On Rules and Family Life

When I was in India recently, I had occasion a number of times to travel on the highway.  What was striking to me, while travelling from Chennai to Puducherry or from Delhi to Agra, was how slow highway travel was.  Despite my drivers’ constant, aggressive attempts to push through traffic, and despite their preferred speeds of about 120 km/h, we averaged on these trips about 50 km/h on the open highway.  What is even more striking is that the traffic in these situations was not heavy.

Also striking was the way people behaved on these highways: erratically.  People acted with the presumption that “whatever I do will be fine,” and drivers of cars, wagons or elephants would push into traffic at any time, from any angle, without regard for the impact their behaviour would have on other drivers.  Here on these highways, and also in congested urban roads, drivers would push into any space, regardless of lane-markings, and would move from left to right (i.e., “change lanes,” except they weren’t following lanes) without looking behind them, leaving other drivers to deal with being “cut off” etc.

One could describe the behaviour of these drivers as “free,” but it is highly noticeable that this individual freedom produced an overall situation that was highly restrictive for all.  In contrast with what one finds on the much busier highways around New York City or Toronto, for example, driving here was highly ineffective: it was very slow, and very demanding of constant attention.

We are not born following rules, and so rules can seem like something artificially introduced into our lives. Similarly, the requirement to follow rules can feel like an impediment to our creativity, and this can lead us to think of rules as opposed to freedom.  In fact, however, following rules is integral to the experience of freedom, as this traffic example shows.

Rules, when they are obeyed, supply a reliable environment, a situation in which one can count on one’s environment to behave in a certain way.  To accept to obey a rule is to acknowledge one’s answerability to a domain beyond oneself.  By acting in a rule-governed fashion on the road, I take responsibility for the fact that my behaviour is not just an aspect of my life, but is an aspect of the lives of others as well.  I do not see why, for example, it is important to use my turn-signal at this moment, or to abide by the speed limit on this apparently empty stretch of road, but my attitude of rule-following acknowledges that what I notice about the situation is not all that is relevant, and I act in a way that is responsible to a future situation that I have not anticipated.

My rule-following behaviour makes the situation reliably predictable for others and, when they do the same, it is also reliably predictable for me–rule-following works, in other words, when it is cooperatively and collectively adopted.  And the result of this collective cooperation, this organized behaviour, is that acting in this environment does not require constant attention.  Acting in such a rule-governed environment is effective and easy, and frees me up to focus my psychological energies elsewhere.

In this way, rule-following is like the public version of a habit.  When we develop a habit, we set up a virtually automatic way of behaving in ourselves, thereby making that domain of behaviour a non-issue for ourselves, allowing us to develop more sophisticated behaviours on its basis.  This is effectively what we accomplish collectively when we behave in impersonal, rule-governed ways towards each other.  By getting the more basic process under control, we free ourselves up to attend to more important, bigger issues.

Of course, it is also true that rules can be restrictive of freedom: though they are essential to freedom, they are not adequate to it.  Rules are inherently impersonal, and hence an imperfect fit for inherently personal situations.  Whereas legal and business situations, for example, are domains whose proper functioning is defined by rule-following, friendships, family life, and romantic or sexual relationships are domains in which it is necessary not to make rules primary.

In our intimate relationships, we find fulfillment by having our distinctive needs and desires met.  Our personalities and our lives develop in unpredictable and highly idiosyncratic forms, and, though there is no universal rule to justify why one should be this way, one is this way—one is this way.  Others may not need to be soothed before going to bed or have raisins with their peanut-butter, but I do—or perhaps I need not to have raisins with my peanut-butter, perhaps I need to be left alone when I go to bed.  Whatever the specifics of the case, it is this set of personal needs that I need to have addressed in my intimate relationships.  What I need from my family, my friends, and my romantic or sexual partners is an attention to me in my personal uniqueness.  If you behave towards me according to “the rules,” you miss the whole point of intimate life.

There is a reason to be critical of rules then, but even here, we need to be careful.  It is crucial to recognize the essential domain of intimacy as a domain beyond rules, but it is crucial too to recognize the difficulties that operate within this domain.

It is common to hear “family values” advocated as a good, and these remarks about intimacy allow one to see the reasons why it is indeed important to remember that there are essential domains of personal and interpersonal life that need to be preserved as values that exceed the domains of rule and law.  The limitations of these values need to be recognized as well, however,

When we in contemporary North America think of “the family,” what we typically imagine is the modern North American “nuclear family.”  Such a family, however, is one already integrated into the larger reality of a broader civil and political society.  The parents in this nuclear family work in the world of capitalist economics and they obey the laws of democratic liberalism.  This, however, is neither the exclusive nor the essential character of family life.

