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.