Breaking non written rules happens all the time. This happens mostly in our private lives and close social circles, which is main source of anger for common peoples. For example, mother gives a promise to a child and not keeping it and vice versa, friends break code of conduct, etc... My question is what is one supposed to do when he/she notice that non written rule is not followed or broken. What different ethics say about this topic?

I'm special interested when 2 persons with higher and lower authority make non written rule, and higher auth. person break this rule. What should person with lower authority do in this situation, according by Kants ethics?

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    As written, this question is very broad and vague. Can you narrow this down to at least a family of ethics (deontology, utilitarianism, virtue theory, animism, divine command theory, legal positivism, evolutionary bioethics)?
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 13:48
  • @virmaior a vast amount of ethical questions fit the same objection, maybe there should be something more specific about that in the q&a
    – user6917
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 13:56
  • @virmaior: I tried to narrow it down as much as possible.
    – user25449
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 14:08
  • @urosjarc I guess the sort of thing you need to do make the question answerable within an SE format is a little different than what you added. You need to tell us more of what you think "ethics" is in the first place. (is it maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? is it obeying God? is it might is right?) Otherwise, there are too many possible answers.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 0:33
  • @virmaior: Ok I did some learning for different ethics systems and I think Kants ethics is the one that I like the most.
    – user25449
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 7:25

3 Answers 3


The question is good, but the philosophical resource (a moral theory) to address your question is non-existent, especially does not come from the Kantian front. The resource can be found best in sociology, especially through the work of Emil Durkheim, who wowed us with the theory that suicide is not the outcome of personal deviance or idiosyncrasy, but the outcome of the maladies of capitalism. Here I explain first why the area has been neglected in philosophy, and then explain how the sociology of scandal might answer your question.

All Because of Rawls

Kantian moralists are mainly concerned with how we may treat others as moral equals. To them, breaking a promise is bad because the promise-breaker treats others as being unequal, being inferior to her. (breaking a promise itself is not immoral for an act utilitarian). To explain moral equality, Kantian theorists tend to denude individuals from their pre-exiting biological-cultural-socio-economic clothing. Rawls, the famous Kantian, envisioned the society of moral equals through this abstracted individual. His postulations of the veil of ignorance and the separation of public sphere from private sphere are the points. To him, justice is the virtue of the society, not that of individual. The Rawlsian tradition thus led to the disconnection between institutional structure and the agency of institutional actors. Naturally, philosophers, who teach morality in an academic institution do not necessary hold the view that they themselves should be moral. This can explain the stunning lack of theoretical resources to analyze the cases where some famous philosophy professors are accused of sexual harassment by their students.


Gossip vs scandal A not-uncommon phenomenon in academia is some famous male professors' habitually, sexually harassing female graduate students. The phenomenon can be used as the situation described by the questioner, that is, a situation where one is under the authority of another who violates unwritten rules (so-called social norms). The question is what can be done by the person under the authority? The person can make the situation either as a materiel for gossip or that for scandal. In sociological study, gossip is defined as a story circulated in private sphere about offenses to social norms or transgressions of existing values by someone. A story is a gossip due to the tacit agreement that the story of the offense should stay in the private sphere. When the gossip material breaks out of the surface of private sphere and exists in the public sphere and thus the public comes to be aware of the offenses or transgression, the story becomes scandal. Scandals differ from gossip in that scandals have publicity.

Suicide What is the function of the scandal? According to Emil Durkheim, scandal, like suicide, has its role in the society. Suicide, to Durkheim, unveils the deeper reality of capitalism. At the superficial layer, the capitalistic society, as it is contrasted with the feudal system, is painted with exuberant and unbound optimism and opportunity of success for those willing to work hard. But the capitalist mode of production (an ever increasing detailed division of labor and machination) leads to loneliness, apathy and insecurity. Existential angst is equated with a sign of personal failure in capitalism. The other side of the unbound optimism of capitalism then is the frustration and unrealistic expectations from oneself and from life, when the only equalizer in life for all is death. Suicide in the capitalistic society, according to Durkheim, exposes this harsh reality that lies under the optimism veneer of capitalism.

