Games require boundaries. I play a sport called power soccer. It is a four on four contest between power wheelchair users on a basketball court. We attach metal guards to the front of our chairs and strike oversized soccer balls at speeds up to thirty miles per hour. I do not always love how the referees enforce the rules in a particular contest, but I am grateful that they do because a game without boundaries is no fun. Imagine being a spectator in a gym, but the ball never goes out of bounds because there are no out of bounds lines. Of course, there would be very little purpose to power soccer without rules because how can you define a goal or even an objective if there are no rules? I may say that the point of the game is to tip over as many of my opponents as possible, so I seek to maximize heavy contact on other players. Somebody else might decide that the purpose of the game is to hit the ball onto the eastern wall as often as possible. After hitting the ball against that wall five times, that person would declare victory, and during his celebratory lap, I might decide to tip him over, therefore winning the game by my rules. Who actually won? Who knows? More importantly, who can decide?

Rules provide a set of agreed to assumptions. They provide a metric to determine who is better at the game in question. I know I am good at power soccer if I can strike the ball between the posts more times than my opponents. If she puts in more than I do, then she is better than I am.

Rules are not popular things, especially when we start to talk about human behavior. How many times have you heard, “You do you”? I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that libertarian freedom has become our culture’s chief virtue.[1][2] Anything that restrains you from doing what you want is necessarily evil.

The irony of the situation is that no one can live life without rules. Like power soccer, life becomes much more chaotic and dangerous without rules. We all have some rules, and “You do you” never really means that. It is typically short for saying, “You do you, as long as you do not do anything that offends my sensibilities.”[3] Just like I know if I am good at power soccer because of my successfully completing the objectives defined by the rules, I know I am good at life if I am successfully completing the objectives defined by the rules of life.

Again, we all do this. How do you know you are a good environmentalist, for example? Some may say you reduce your carbon emissions. The more you reduce them, the more successful you are at following the rules that you believe are necessary for a good life. You could be the most outspoken moral relativist in the world and claim to be a subjectivist, but I guarantee you that you have some rules that you live by and hold objectively. You might not have many rules, but I know you will be upset if someone steals your car or unjustly blames you for something that was not your fault.

Consequently, if it is true that we all have some set of rules that we utilize to determine what makes a good life, how do we determine which one is best? To continue my power soccer analogy, certain rules lead to a power soccer game that is more fun and more beneficial for all of us playing.[4] Before I started playing, power soccer did not have the rule that we now call the two-on-one. In summary, this rule forces players to stay spread out, as no two players from the same team can be within ten feet of the ball simultaneously (excluding the goalkeeper in the goal box). Because we are forced to stay apart by the rules, there is a lot more passing. Our game is not just a pile of wheelchairs pushing on the ball, but enforcing the two-on-one adds another level of strategy and teamwork. Although I never played before the advent of the two-on-one, from what I understand, the game has improved since it was implemented.

Rules in life can be evaluated in a similar fashion. Some rules lead to a better outcome than others. Some rules contribute to human flourishing, while other rules do not. Unlimited freedom does not contribute to human flourishing as we tend to hurt others for our benefit far too often (and might hurt ourselves as well). We need rules to help reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Substantial freedom, however, is a good thing. It is consistent with our nature to make choices; we do not want every decision dictated to us by some outside authority. Should I be free to choose which grocery store I want to shop at? That seems to be a good thing; I can choose the store that best provides the products I desire. Should I be free to take everything out of your house? It might benefit me, but it hurts you, so it does not seem like a great thing. Almost all societies have prohibited stealing throughout history (consider CS Lewis’s appendix in The Abolition of Man as a demonstration of this under the section on justice).[5]

For example, God prohibited stealing in the Ten Commandments. Why did God do that? I cannot pretend to know the entire mind of God or every reason that He had for prohibiting stealing. However,  if we fast-forward to the New Testament, Jesus defines the first commandment, which is loving God, and the second commandment, which is loving others as you love yourself in Matthew 22. Then Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[6] Stealing from someone else is a blatant violation of the commandment to love other people. Freedom is good, but unlimited freedom to do everything is not good.

There will be differences of opinion in this arena. Even if we all share the goal of wanting to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we might disagree on the best method to show that love.[7] Returning to  the power soccer analogy, some people probably preferred the old rules (I do not know of any, but for the sake of this illustration, I will continue along this line since there was probably at least some person). Perhaps the old style fit better with their personal strengths, so it did not feel like they received a better outcome when certain rules were put into place. Because we, as humans, have different opinions on just about everything, unanimity is practically impossible if you have enough people involved. There are a few possible ways to determine what rules should be put in place, given that someone will be unhappy.

