Why Do We Obey Rules?

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If you’ve ever watched a show like “The Great British Bake Off,” you may have felt inspired to attempt a magnificent cake of your own—but you’ll quickly run into obstacles if you don’t know some basic rules of baking. Get the right temperature, avoid substitutions, don’t skip the salt. After all, rules, some inconsequential and others monumental, govern how we live. In a fascinating piece, Rivka Galchen reviews the book “Rules: A Short History of What We Live By,” by the science historian Lorraine Daston, and examines why rules exist, why we follow them, and how their history can express, in part, the history of humanity itself. Galchen offers a delightful study of rules across time and literature, including the “shape-shifting rules” of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” sumptuary laws in France (yes, there was a law about who could serve a dessert composed of more than fruit and cheese), and the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, which provides guidance for questions such as “How much wine should be drunk daily?” and “Should one wear a belt to bed?” Plus, learn the difference between “thick” and “thin” rules, and why some strictures are repeatedly violated, no matter how stringent the consequences might be. —Jessie Li

Some last and some don’t, yet we cling to them in times of change. Illustration by Lily Padula for The New Yorker

By Rivka Galchen: Rule No. 42, the King says, is that all persons more than a mile high must leave the court. Alice counters that she isn’t a mile high. And, anyway, it isn’t a proper rule, because the King just made it up, then and there. “It’s the oldest rule in the book,” the King counters. But, when Alice points out that if the rule was so old, then it ought to have been rule No. 1, the King shuts the notebook he was reading the rules from (and writing them into) and shuffles away in the face of her argument. It’s a rare moment in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” when reasoning as we would recognize it proves even minimally consequential.

Rules: A Short History of What We Live By,” by the historian of science Lorraine Daston, similarly features reason, and rule-making kings, as charismatic minor characters. The shape-shifting rules themselves are the Alice that is interrogated. Daston analyzes rules as diverse as those for making pudding, those for regulating traffic, and those governing the movement of matter in the universe. In considering a series of historic anecdotes and texts, Daston helps us see rules (and their neighbors, such as laws and regulations) through the concepts of thickness and thinness, paradigms and algorithms, failures (it was nearly impossible to get eighteenth-century Parisians to stop playing ball in the streets), and states of exception. She writes, “Cultures notoriously differ as to the content of their rules, but there is no culture without rules. . . . A book about all of these rules would be little short of a history of humanity.”

Daston begins her inquiry by illuminating etymologies of the term “rule.” In ancient Greek, kanon, the word for rule, was connected to the usefully straight and tall giant cane plant, which was used to make measurements. It’s because of this connection that the word became associated both with laws and with the idea of a model—that with which something is compared, but to which it is not meant to be identical. (No one suggests a ride in a model train.) This association is interesting, because the idea of following a model or paradigm is now seen as distinct from or even counter to following rules. Similarly, the Latin term regula connects both to straight planks used for measuring and building and to a model by which others are measured more metaphorically—the ruler of a nation, say. In that more metaphorical case, the ruler may be the source of rules, and possibly exempt from them; alternatively, the ruler can be exemplary, the ideal by which one determines how one ought to be.

The Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century, has endured for some fifteen hundred years. There are rules about: how much wine should be drunk daily (a hemina), how many psalms should be recited on a given day—and in what order, and whether by heart. Rules about whether a lamp should be left burning all night (yes), and if one should wear a belt to bed (yes), and where young monks should sleep (between old monks, rather than next to other young monks). There are also rules about how to behave on a journey. (“Lie face down on the floor of the oratory at the end of each of the customary hours of the work of God,” and don’t tell other monks what you saw or heard, “because that causes the greatest harm.”) All told, the rule book has seventy-three chapters. Daston uses the Rule of St. Benedict to argue that, for much of late antiquity and the Latin Middle Ages, rules were derived from models: the abbot of the monastery, considered to be endowed by God, was to be emulated. But he also enforced the rules, using his godly discretion.

These rules are considered “thick” rules. This is not because there are so many of them, but because they require interpretation, and because examples are given, and because they make room for all sorts of exceptions. One might even say that thick rules are like a thicket—with tendrils and tangles of special cases, some specified, others deduced. A sick monk might be granted more than the daily allotted amount of bread. A thick rule need not be long. In Alice’s Victorian world, for example, a thick rule might be “Young ladies should always be polite”—and Alice does her best to interpret and enact this dictum in the ever-changing circumstances of Wonderland.

Thin rules, ideally, apply to all cases uniformly. As Daston puts it, thin rules “aspire to be self-sufficient.” A computer algorithm is an example of a thin rule—long, perhaps, but intended to be deployed without the need of any human thought or intervention. In Wonderland, a thin rule, arguably, would be the Cheshire Cat’s declaration: “We’re all mad here.” The Ten Commandments also tend be understood as thin—they are to be obeyed always, by everyone—which is part of why the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac is so opaque, engaging, and sublime.

