Proof Of The Rule Of The Exception That Proves The Rule

Note: The title of this post is a bit ironic (reason made clear below), but I couldn’t resist it.

The point:  Contrary to the commonly misunderstood phrase, rules are not “proven” by having exceptions.  Neither do they have to have exceptions in order to be valid.  Rather, some exceptions do infer the rule to which the exception is made.

The rant that goes with it:

The phrase “the exception that proves the rule” is often misused to somehow imply that a rule (whether it be a natural law or an abstract one established by people), is somehow validated by having an exception.  Not only is this an invalid interpretation of the phrase; it is absurd.  If anything, exceptions are more likely to undermine rules than to clarify or bolster them.  In science, exceptions tend to lead to the breakdown of theories, resulting in new ones that have fewer or even no exceptions.  In the laws of men, exceptions tend to muddy the rules, opening them to abuse, as Napoleon so famously allowed for when he added exceptions to the unambiguous rules that Snowball originally established in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”:

No animal shall kill any other animal…without cause

Clearly the original rule, sans “…without cause”, was perfectly valid as-was and much more easily interpreted before Napoleon got his hooves on it.

Of course, this rule at “Animal Farm” is merely a reference to the supposedly definitive 6th (or 5th, depending on which “infallible” version you read) Commandment:

Thou shalt not kill

However, in this case, the word “kill” is actually a mistranslation: The original Hebrew text uses the word “murder”, which is an entirely different concept because “murder” allows for “justified killing” that is NOT considered murder, such as when the “priestly legislation” excuses it in warfare (1 Kings 2:5–6), capital punishment for even the most humble of “crimes”, such as cursing one’s parents (Leviticus 20:9–16) and defense of not only oneself but one’s property (Exodus 22:2). The New Testament also describes “murder” as being immoral and agreeing with the exceptions noted in the Old Testament, so the devout can’t simply cherry-pick a version that is benign on the issue.  As such, the more accurate way to represent the intent of this Commandment, in English, would be…

Thou shalt not kill…except in warfare, capital punishment, self-defense or any other occasion where you don’t feel guilty* about it.

*The Old and New Testaments both refer to this as bloodguilt

Although these “exceptions to the (6th) rule” resolve this particular inconsistency in the bible (but there are plenty of others left), they have compromised the clarity of the concept that you shouldn’t kill ANYONE, leaving the door of interpretation wide open for people like Osama Bin Laden and George Bush to “not murder” (with impunity from their own people) those who do not agree with their personal world views.  In fact, Moses himself was the first to take advantage of these exceptions when he ordered the “killing” (Exodus 32:25–29). of the 3,000 people in his flock who didn’t share his the FSM’s vision of the future.

One excellent example of an abstract (man-made) rule that has no exceptions is the law absolutely forbidding motor vehicles from the streets of Venice, Italy.  No cars are found: not the mayor’s, not for police, no ambulances – none.  In fact, this uncompromised rule has been so successfully enforced that the infrastructure of tight pedestrian-only walkways between open spaces and lack of any ground-vehicle fueling stations has caused this to become an almost “natural law”, requiring almost no actual enforcement in order to ensure full compliance.

Contrast this to Rome’s Christmastime vehicle-control laws, established to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads during this busy period.  Cars with odd-numbered plates may enter the streets on odd-numbered days and there are exceptions for police, ambulances, “designated” officials, etc. The number of vague exceptions supplemental to this rule make it extremely difficult to enforce, let alone impossible to ensure full compliance.  Therefore, these exceptions completely UNDERMINE the rule.

Further to this, I recently had a conversation with someone, to remain nameless (dear), who not only accepted this common interpretation but drew from it the conclusion every rule MUST have an exception.  This, too is absurd.  Certainly rules CAN have exceptions, but that does not make them requisite.  For example, if I tell my son that he cannot have a cookie before dinner, it doesn’t matter how often he asks or how many excuses/scenarios he concocts…he ain’t getting’ one.  Likewise, per the second law of thermodynamics, perpetual motion machines shall not be.  No exceptions.

So, what IS meant by “the exception that proves* the rule” anyway?  The pithy answer:

Sometimes we can infer a rule from its exception, even when the rule is not explicitly stated.

*The term “prove” in the phrase is unfortunate in that proof of the rule is not the issue.  The relevant exception doesn’t actually prove anything about the rule…as though the rule had somehow passed some sort of falsification attempt at the hands of the exception.  Rather, it merely infers the existence of the rule.  Accordingly, the phrase should have been “the exception that infers the rule”.  Yet another flawed meme…

For deeper insight, I invoke an email that I sent this morning to our Health and Safety Manager, in which I ask him how we are meant to interpret the meaning of a controlled right turn at one corner of a jobsite where most of the other intersections have no such controls:

Controlled Left Turn Signal - GREEN Controlled Left Turn Signal - RED

Dear ES&H Mgr:

My comment this morning (that controlled right turns at a few intersections inferring that it is okay to turn right where such controls are absent) is based in the often-misunderstood concept of “the exception that proves the rule”, a description and example of which can be found at the Wikipedia entry on the subject:

The original meaning of this idiom is that the presence of an exception applying to a specific case establishes that a general rule existed. Example (Fowler): “Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight till 11.00 p.m.; “The exception proves the rule” means that this special leave implies a rule requiring men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier. The value of this in interpreting statutes is plain.”

My favorite simpler example is that when the sign on a door of a shop says “Closed Sundays”, the reasonable implication is that it is open 6 days per week.

Note that in spite of the point that I am trying to make, in terms of formal (deductive) logic one cannot assume that the store is open 6 days because the sign can be true even if the store is also closed on Saturday (not to mention Xmas and New Years) however in the courts, judges appreciate that the IMPLICIT meaning outweighs the EXPLICIT meaning and “The Exception That Proves the Rule” found it’s place in Common Law as exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis”

As such, by this informal (inductive) logic the inference of the controlled right turn at some intersections is that on this project one is permitted to turn right on a standard red light (perfectly legal in many OTHER countries, including Canada) where no right indicator exists. You confirmed this morning that this is NOT the case in Qatar or on the jobsite, so I strongly recommend removal of the right turn control lights in order to eliminate this confusion.

The only justification for the right-turn controls would be IF the right-turn control lights are not always the same colour as their standard counterparts, making them exceptional. However, there should be a sign on the post saying that is the case.  Otherwise, they are not only redundant but also unsafe in that they will cause drivers to inadvertently break the rules at other intersections.  And when two people come to an intersection with DIFFERENT interpretations of the rules…


The Kazoo Sutra, BArch

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