Why Breaking a Few Laws Every Now and Then Is Healthy For Civilization


“If you are afraid to break a few rules when there’s nothing on the line, how will you speak out against authority when it’s life and death?” -Marc Peruzzi

Breaking the rules is necessary.

It is something that must be done. I’m not just talking about desperate situations where someone takes the law into their own hands Taken style. I’m talking about breaking rules for any reason. To impress someone, be a badass, do something that is morally right, rediscover some lost wisdom or simply because you wanted to see what was on the other side of a “no trespassing” sign.

To understand how to stand up takes honest attempts to push against what we are told is and is not right in exchange for what we know is and is not right.

Just because something is an understood rule or a law even, is it always necessary to follow it? There is a truth that inherently exists in humans if it is universally trusted to exist in humans. The problem is, we have an ever-growing system of rules and laws dictating what is right or wrong for us and it gets harder and harder to see our full-human potential realized within them.

Human wisdom is being left out of the conversation.

Andrew Forsthoefel got fired from his job and started walking. He walked 4,000 miles from his home in Philadelphia to California simply to listen. There was no plan or foresight. There was only a backpack and a pair of shoes and a trust that when he needed help, there would be people there to help him.

And there were. It was a faith in humanity that was completely rewarded simply by relying on it, rather than thinking about it.

While Andrew’s walk did not necessarily break any rules or laws, it did break outside of what was expected of him and it exchanged one set of principles for a completely new set. To listen to Andrew speak of his journey, is to hear the physical transformation of one man within an hour simply in the way he changed how he heard people.

This is the way we need to break rules.

We need to change our perspective in order to understand what is truly right or wrong in a given situation for ourselves. In his TED Talk, Barry Schwartz began by reading the job description of a hospital janitor. After going through a number of expected duties including cleaning floors, emptying wastebaskets and vacuuming;  Schwartz pointed out that not one of the duties included interaction with another human being. They were all jobs that could very well (and may well be) completed by robots.

But, this went against what Schwartz heard when he talked with hospital janitors. Janitors who would help wandering patients back to bed at night or come back later to vacuum a waiting room where a grieving family who was at the hospital all week was sleeping. There is a space outside of the rules we are given and we, like jazz musicians, have the ability to improvise around the scale of any situation.

It is what Aristotle refers to as “practical wisdom.”

Humans have the ability to find the right thing to do in the right situation. So often we let a rule or law blindly decide what is right, without considering the tremendous amount of human interaction that is carried with every decision we make. The answer to a problem is not always to make a new law or to create an incentive. Incentives foster mistrust and, worse, they erode the human experience of having the same, collective objective in given situations.

As is the case with the janitors, people need to be given the ability to improvise. We find ourselves in systems that have been built upon systems to keep us safe from each other, but it is these very systems that can also betray our society. Without an emphasis on practical wisdom, or a trust that people will do the right thing at the right time, we are operating in a society devoid of a fully-developed moral compass.

There is a trust in rules and law. There is a consistent need to play things by the book and to follow procedure. There is mistrust in things outside of state curriculum and off of the script. With so many rules, nothing can fail. But nothing can excel either.

Without a trust in other people, what do we really have?

In the end, it comes down to something as simple as jumping off of a bridge marked “no jumping” or running over a wooden fence on the edge of a huge plot of land marked “do not enter.” It could be something solitary like painting a wall or something communal, like occupying a park. In a great essay for Outside magazine, Marc Peruzzi points out that if everyone did it, what is right would win over what is “merely prescribed.”

The point is that in order to develop a moral compass, humans must be allowed some free-range. If we never push back on anything will we ever really know how we feel about it? Breaking rules is part of our development of good values that will hopefully translate to what Philip K. Howard calls “re-humanized law.” Laws that keep “practical wisdom” in mind.

Laws and rules, without a doubt, serve a purpose in our modern society. But, not everything should be taken at face value as right. Above law, there is a trust that everyone is capable of doing the right thing at the right time.