It’s easy to go through life without thinking about the rules and conventions you’re using to guide your decision-making. If you were raised by humans in a human society (as opposed to being raised by a friendly bear in a society of jungle animals, say), you were conditioned from a young age to believe certain things by your parents, your teachers, by after school specials, Coca-Cola commercials, and a million other mostly well-meaning propagandists.

Often, the people who implant these norms in you haven’t given them much thought either. They, too, were conditioned by their parents, their teachers, and their own vintage PSA messages broadcast over airwaves to believe certain things and behave in certain ways.

Having a set of standards to adhere to when you’re making decisions – especially ethical decisions – is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that you should never take time to think about the beliefs that guide you. When we blindly accept a particular viewpoint as the norm, we’re more prone to suffer from inexplicable anxieties and to follow dictates that cause harm to ourselves and others.

When it comes to norms, they can be classified pretty neatly into three categories.

Necessary norms

A necessary norm is a standard that absolutely no one can deny. No one invented these norms. They just are. There’s simply no getting around a necessary norm. There’s no cheating it. They’re true across all belief systems, and in truth, there’s only one that comes to mind:

You must die. Eventually.

There’s no way to avoid it. It happens no matter what you do, no matter who you are, and no matter what you believe. You cannot break this law, even if you try.

Arbitrary norms

This may raise some eyebrows and ruffle some feathers, but the fact is, human laws, conventions, and ideals are, by and large, arbitrary, by definition. In other words, they have been determined by an authority, or arbiter, based on a particular belief system and handed down for people to follow. As an individual, you don’t get much of a say in them, but you are expected to abide by them (or be brought to some form of justice if you choose not to).

But it’s not necessary that you follow them. If you’re sly, you can get away with breaking them, unlike the aforementioned necessary law that assures that you will in fact die. (Sorry to keep bringing that up. I know it’s a bummer.)

Arbitrary norms vary (usually only by small degrees) from one culture to the next and sometimes from one small village to the next neighboring small village. They’re often passed down from one generation to the next, and sometimes, we’re not even sure where they originated.

Many are not written out on stone tablets or in law books. Instead, they’re understood, in the way that Jim Crow laws were understood in the South. It was understood by humans of all skin tones that humans with light skin tones were granted special privileges, which included the privilege to arbitrarily kill humans of darker skin tones.

Consider two widely accepted but entirely arbitrary norms as examples, one that’s written in most law books and one that is understood.

Do not steal

Most of us would agree that stealing is wrong. It’s standard fare from one society to the next. But if stealing was a necessary norm, fraud would be impossible. As it is, people are bilked out of billions every year by greedy CEOs, bankers, and small-time con artists.

Ergo, the convention against stealing, while preferable to a convention for stealing, is an arbitrary norm. It may be reprehensible, but you can get away with it. I can even think of cases when stealing might be a greater good than not stealing (see Robin Hood and Les Miserables or imagine a scenario in which you might need to steal a doomsday device to prevent a villain from using it against innocents).

Do unto others

Some might argue that this norm is necessary and cite the fact that almost every religion offers some version of the golden rule as proof. However, if the golden rule was, in fact, necessary, we would be incapable of turning away refugees of war and famine. There would be no starving children or abused women.

However, all of those things exist (and worse), and so we know this is an arbitrary norm, a norm formulated by an arbiter to regulate human behavior. That’s not to say it’s bad policy. In general, most humane humans agree it’s a pretty good one. I can imagine a better policy though: Treat others the way that they want to be treated (as opposed to the way you want to be treated). But that would require you to get to know people rather than making assumptions about their preferences based on your own preferences.

Essential norms

These are the norms that are particular to you. These are your personal parameters. Some are inherited in your genetics. Some you’ve adopted. These essential norms define you in the same way that arbitrary norms define a society.

Essential norms are those principles that you, personally, are bound by. Even if you wanted to, you probably wouldn’t be able to act contrary to them because it would be outside of your unique nature. If you did find yourself forced to operate outside of these essential norms, you would feel ill at ease, anxious, and generally dissatisfied. You would feel like something just wasn’t right, and if you’ve never stopped to consider your essential norms, you might not be able to pinpoint what it was that had gone askew in your life.

For example, if you believe that all humans are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you would have found yourself in a conundrum living in the Jim Crow south. The status quo would have been in conflict with your core beliefs. Each day, you would be forced to make the decision: act according to my own essential norms or act in deference to society’s arbitrary norms?

Essential norms are the ideas and beliefs that truly determine your destiny. You may be able to skate past arbitrary norms that you disagree with, you lovable rogue, you, but your unique self will rebel if you act against your essential norms.

Captain Jack Sparrow captured the essence of essential norms when he said:

The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man cant do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you cant. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you’ll have to square with that some day.

Just because a norm is arbitrary doesn’t mean that it’s useless or evil. Necessity is not necessary for something to be valuable. Just because a norm is essential doesn’t mean it won’t evolve over time as you change and grow. However, every rule worth adhering to is worth examination.


P.S.If you’ve never looked into the Milgram Experiment, take some time to do a little digging. In 1963, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that illustrated the ambivalence between obedience to arbitrary norms and adhering to one’s own essential norms. He was inspired to pursue the matter to gain a greater understanding of perpetrators who complied with acts of genocide during World War II, but obedience to arbitrary norms has been the main culprit behind man’s inhumanity to man throughout much of human history, from the Crusades to the KKK. Just one more reason to consider carefully what you believe is essential to being a worthwhile human being.