What lies under Scandal also exposes the deeper reality. What does the sexual misconduct by academics reveal? The appearance of academia is that professors are moral exemplars, and graduate students are mature and smart people. They are equal in the ivory tower under the common goal of pursuing knowledge. What lies under, however, is the power structure that resembles the feudal system. Tenured professors are masters, and graduate students are serfs. The masters, especially famous professors, wield great power over graduate students (and untenured professors). Their present and future livelihood depends on the will of these masters. Sex scandals in academia reveal this structure of dominance and submission in academia. The dominant class benefits from the systematic abuse and exploitation toward the subordinate class. The subordinate classes are held down and their pursuits of a good life are denied. The practice is implicitly justified through the pre-existing social order in academia. This is why individuals of higher social order, who view themselves as ethical, would collectively exhibit a stunning moral failure: some by directly violating social norms, and others by overlooking the violation of their peers.

A test of transgressed value Scandals do not just expose what lies under. They also become the litmus test for the transgressed values. The public might find the transgression unforgivable and thus reaffirm the the transgressed value, which can lead to structural changes through the creation of new legal provisions. It is also possible, however, that the public is unmoved by the scandal. In this case,the offended value can fade into obsolescence and replaced by a new value.

Reference: "The Scandal as Test: Elements of Pragmatic Sociology" by Damien de Blic


As I mention in my comments, I see no rational sense in trusting your own judgement to choose an ethical system and then absolving all further responsibility for judgement to whoever wrote the system. There are steps which must rationally be taken with any ethical dilemma, regardless of the ethical system unless one wishes to abandon rational decision making in favour of blind obedience (a perfectly reasonable position, but not one necessitating discussion).

In establishing your objective, the first issue is the degree of hyberbolic discounting you are willing to accept. Despite the rhetoric, this is the only extent to which most ethical theories vary. Theist systems are prepared to postpone the pleasure until after death by obeying scripture and entering heaven/good reincarnation/enlightenment. Virtue and utilitarian ethics seek the pleasure of feeling good about yourself but require some sacrifice of pleasure in the short term. At the far end, pure hedonistic ethics seek more and more immediate pleasure depending on the particular strand, even at the expense of the future.

Having decided that there are empirical methods you can use to maximise your pleasure over your chosen time_scale. If you've selected the afterlife, then you'll need to follow scripture or a priest and this is not the right place for that discussion. If you've chosen pure hedonism, then there is no planning to be done, do whatever you feel like doing at the time. There is, therefore, only any point in rational planning if you've chosen some form of postponed pleasure and you need to know what strategy will bring it about.

From here you have a further choice, because you are acting on future pleasures, you cannot trust your current sensations to determine what they will be. Either you accept some empirical evidence regarding what sensations you are most likely to find pleasurable in future, or abandon your own rational facilities in favour of simply taking someone else's word for it on faith. Again, if you choose the latter there is nothing to discuss, only the person whose word you have chosen to believe can answer. Presuming the former, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and palaeoanthropology can provide insights into what sensations are most likely to be likely to be pleasurable and how to maximise them.

In the situation you describe, the key element is the degree to which trust has been broken and the extent to which either forgiveness, stoicism or punishment might be the appropriate response. Firstly, with regards to trust, experiments have shown (see Fehr and Fischbacher's work for example) that people are readily prepared to risk large sums of money (up to one month's salary) to demonstrate trust and to punish betrayal of trust. It seems unlikely that such large sums would be given to trust if it did not produce some considerable pleasure. Also artificially increasing the neurotransmitter Oxytocin (which seems to mediate trust), increases pleasurable sensation. It seems therefore that maintaining trusted relationships is empirically likely to bring about pleasure in the long term and worth a significant amount of pain in the short term to bring about.

