All Rules Come with Standards and Principles You Didn’t Set—With Principles-based Choosing, You Set All Three

As I described in an earlier post, one way to be more resilient is to shift from thinking about rules to standards and principles.  John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher, highlighted in his book, A Theory of Justice, the differences amongst the terms rules, standards, and principles.

Rules are straight lines, asking yes/no questions, looking for triggering conditions that something is changing, seeking predictability and certainty.  Ex ante, the thinking is that this rule should and will provide this stability.  Put it in place, and let it work.

Standards are balancing feedback systems, with a gap between a stated goal and the actual state driving action that changes the actual state, like a thermostat.  This system looks for balancing factors in a set of relevant considerations and options, providing a range of choices.  Ex post, this thinking asks whether this standard maintained the behavior within a desired range.

Principles are systems to be considered, providing guardrails for the feedback loops (standards) to include, and how the choices made in actions might be interpreted.  In reflection, this thinking asks whether the system of standards and rules under consideration increases resilience of the desired impact.

Rules tell you what actions to take to close the gap. For example, for your physical health, eat this many calories, with this mix of proteins, grains, vegetables, and fruit. Or do this much exercise a day. For your mental health, read this, think about this, stop thinking about this, or talk to this person. For your emotional health, have these friends, and engage in this way. Each of these guides for how to act are rules. Rules often come with implicit standards of what healthy looks like, based on a principle of standards, rules, and who should be setting them.

Simply put, every rule comes with standards and principles, whether you agreed to them or not. With a principles-based start to your choices, you set all three. You decide who decides, towards what purpose, with what standard, what feedback process, what rules, and what actions. You choose.

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