One mystery is why the Benedictine rules for the most part endured—and were obeyed—for so long, and why other rules and laws have not been. Daston relates in comic detail how sumptuary rules in France failed to be followed time and again. Sumptuary laws specified who could wear what, how luxurious their meals could be, and what their carriages could be adorned with. There were laws specifying if the wives of goldsmiths, as opposed to other “mechanicals,” could wear silk trim; there was a law about who could serve a dessert consisting of more than fruit and cheese. If adhered to, the laws made class markers visible and reliable.

But, even when issued repeatedly, with more and more admonitory language, the sumptuary laws were routinely violated, year after year. They were also circumvented, with shifts in fashion not yet regulated. Similar attempts to get Parisians to follow traffic regulations, and not throw their garbage in the street, were also failures. Yet, not far away, Amsterdam’s citizens obeyed rules that led to clean streets and a coherent and functioning traffic system. Why? Daston suggests that rules tend to succeed when they are also norms. She points to how successful certain religious communities have been with implicit and explicit dress codes. About the orderly Amsterdam, she makes a more unsettling observation: the administration used “draconian measures that shocked foreign visitors.” Paris did not become more orderly until the rules were coming from “the revolutionary and later the imperial authorities.”

One needs a good abbot for the Benedictine rules to work. If you let go of the idea that the abbot is endowed by God, then you can ask, Is the abbot using wise discretion, or is his judgment deranged by favoritism or bigotry or self-interest? Daston tells how, in the Western world, “willfulness had by the seventeenth century come to be tarred by the same brush as arbitrary caprice.” This shift contributed to an ideal of different kinds of rules—thinner, even algebraic, rules. Algorithms, which were closely associated with reason, came to be valued as more ideal than error-prone human judgment. As Daston puts it, the “dream of unambiguous rules flawlessly followed has always fed upon the special case of calculation, the thinnest rules of all.”

Daston’s book then follows an interesting eddy out into the use of the term “laws of nature.” She points out the oddness of the metaphor, given that they are “laws” that cannot be written, or even broken. Yet these natural “laws” do have the feel of being God-given—they are the world as it is.

This adaptation of a comforting but arguably nonsensical or at least misleading metaphor also resonates with Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Carroll was a mathematician, a logician. The particular lawlessness of Wonderland—where the Caucus race has no start or end but still has a winner, where the Mad Hatter can be stuck in Time, where Alice’s inquiries are answered maddeningly literally, and where the riddle of a raven and a writing desk sounds right but is given no answer—is tonally the same as the language of logic and reason, of precision. In this way, the nonsense nested within the cadence of sense becomes vivid. This is amusing and freeing, because Alice is not stuck in Wonderland forever. If she never woke up from her dream, it would be a nightmare.

By the end of Daston’s book, one feels a sense of clarity about how to think about rules, alongside a gentle sense of despair concerning what kinds of rules to hope for. Rules that leave a ruler, or a judge, in charge of interpreting them feel at once humanized and corruptible. Rules that allow no exception seem free of human frailty but alien, and unable to admit properly of complexity. Despair as a response to the ever-present weakness of laws seems intuitively honest, the abbot inside of us might say, and it also scans as accurate to our inner computing algorithm; algorithms are biased toward the quantifiable, and the Tin Man is right to worry that he has no heart.

In the final chapter, Daston discusses the political theorist Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty as “the power to decide on the exception,” and his conviction that the exception—the event or situation that legitimatizes the suspension of the rule of law—could not be represented in any existing legal order. Schmitt, who was eventually disgraced by his enthusiastic participation in the Nazi regime, “detested” the rule of law, and saw the reforms across centuries that narrowed the powers of the sovereign as catastrophic. Daston describes how, historically, sovereignty in Europe has been derived from a mix of “divine authority, the patriarchal power of the male head of household over his wife and children, and the power of the conqueror over the vanquished in war.” She also talks about the rapid collapse of rules that can follow a cataclysm, such as a pandemic or a revolution. These rapid changes can be positive, as envisioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron, or they can be the start of authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Daston’s book feels relevant today, even essential.

Alice’s Wonderland is a place where the only rule is that the rules will keep changing. One offering makes you larger, another makes you small; it’s always teatime because there’s no time; and the rabbit, with his broken watch, is always late. The rules of Wonderland fail to offer what is so beloved about rules, which is the increase of what Daston terms the “radius of predictability.” This may not be equivalent to the good. But the predictable is as much a human need as are ruptures from the predictable.

Rivka Galchen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has contributed fiction and nonfiction to the magazine since 2008. Her most recent novel is “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch.”