When Is It OK To Break The Rules?

I propose a new way of thinking about rules. Not as something that distinguishes between what one is allowed and not allowed to do, but rather as a penalty that certain actions carry. Not moral law sent down from on high, but costs for implementing certain strategies.

Imagine the virtual city of Neebar, ruled by a horde of half-ox, half-man with a penchant for all things camel. Neebar is notable because it has a strange penal code: running water is illegal.

But it’s not that illegal. The punishment for using running water is a yearly fine of 200 Neeblorinos, roughly equivalent to American dollars, so lots of people decide to have running water anyways and pay the fine.

These citizens of Neebar have decided to implement running water despite the penalty for doing so.

Or consider sports, penalty kicks in soccer and free throws in basketball. These penalties exist not to say that some things are off limits, but rather the penalties are part of the mechanics of the game itself. The rules constrain action only insofar as the penalties constrain what one is willing to do. They act as a disincentive.

Consider a rational agent playing basketball. He realizes that he can win the game, but he will have to make an illegal move to do so. If he weighs the costs (a penalty) and the benefits (winning) and finds that the benefits outweigh the costs, he will implement that action.

More generally, the consequences of breaking a rule are costs that come along with an action, not constraints on action. The actual constraints on action are the expected outcomes of that action. If you expect that travelling in basketball will result in a net loss, you shouldn’t do it, but if it’s a net gain, you ought to do it — even though you have to pay the penalty. Just think of the citizens of Neebar.

You've read this far⁠—want more?

Subscribe and I'll e-mail you updates along with the ideas that I don't share anywhere else.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.