHT thing means doing the ILLEGAL thing. But how do I explain that to an 11-year-old?

I did the best I could but ultimately – to me – it boils down to this: we spend the first five years (about) of our children’s lives teaching them RIGHT from WRONG. Some lessons are easy. Sticking a key in an electrical outlet is WRONG. Lying to your parents is WRONG. But after those basic lessons are learned, what are we teaching them then? JUDGMENT. Through that judgment we determine, in every unique set of circumstances, what we must do. The conflict occurs when the right thing happens to not be the legal thing. In our society today I submit to you that far too few people do the right thing simply because they don’t want to face the consequences of the illegality of that action.

Now, please don’t misunderstand: I’m NOT suggesting that every ignore the law. However, when faced with a moral conflict wherein the choices are:

  • Do nothing so that you obey the law, or
  • Do something that is RIGHT but breaks the law

I believe that doing the right thing, albeit while breaking the law, is what is morally mandated. We should have the courage of our convictions and pursue that course of action.

That concept – ignoring the law to do the RIGHT thing – was virtually a cornerstone of our founding fathers’ existence. They all violated British law and ignored “the rules” to do what they felt they must to create a better life in this new place called America. They gave us the gift of the opportunity that is the United States of America. It is entirely up to us whether we take full advantage of that gift or we squander it. Sometimes in the pursuit of life in this country we are faced with interesting choices: right or legal.

It is my sincerest wish that, in the spirit of our founding fathers and all that America represents, you do the right thing.

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