Philosophy – most rules have exceptions

Shirley Hughes, “Rules and Exceptions”

One of the factors which have led many philosophers to adopt a more or less skeptical attitude in moral philosophy has been the recognition that most rules have exceptions. This has commonly been regarded as a threat to the entire moral enterprise. How can a philosopher even attempt to find an account of the moral relations that obtain among things which will weave them into the unity of a stable system if every principle, every rule, every judgment has to be qualified by who knows how many exceptions?

Plato was acutely aware of how devastating the admission of an exception might be. In the Republic Socrates completely invalidates Cephalus’ thesis that justice is simply a matter of returning to others what is due to them by pointing out that if a friend deposited a weapon with us for safekeeping and then asked for it when he was not in his right mind, there would be justice in not returning it to him. Ordinarily we should return what does not belong to us, but this case would seem to be a legitimate exception. Socrates mentions another. It would be right in such circumstances he says to lie to a person who was out of his mind. On the other hand Plato also realised that by no means all alleged exceptions are justified. In the Euthyphro Socrates upon being informed that Euthyphro intends to prosecute his own father for murder suggests that perhaps it would be right to prosecute his father if he killed a relative but not if he murdered a stranger. Euthyphro rebukes Socrates for suggesting such an exception. Socrates offers no defence except to express amazement at the certainty with which Euthyphro claims to know what is right.

There are several ways to resolve the problem of uncertainty which the existence of exceptions seems to introduce. One way is that of the extreme sceptic; simply deny the validity of morality altogether. There can hardly be a problem of exceptions if there is no such thing as morality. To most philosophers this solution to the problem seems too drastic and unnecessarily defeatist.

Another method of disposing of the problem is to dispense with rules and principles in determining what is moral. We have seen this approach taken by Sartre and to a considerable extent by Fletcher. Certainly if the problem is reconciling in a consistent fashion the existence of exceptions with the existence of rules then one solution is to deny the latter (just as one classic solution of the problem of evil is to deny the existence of God).

The third approach is the converse of the one just mentioned. Instead of denying that there are rules one simply denies that genuine moral rules and principles ever have exceptions. Perhaps the only explicit philosophical exposition of this view that moral rules are exceptionless is Kant’s discussion in his essay “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives”. Although this essay may not provide us with a complete or altogether accurate statement of Kant’s position on exceptions it is none the less the interpretation which is made of Kant’s views by most ethical commentators.

Still a fourth approach to the problem is to assert that while all or at least most rules have exceptions, principles do not. We need only to appeal to them or to some ultimate principle among them in order to determine which exceptions to rules are admissable and which are not.

Miller attributes this view to classical utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill, but also and more generally to “any theory in which it is maintained that some me rule always takes precedence over all others”. Miller finds reasons for rejecting all such attempts. A fifth theory is suggested by Sidgwick and developed hypothetically by Miller. This theory attempts to resolve the problem of exceptions by appending to any given rule, a list of all exempting conditions; that is to say all the cases to which the rule is related but to which it does not apply.

Miller finds that this approach too is objectionable. A final position regarding exceptions is what’s known as the Aristotelian theory of exceptions. Briefly it is the view that rules do not, and because of their general nature, cannot apply to all the cases of a certain class, thereby leaving some cases (the exceptions) to be decided by an appeal to intuition rather than by an appeal to rules and or principles. According to the usual interpretation of Kant’s views he is said to believe that “moral rules are absolutely inflexible and without exceptions”. Certainly much in Kant’s essay “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives” would justify such an interpretation. He speaks of the “unconditioned principle of veracity” as a “command of reason not to be limited by any expediency” and of rules “which in their nature do not admit exceptions’.

He offers at least two reasons for answering and asserting the existence of exceptionless rules, namely that rules or principles which have exceptions are self-contradictory and that “exceptions destroy the universality of which they are called principles”.

Nonetheless in his Fundamental Principles and elsewhere, Kant makes an important distinction between what he variously calls ‘perfect’ or ‘strict’ duties on the one hand and ‘imperfect’ or ‘broad’ duties on the other. A ‘perfect’ duty is he says one that admits of no exceptions in favour of inclination. He is less explicit regarding ‘imperfect’ or ‘broad’ duties. The distinction between these two types of duties permits several possible interpretations.

via Pathways to Philosophy – Shirley Hughes: essay three.

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