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There Is an Exception to Every Rule

Ron has been an online writer for over eight years. His articles focus on everything from philosophy to home repair.

Learn what the issue is with some sayings that seem perfectly logical. There may indeed be an exception to every rule. Learn why!

Learn what the issue is with some sayings that seem perfectly logical. There may indeed be an exception to every rule. Learn why!

Is There an Exception to Every Rule?

There is a big problem with a few logical sayings. Let’s look at this common example: There is an exception to every rule. Most people would just start thinking of all the rules they can recall to see if it is true before deciding it probably is, as there is no way for them to know every rule out there. But they have no way of knowing whether it really is. Sounds legit, right?

To disprove the idea that there is always an exception to every rule, we only need to find one rule which has no exceptions. As it happens, there is a rule that supposedly has no exceptions, hiding in the statement itself.

If all rules have exceptions, then even the rule that states that all rules have exceptions must have an exception or the rule is proven false. But if it does have an exception, the rule is also proven false because then there is a rule without an exception, which is what the rule is saying cannot exist. In fact, it is a rule that is self-annihilating. Hence the statement that all rules have an exception must be false.

More to the point would be to say that we can find exceptions to almost any rule or something to that effect. It has a much higher probability of being true. We certainly know that a lot of rules have exceptions, don’t we? Well, maybe not. But we will get back to that.

Now, what about the idea that there are no absolutes? It sounds as though this idea suffers from the same problem in the logical assumption that all rules have exceptions suffers from. Is stating that there are no absolutes an absolute statement? Is it a rule? Is it a fact? Can it be proven?

On the contrary, what can be argued very effectively is that absolute truth can be found, and we find it all the time. For one thing, we can find it through what has become badly misunderstood: Relative truth. Relative truth is, as the phrase implies, relative to something. In this case, I am saying it is relative to objective conditions, not a subjective perspective.

Truth is usually dependent on a set of conditions. If I turn my tap on today and get water, I must get water from my tap next time I turn it on unless one or more of the conditions of the system has changed. Once conditions have changed, new truth emerges concerning those new conditions.

Water boils at 100 degrees C. But only under specific conditions, which include the purity of the water and the altitude/pressure you will try to boil it at. So if you change the variables, the truth about the temperature at which your sample of the water will boil will change. However, every time you repeat those conditions exactly, your water will boil at exactly the same temperature.

So rules are relative to conditions as well. Hence why people think there is an exception to all of them. If I put my hand in a fire it will burn. That will happen every time I put my hand in that fire. But if I change the conditions and put on a fireproof glove before putting it in the fire, my hand will not burn. Certainly not to the extent it did without protection. So if you say: “If you put your hand in the fire it will burn” we commonly say there is an exception to that rule if you wear a fireproof glove or in some other way change the conditions. But that isn’t really an exception, is it?

Most of the exceptions to rules I can think of are of that variety. Someone changes the conditions and then says it is an exception to the rule. But in fact, we may want to look at it as: New conditions often mean new rules about those conditions. A slight variation in the system may not produce a noticeably different effect, or it may change everything depending on what that change is.

The absolute truth about a subject can be put in to a simple formula. I’ve already started the formula in the above text: Absolute truth is dependent on specific conditions existing and remaining the same. Once conditions change, the absolute truth about the situation changes.

In logic one cannot say all crows are black, because we cannot know that is true of the entire set called crow. If you find just one white crow in nature the rule would be proven false. We can only say that all black crows are black. But that would be a tautology and hardly worth saying. Yet it is an absolute fact. There is no exception to the rule that all black crows are black. A white crow, if one exists, is not black so not part of the set of black crows, and not an exception to the rule.

“I before E except after C” is considered an exception to the rule that the letter I must come before the letter E in all circumstances. But besides the linguistic reasons for it having become a rule as we organized our written language over a long period of time, it is not really an exception to the rule, it is the rule in its entirety. It is a formula for finding the right spelling for a word you want to put down on paper. It is not an exception to the formula, it is the formula. An exception would be a word that demands under convention that you not follow the rule.

The rule does not apply in other languages. But we don’t say except after C and except if you happen to be writing in Swahili. That is not an exception, it is a complete change of conditions.

But there is also something else going on much of the time. We can often classify a wide range of behaviours under the same rules relative to a specific starting point or qualifier.

When I say there is no such thing as a selfless act, that can mean many things. In a religious context the word selfless means to do for others without thinking of benefit to the self. Yet we are told that if we do good for other we will be rewarded. The proviso being we can’t expect a reward for doing good.

This idea sounds complex, and we can see why it is set up the way it is. But most people do not expect rewards for doing good things. My argument is that no one does anything they are not compelled to do by wanting to do it or seeing no other way but to do it. In other words we have reasons for doing anything we do, and those reasons/goals are the reward we get if things pan out. We get a reward in that we fulfil our need or desire in the act even if that is not what we consciously intend.

Of course In other texts I go on to say that the idea of it being an act of selflessness is impossible. How can we act intentionally without the act being from the self? All acts are acts from the self. The one act we might say is not completely related to self is an accident. You lose fifty dollars and a poor man picks it up. It is not an act of kindness and it is not an intentional gift. So it could be said that it is a selfless act.