First, we can do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.[8] A pure democracy could do this. Everyone votes, the majority rules, and most people get what they want (assuming what the people perceive is good is truly what leads to the greatest good). Second, we can dictate what is best from the top down. Plato talks a lot about this in the Republic. We must tell people whom they must have children with to improve our society’s genetic stock.[9] Third, we have a representative democracy, much like our political system. We vote for the smaller group of people who dictate from the top down, ideally (certainly not always) choosing the best representatives of ourselves to dictate down. We can have no rules whatsoever, but as I have discussed already, that is not an ideal outcome for anyone, especially in situations where conflict arises.

Whichever method we decide to utilize, and this sometimes changes in different contexts, there are always rules of some form derived from some ideal that is viewed as the authority. Authority has to be acknowledged in order for people to follow those rules. If you do not acknowledge the authority of the referee, you will not be playing power soccer anymore. You will be playing something else, and you will probably be escorted off of the court. Whether you like it or not, being a part of a power soccer “universe” on the court means that you are subject to the rules as imposed by the referee.

The question of authority faces the entire universe as well. We all acknowledge some moral rule, even if we claim to be absolute relativists. Therefore, we are all submitting to and acknowledging authority of some fashion. Some people appeal to God, as I do.[10] Other people appeal to other sources to try to root certain values as objective. They say that kindness is the ultimate value. I agree that kindness is a very important virtue, but I would ask why we should believe that without some type of lawgiver. My belief in the goodness of kindness derives from two sources: the acknowledgment of the “referee” of the universe, God, and the evidence of good outcomes. Just like power soccer and the virtue of playing a good game, I acknowledge the rules that are given by the source of authority, and I benefit from the enjoyment I derive from playing a good game. My enjoyment is maximized when I follow the rules. My teammates also flourish when I follow the rules because we are properly aligned.

Power soccer is a micro case, but it can apply on the macro level as well. For those of you who might think about the universe and just realize that certain things are wrong, realize that certain things detract from human flourishing, you must face the question of where the rules are derived from. Rules require an authority. Someone or something needs to be in a position to define and enforce the rules. That may feel restrictive, and it certainly runs contrary to many of our current cultural assumptions about the evil of boundaries. Boundaries are good, boundaries have the potential to maximize human flourishing, and boundaries must be derived from a good source, or else they become overbearing.[11]Make sure that you consider what you are basing your boundaries on, and if the source is unsatisfactory, I encourage you to dig a little bit deeper and think a little bit harder.


Citation Information

Zak Schmoll, “Obeying the Rules of the Game,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 137-144.


Endnotes

[1] Charles Taylor refers to this tendency as “expressive individualism” and writes, “There arises in Western societies a generalized culture of ‘authenticity’, or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, “do their own thing”. The ethic of authenticity originates in the Romantic period, but it has utterly penetrated popular culture only in recent decades, in the time since the Second World War, if not even closer to the present.” Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 299.

[2] Drawing heavily from the work of Taylor in the first half of his book, Alan Noble comes to the conclusion that, “Choice then becomes foregrounded, the choice of the individual . . . The secular age turns everything back to the self.” Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 54-55.

[3] Trevin Wax explains how Christians tend to compartmentalize Christian truth from day to day life which then suggests that “Christianity becomes just one aspect of a busy life. What we believe, we’re told, isn’t as important as how we live. And even then, it’s fine if our life choices don’t line up with Christian teaching as long as our faith helps us be true to ourselves and keeps us from hurting anyone.” Trevin Wax,  The Thrill of Orthodoxy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 5-6.

[4] Power soccer often resembles Chesterton’s chaotic picture of good things running wild. “And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908, repr.; Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 113.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944, repr.; New York: HarperCollins, 2009), Appendix.

[6] Matthew 22:40 (NIV).

[7] Chesterton provided insight on disagreement over goods in his first chapter of What’s Wrong with the World. Specifically, “We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health.” G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (1910, repr.; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 3.

[8] “Utilitarianism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 22, 2014, accessed March 4, 2023, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/.

[9] Plato, The Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Book V.

[10] Beyond what is published in An Unexpected Journal, Moral Apologetics (https://www.moralapologetics.com/) provides many more arguments in support of the moral argument for God’s existence.

[11] Zak Schmoll, “The Freedom of Boundaries,” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 181-194.