“First Law of the Sea: Never Place Yer Rear End on a Pirate’s Face”

There are various rules which many of us follow in our everyday lives: moral rules, rules for playing chess, rules of etiquette, rules for cooking that Sunday roast just right, and (at least if Metalbeard has his way) rules against sitting on a pirate’s face. We also typically recognize that there are important differences between these different kinds of rules. As the philosopher Daniel Kelly and his coauthors put it, most of us

... recognize a distinction between two quite different sorts of rules governing behavior, namely moral rules and conventional rules. Prototypical examples of moral rules include those prohibiting killing or injuring other people, stealing their property, or breaking promises. Prototypical examples of conventional rules include those prohibiting wearing gender-inappropriate clothing (e.g., men wearing dresses), licking one’s plate at the dinner table, and talking in a classroom when one has not been called on by the teacher.1

Indeed, the ability to appreciate this distinction between moral rules and these other kinds of rules (those concerning etiquette, local conventions, and the like) is often taken by psychologists to be a key part of children’s moral development. It is, however, a controversial matter among philosophers as to what exactly differentiates moral requirements and rules from instructions of these other kinds. It has been suggested, for example, that only moral rules are absolute in the sense outlined above, or that they are the only imperatives that apply to everyone irrespective of their needs and desires, or that moral requirements trump or overrule all other requirements or ... Unsurprisingly, then, I do not intend to say anything definitive about precisely what it is that makes moral requirements special. What we can see, though, is that whatever this distinction amounts to it is one which The Man fails to recognize.

The Man treats the LEGO instructions he is following—which clearly have, at best, the status of conventional, rather than moral, rules—in a manner fitting only for moral requirements. This can be seen in two main ways. First, he refuses to make any exceptions to the requirement to follow these instructions and he is willing to treat his other desires and projects—even things he values very deeply such as his children’s happiness—as less important than following these requirements. Second, he treats these rules as if they were important for their own sake rather than, as all sensible LEGO aficionados do, as a means to obtaining some other desirable end. It is a combination of these two errors which, ultimately, makes The Man’s behavior so problematic.

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