Rules of life


”I’m in my late 20s and I’m feeling more and more constrained by rules. From the endless signs that tell me to ‘stand on the right’ on escalators or ‘skateboarding forbidden’ in public places to all those unwritten societal rules such as the expectation that I should settle down, buy a house and have a family. Do we really need all these rules, why should I follow them and what would happen if we all ignored them?” Will, 28, London.


We all feel the oppressive presence of rules, both written and unwritten – it’s practically a rule of life. Public spaces, organisations, dinner parties, even relationships and casual conversations are rife with regulations and red tape that seemingly are there to dictate our every move. We rail against rules being an affront to our freedom, and argue that they’re “there to be broken”.

But as a behavioural scientist I believe that it is not really rules, norms and customs in general that are the problem – but the unjustified ones. The tricky and important bit, perhaps, is establishing the difference between the two.

A good place to start is to imagine life in a world without rules. Apart from our bodies following some very strict and complex biological laws, without which we’d all be doomed, the very words I’m writing now follow the rules of English. In Byronic moments of artistic individualism, I might dreamily think of liberating myself from them. But would this new linguistic freedom really do me any good or set my thoughts free?  (from “Life’s Big Questions”, answered by the BBC’s “The Conversation”).

My comment:   Written and unwritten rules are what allow us all to live together, however uneasily, without constant bickering and even violence.  Just as generosity, politeness and consideration – Epicurean virtues – grease the wheels of human interaction, so do rules, such as the side of the road you drive on (to be rather obvious), and thanking people who kindly help us (not always so obvious)  – these allow us to conduct our daily lives as seamlessly as possible, without constant bickering and raised blood pressure.  I’m glad there is a rule that jails those who cheat and steal things that don’t belong to them.

We should be glad to have the rules, inconvenient though some may be.  Does the reader have any rules he or she cherishes – or heartily dislikes?

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