Making the exception

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“Every rule has an exception, including this one.” (Anonymous)

There is an old joke among tax accountants that there is really only one rule in the entire Internal Revenue Service Code: “Everything is taxable unless we say it isn’t.” The rest of the thousands of pages of code and revenue rulings consists of detailed exceptions to that one rule.

That might be overstating the case, but it is correct to say that exceptions in the Tax Code exceed rules by a large margin. Tax credits, deductions, special computation rules, and entire forms exist solely to reduce, rather than increase the taxes you owe. The problem, of course, is that of those many thousands of “tax expenditures,” as they are called, very few apply to you. Indeed, most of these exceptions apply to fewer than one in 1000 individuals or businesses, usually those who are better connected politically than you are.

The U. S. taxation system is the epitome of a rule-based ethical system, the legal manifestation of deontology, as discussed in earlier posts. You have a duty to follow the rules in determining your tax liability, but you really don’t want to. You want those deductions and other exceptions to the “one big rule.”

The categorical imperative

Philosopher Immanuel Kant was best known for his “categorical imperative” of duty, which states, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” [1] In other words, if a rule is appropriate for everybody everywhere, then we have a duty to follow the rule.

In practice, however, the rules, either legal or moral, are usually less the issue than is the question of the acceptable exceptions to the rules. For instance, all legal codes and the Ten Commandments have prohibitions against killing. Yet most court cases hinge not on whether a killing has occurred, rather on whether there are any mitigating circumstances, such as self-defense, that would either cause the killer to avoid punishment or to receive a lesser punishment. In addition to self-defense, the intention of the killer has a huge impact on the “degree” of the crime and the resulting punishment.

This bias to the exception works its path all the way down the legal side. We have a host of exceptions that we will apply to the speed limit rules we personally encounter.

In the moral sphere, the rule of “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is an example of one where we can each cite numerous “sufficient reasons” for telling an untruth. And all of us have likely justified why that last big purchase we made does not fall under the “Do not covet” rules.

Proportionate reason

Jesuit ethicist Richard McCormick articulated the concept of “proportionate reason” as helpful in sorting out ethical disagreements regarding duty-based issues, although the concept goes back as far as Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Even on an issue as controversial as abortion, all but the most extreme view-holders can state some condition they would find as an acceptable reason to allow an abortion, such as the threatened life of the mother, or cases of rape. If there are ever any foreseen exceptions, then the arguable point is not the rule against abortion but rather the line of acceptability. [2] At what point does the exception flip the rule?

It is often possible to array the many exceptions to some rule along a continuum that are probabilistically acceptable to an increasing number of people. In this manner, the debate can shift from the rule to the appropriate basis for making an exception to the rule. Are there “higher rules” that trump the rule in question, and thus make the exception allowable? Or does acting on the rule cause a greater moral harm than does an alternative (which is called “double effect”)?

That said, requests for exceptions to rules usually have a strong self-interest component. Our case, we might say, is different and justifiable, while your exception is not. Kant’s categorical imperative is useful here. If we are willing to allow the exception to apply to everyone, and not just us, then the exception has more weight. Proportionalism remains a controversial debate, usually pitting those who try to uphold the primacy of longstanding duties against those who see “life’s realities” in justifying some exceptions.

One way to look at this dilemma is that we throw up exceptions to the rules precisely because we don’t find a rules-based ethic to be appropriate in our case. Instead we are often trying to point the justification to an ethical model based on a “good end” for me, specifically. Upcoming posts in this series will look at ethical systems based on achieving “good ends.”

A mentor of mine reconciled the idea of rules versus exceptions this way: “One reality is that there are exceptions to all rules. The other reality is that your exception is likely not good enough.”

Nor is mine.


  1. McCormick, Matt. “Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. Kaczor, Christopher Robert. Proportionalism: For and Against. Marquette University Press, 2000. Note that since an estimated 50% of fertilized human eggs are “naturally” aborted through failure to implant or miscarriage, even God/Nature makes exceptions to the rules. And yes, there are too many politicians, invariably male, who would entertain no exceptions.

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4 thoughts on “Making the exception

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