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We live in a world ruled by laws. There are international laws, federal laws, state laws, county laws, and city laws. On top of that, many of these laws have lots of rules for how they are supposed to be enforced. In other settings, the authority to make law doesn’t exist. So they go straight to the rules. There are club rules, association rules, neighborhood rules, school rules, and workplace rules. With all these rules, society and life in general must be peaceful and orderly, right?
Of course exactly the opposite is true. The reason for this is simple: rules don’t work. Rules are usually not universally applicable. Rules are often misapplied or poorly conceived in the first place. There are too many rules for anyone to reasonably be expected to know and follow. When people live by rules they stop thinking, they stop caring about others, they stop growing. Gay Hendricks describes this as living in your “zone of competence” rather than your “zone of genius” in his outstanding book The Big Leap (aff).
When someone lives by principles, the results are quite different. Principles are universal. Principles invite consideration and communication. Principles require an active, thoughtful participation of the people involved. Principles can be grasped in their entirety by reasonably intelligent people.
“Good guys DON’T play by the rules.” click to tweet
Since principles are so superior to rules, why do so few people live by principle? One reason is because following all the rules is overwhelming and often leaves no room for living by principle.
Didn’t principles exist before rules? How did we ever get away from living by principles in the first place? It really comes down to “man dominating man to his injury”. Rules are the instruments of rulers. They offer an opportunity for control that principles do not. For those hungry for power, rules are a much more alluring path.
The second problem is that teachers have gotten lazy. This goes for classroom teachers, professors, writers, speakers, ministers and parents. When teachers fail to teach a complete set of principles, to make up for their failing they begin teaching rules. They can teach rule after rule after rule and it will not be equal to the task. One principle is better than a thousand rules. A coherent group of principles is superior to all the laws of man.
A common excuse teachers will offer is that teaching principles is harder than teaching rules. This assertion is false on two fronts. First, the sheer volume of rules necessary to replace just one principle belies this claim. Second, teaching a single rule is in fact no simpler than teaching a single principle. Consider: one could create a rule like, “No talking in class”. One could also teach a principle, “Be considerate of your fellow students”. Neither is hard to understand. But the superiority of the principle is immediately apparent. It covers the rule and many other potential circumstances. An ineffective teacher will teach the rule. An effective teacher will teach the principle.
Lest we be dominated by power-hungry rulers and ineffectual teachers, we must be guided by principles. This is not to say that rules are bad. Rather, examine rules that arise in your world for their underlying principles, let them be your teacher. If a rule should fail to be based on sound principle, does it do harm? If it merely does no good, perhaps it can get tolerated. If it is harmful to sound principle, use your voice. A principled approach to rules is thoughtful, considerate, and just. Let rules serve the principles rather than the other way around or serving nothing at all.
Where have you gone beyond rules to principles? Share your experiences below with a comment.
Photo credit: Mr. T in DC