Having established the likely objective, the question then is how to bring it about. Here computer simulations of such social contracts have been developed and played out dispassionately and could potentially be used to guide your actions. Robert Axelrod and other have fairly consistently shown that for most environments some degree of forgiveness is required to maximise the utility from trust relationships.

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    This answer does not answer the OPs question as asked -- which is about how to handle this sort of situation in a Kantian framework. It begins roughly speaking by saying "I see no point in answering the question you asked, so I'm going to ignore that and answer a rather different one."
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 15:00
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    @virmaior I answered the question as originally asked, as I made clear in my comments above I thought it possible in a reasonably objective manner. I fail to see the harm in answering the OP's original question, especially as they only added the bit about Kantian ethics at your specific request.
    – user22791
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 17:01

I think the earlier answers have overshot the mark. But that is to be expected, as I see it, because the framing here is wrong in a way that automatically rejects answers.

People often argue ethical points from the law, ignoring that potential effects of breaking the law are just part of the equation of life. This question has the same flavor.

All ethics is always about what to do in response to non-written rules. Response to what to do in response to written rules is 'political theory'. We, in the West, have lived so long with a standard of reference in a given book, charter, code or set of mottoes that we easily forget this. Social contract theory is not a replacement for ethics. Our decisions ought not to be made on the basis of a collection of written and unwritten rules -- or we are abandoning ethics itself completely. (A Kantian maxim is not a rule in this sense. It is not a social convention, and it has only its own power, not others')

So your real question here seems to be How does one most ethically communicate about genuine ethics in real life?

I would suggest that, ethics not being political theory, the idea of rules is not the right place to start at all. Taking the framing of 'unwritten rules' is presuming that there is a rule and that you know it better than the other person. If the rule is 'unwritten', this is not true in any objective sense. Rules also involve rewards and punishments. So the very idea of a rule implicitly makes a bribe and a threat to this person: you may punish them for their ignorance and reward them for improvement. Besides often being pointless, threats and bribes are always ethically questionable. The idea that you can genuinely make statements about your future behavior is always in some sense a lie.

I would suggest that the most Kantian way of looking at an ethical problem that is playing out in real life is to do what Kantians do with all moral questions: Try to find a solution you could always follow that does not discount anyone's autonomy. The first move here is into either empathy or respect.

Autonomy is about will, and we have only a very weak view into others' will. If we want to think about their autonomy, ll we can do is to try and create a model of their will, which we generally call empathy, or create an abstract model of human will that gives them as much freedom as possible, which we generally call respect (perhaps more properly 'deference').

If you actually find a suggestion that is fair and either empathic or respectful, it seems wasteful not to share it. So the second move is to communicate the thought. Is the right person to communicate with about this necessarily the person with whom you disagree? Often, but sometimes not. Ideas are shared very broadly in many different ways. (The more 'mystical' among us feel they are shared simply by existing, you communicate them automatically in ways over which you have no control. I will skip discussing that, but I can't help mentioning it.)

The right person to speak to might indeed be the person you see has having been treated unfairly, it might be others around that person, it might be authorities, it might be everyone. (Talking to the child about the broken promise may help a lot more than talking to the adult who is disappointing them. At some point we all need to learn how to know when people mean what they say, and that even if they mean it, sometimes they fail. And if, say, this is an ongoing family dysfunction, it might be the siblings or parent of the adult making the promises.)

For Kant, this is a contingent duty. You are really only responsible for your own behavior, and improving your overall situation is something that you do when you can. For Kant, most contingent duties should be submitted to local custom. So this is an intricate set of social skills determined by your social contract, but it has ethical contents as well. No useful social contract about communication is going to permit lack of integrity. Manipulating others for your own benefit is not the same as trying to help. There may actually be a place for both of these, but you have to know what you are about.

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