Traditionally, (and in contemporary societies that carry on traditional customs), the family is an alternative to political life.  Whether in ancient Greece or in contemporary India, for example, it is a question of to which system of self-definition one gives one’s allegiance—the government or the “extended” family or clan.  To advocate “family values” as such is to oppose the domain in which individuals are free to define their own identities in a public world, according to a universally recognized system of human rights, and instead to accept the enclosed and idiosyncratic system of inherited personal and interpersonal dealings as what defines one’s possibilities.

The family and intimate relationships in general are absolutely essential to our happiness, and they thus reveal the limits of what rule-governed relationships can offer for our fulfillment as free persons.  We need to recognize at the same time, however, that such intimate and familial relationships themselves can be highly oppressive and can stifle our ability to realize our possibilities as free, self-defining individuals.  It is in accepting the necessity—and the propriety—of a domain of rules that exceed the terms of personal and family life that we open up for ourselves a world in which we can realize our freedom as free individuals.

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  1. Anton
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    This ties well to your earlier post, Music and Mathematics (October 26, 2011) in that rules, while perhaps restrictive at first glance, can provide a resource for creativity. Each is a universe with set parameters (harmonics, rhythm structures etc.) and the navigation, arrangement and application of these rules can be used to build something beautiful.

    I spoke once with an architect working in Dubai. She was happy with the pay, but frustrated that the absence of budget restriction stifled her ability to express her work creatively. Or consider the Formula 1 driver who’s presented with a set environment in which to perform and with this seems to create magic, something from nothing.

    With rules, come the spaces between the rules and rules may be stretched, bent, experimented with in music, science, writing or most of every day life to fulfilling ends.

    It might be said that between the rules, between the physics, laws, protocols, between the notes, is where art exists.

  2. Andrew Johnson
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I read this a couple of weeks ago and had been meaning to respond but never did.

    I live and work in China. And the traffic is the same, to a greater or lesser degree. I remember, somewhat humorously, writing my family after my arrival about how for the first time in my life I realized the great need for traffic police. It is one thing to speak about the ‘state phobia’ of the police, but traffic police had always struck me as too ‘neo-liberal,’ concerned about money and quotas. But China surely gave me a new impression on the value traffic police provide to mundane daily routine of driving on our highways.

    At first when I think of Chinese traffic, I think of the musical score [is it Tudor or Bussoti?] that opens Deleuze/Guattari’s “Thousand Plateus.” However, that is a little too cliche and stereotypical. What makes you think of rule-following, makes me think of game theory. In the end, I think we can both agree that both Chinese and Indian traffic clearly refute the belief that rational self-interest can successfully operate by mere invisible hand. When I am driving on my motorcycle, driving in and out of traffic, without the help of signs or rules, and with thousands of other non-car motorcycles around me, I feel that the whole process works by a massive game of irrational/instinctual game theory. I go here or go there, based upon what I think this person or that person is going to do. How do I know what they are going to do? I don’t know, maybe body language, maybe instinct, maybe just maybe calculation of their rational self-interest in the situation in front of me, whatever it is it happens faster than seconds, almost instantly. So in spite of this everyday sport of game theory, is doesn’t operate by rational choice theory, or at least not entirely.

    In fact, just this weekend, we got in a traffic jam, something quite common, and the big problem was not that there was a ton of people or cars, but that the motorcycle riders had inhabited the space between the cars and made it so that traffic could not continue. And once those cycles got through the cross-way they were trying to cross, the excess void was filled by new motorcycles. Point being: all would be solved if they just wouldn’t fill up the empty space. Then the bus could continue, the cars could continue, and the cycles could cross the road, all seamlessly and without delay. But their own rational interest to cut off the bus or the car to save what they thought was a second and to fill up that tiniest space with their small cycle, and then repeated by twenty other strangers, made it impossible for ANY of us to get where we were going. Sometimes, all I can do is laugh.

    Man Zou! (chinese for ‘take care,’ but literally ‘walk slowly,’ somewhat apropos given the topic)

  3. Réal
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I recall driving in Italy, in Florence, confronted with the enormous roundabouts with no lane markings and feeling overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of it all, the signage, the driving habits, the noise. I was at a loss until I struck upon a rule, and a universal one at that: Do not strike anyone. Armed with this rule I penetrated the fray and lo and behold! the traffic opened up to me and I could navigate along with all of the others, each of us paying just enough attention to each other in accordance with the rule to regulate the flow.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).