Suppose there is some rule in some social setting/scenario where society (or a relevant smaller set of people) is/are better off when some people violate it. Specifically, we have that (where '>' denotes 'better than')

Some people violate the rule > Nobody violates the rule

Nobody violates the rule > Everyone violates the rule

What would be an example of a rule like this?

I have thought of maybe some law that police officers enforce which they know is not a sensible law. It's better if this law gets enforces sometimes. There's perhaps a good scenario, maybe in a game where this is satisfied.

  • 1
    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Tea_Party. The US was founded by traitor and rule breakers, and continued to be improved upon by rule breakers. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 17:02
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montgomery_bus_boycott Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 17:16
  • George Carlin and The Seven Dirty Words: emmytvlegends.org/blog/?p=6402 Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 17:20
  • 1
    According to Durkheim, this is the case for all rules, including criminal laws:"Crime is one of the most effective sources of social change in any society. When crime goes against social norms, eventually a society’s collective belief will transform thus bringing about social change. A prime example is the Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States that promoted racial segregation. As society progressed many people began violating the laws at the time until society reached a point where it was considered a norm for inter-racial relationships in society."
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 18:00
  • Amazing comment and a great quote. The only problem with your last example of racial laws is that here the second condition does not obtain (i.e. it's better if everyone violates the rule).
    – pafnuti
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 18:14

4 Answers 4


In a lot of ways, what you're talking about here is best described by game theory which touches on rule-following and rule-breaking decision making. There are arguably plenty of examples in real life, but not necessarily any uncontroversial ones. It's easier to find cases where it's to your personal advantage to break a rule, but not if everyone breaks that rule. This is known as the free rider problem. It's generally accepted, however, that being a free rider is unethical. Conversely, if we're dealing with an unjust law, then it's arguably ethical for everyone to break it. It's more difficult to find a situation where breaking the rules is ethical for a few, but not for all.

One easy way to do it is situational. Jaywalking is generally illegal (although not often enforced) for everyone's greater safety. But no one would blame someone for jaywalking to save someone's life, or to escape danger. These, however, are just cases of one standard superseding another.

The best example I can come up with to match your ask is one I'm not entirely sure even I agree with, but it has the right structure. Suppose country A has a limited immigration process for people from country B. If everyone from country B broke the rules, and immigrated illegally, it would be bad for everyone, but there might arguably be net positive value for everyone in the fact of some people evading the process.

  • Great answer. Yes I am thinking about this in the context of game theory actually. I'm trying to come up with names for some games that have traditionally been widely studied. (See economics.stackexchange.com/questions/18958/…)
    – pafnuti
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 18:49

Personal space is a convention rather than a law, still it is good for society that people respect each others persons. Not touching, pressing in close, etc. Yet there are times when it is good to violate this restriction. Say if someone is inattentively walking into the street where they will be hit by a car, it is better to stop that person, by force, violating their personal space then to let them be hit by that car. It is better for that person, but also for many people who will be impacted by the street being blocked off during the investigation.


You can steal a bank and perhaps you can help more people than the bank that initially had the money, that is clear. Breaking rules can often be positive. But that's not the point.

Rules exist in order to allow healthy interactions (for a theory of interactions, check the links on my profile). Usually, a healthy interaction is the one that produces constructive results for both interactors (e.g. you solve a problem with a creative agreement, not by killing the other). Ideally, a rule that generates a common positive interactional result should never be broken, because it will always be better than breaking it.

The problem about assessing interactions is its systemic nature. The results of a rule are propagated throughout thousands of subsequent interactions. When society creates rules, we try to estimate all their impact. That is the reason it is very difficult to define "good" rules. Society just do its best in establishing rules. But the effect of rules is usually only observable with time.

In consequence, some rules can be "negative". In addition, most rules can cause advantages for some and negative for others. But none of this two arguments is a valid justification to break the law. Then, even if we die, it is correct to respect law, because it is us who define them. That does not mean at all not to be reactive against negative laws. If time shows that a law is negative, it is our duty to fix and change it. Of course, our sociopolitical dynamics force us sometimes to get divided in order for bad rules to be eliminated. Divisions are always destructive, cause negative interactional results, so that is the way that normative issues are naturally forced to be solved.

Breaking rules is incoherent, and not socially desired. Laws being broken is a signal to pay attention, and enforce or change them.


I have two examples.

  1. Speed limit: it is better for someone to break the speed limit law. If everyone drove under the speed limit, the overall traffic would be bad.

  2. Water conservation: it is better for some people to break the water conservation policy, and water their lawns more often. For example, the city of San Diego ordained that, in the drought season, residents were to water their lawns only twice a week. It turned out that some individual's disobeying the water policy would have been better for everybody concerned. What happened was that all residents obeyed the policy, which however entailed that the water supplying company was not able to unload the water, leading to a net loss. To recover from the loss, the company raised the water price. The residents ended up having brown lawns with higher water bills.

  • So, under your logic, society establishes rules "it is better for someone to break".
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 3:49
  • I did not use any logic here: just my own empirical observations. I do sympathize with the view that for some laws, it is better for some people to break them, because these laws are inefficient. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 16:03
  • We also may be struggling a little because we have not established what we mean by "better". The example above might be a better economic result and a worse ecological result. Better is based on the evaluation framework. Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 22:08

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