But on your end it was a horrible event because you lost fifty bucks. You certainly didn’t gain from the experience directly. You lost. Now, depending on your perspective you may have gained from the experience, even if only in that you are more careful where you put your money next time you go out. Yet none of that has anything to do with the standard notion of selflessness. One might even consider it disappointing that selflessness can only be achieved through an accident, for lack of a better word.

So what about an act done under coercion? Or what about an act done under the influence of drugs? Are they selfish acts we gain from, or are they selfless because we are not in our “right” mind? First of all we are no longer talking about an act of kindness defining selflessness. The person questioning my observation that there are no selfless acts from that perspective has changed the conditions I started from.

Now be it known that I never said all selfish acts were positive or that they led to real gain. That is obviously not the case. I said we do things in order to gain something, or we wouldn’t those things at all. So the questions are fair. While I do not know what the person who recently bit someone’s face off thought they would gain by doing it, they certainly thought it was the thing to do at the time or they would not have done it. They may have acted out of fear or out of delusion. People hear voices during certain mental states. We have seen it all before. In fact, just last year in the city I live in a man on a bus cut off the head of another man he had never met because the voices in his head told him the man was a demon and had to be killed in the only way that would ensure he never came back.

We certainly cannot say he acted outside of what he thought was self interest, even though we might say he was not sane at the time he acted. Being sane is not relevant to whether you act in what you think is your best interest or not.

This is the same as with the idea of a person who is hypnotized. First of all, all the literature tells us that a person cannot be forced to do something outside their nature. Of course, who knows what is in our nature under the right conditions? If we believe certain conditions are fact, we will act accordingly whether those conditions actually exist or whether they are purely coerced through suggestion. Is the person still acting from self? Yes. An altered self perhaps, but still the self. When the self is not present such as in brain death. There are pretty much no acts at all externally, though the body may keep ticking along, doing what it always does for a while. But no one wants to believe the body is the self on its own anyway. So in effect, no self, no acts from self. Simple as that.

Whether a person does something out of coercion, delusion, intention, or under the influence of a drug, their acts are always out of self interest, whether that self interest is in response to real or imagined conditions., and whether it really is in their self interest or means their destruction.

What I am getting at is that all acts done by subjective beings are done in order to gain whatever is most important to them at that moment. But what is new about what I am saying is that this even extends to the kindness we extend to others and the love we give them. I’ve written another text concerning love in this context so I won’t repeat it here.

So when I say that there is no such thing as a selfless act, I am saying that all acts, by default, originate from the self and have reasons behind them. Further, those reasons constitute goals and objectives which represent needs and desires. The attempt to resolve those needs and desires and reach those goals is by default a selfish act. An act entirely from self.

The only exception is accident or a distinct absence of self, as far as I can tell.

You might then argue, as I myself have in the context of free will, evolution, and origins, (to name a few) that there are no accidents in a cause and effect world. And that’s true. But I am using the word accident to denote an unintentional act or a consequence of an unintentional act. We do not live in a vacuum. We interact with our environment and it interacts with us. Hence we often experience unintentional and unwanted consequences from our actions. One can call those accidents as long as they don’t think of accidents as random or causeless events, and as long as we use the word in terms of subjective beings experiencing things they had no intention of causing or being part of, rather than in regard to natural processes.

Change the conditions, change the truth of the matter. While the subjective world has a lot of “accidents”, the objective world doesn’t work that way.

Is a coerced mind, a member of a cult, etc, acting out of their own volition? Yes.

But we have to know what a mind is and basically how it works before we can say that. If you believe that a self is separate from the body, or indeed the result of a soul trapped in an envelope, then the self is probably seen as being set in stone. The soul is then by nature set in stone as to what it is or who it is. It is a solid thing, so to speak. A thing that can be warped and destroyed never the less. It is often said that humans are corrupted by the world, as if they at some point are no longer who they really are. They lost their way.

In the absence of a god and a soul the mind is part of the entire system or organism. It does not survive death, and it can be altered by drinking a cup of coffee or smoking a cigarette. Everything we eat has an effect on our minds. But not only that, every event we experience can change who we are.

Yet there is stability in our sense of self. This is due to genetic predisposition acting on environment/nurture/conditioning. The self is the result of specific conditions being present. Requirements include but are not limited to: a memory to give continuity through the storage of a personal history, sensory apparatus such as hearing and sight, etc, to provide input and stimulus as well as an interface between the outside world and the system, and most importantly: needs which demand action through the use of feelings.

This gives all biological beings/creatures a basic sense of awareness, and awareness of self and self interest. Humans have also developed language which has allowed us to think and write down what we think, as well as being able to read other people’s thoughts. But it has also allowed us to explain to ourselves what our feelings mean and what this existence is all about. In turn all that has given us a far more developed sense of self than most other animals probably have.

Now in point of fact, we are not the same person we were when we were born. All the cells in the body have been replaced many times over a lifetime, and many were added that we didn’t have. All that we physically are has changed and is constantly changing. But because of memory there is continuity through a personal history. In addition our genes and their particular condition also give continuity to our personalities. But what part of us is the I? There is no one part which is I. I is the system and it’s conditioning.

Is the I an illusion? Of course not. The system that defines itself as you exists and it has a real history. But is it separate from the system? No. Not as far as we can tell from the evidence so far. When the lights go out, it’s probably all over for the I or any sense of it, even though the constituent parts in the form of energy/mass will exist at least until the end of time. Probably not a consolation to the religious though.

What happens to the sense of self in dreamless sleep or under anaesthetic? It’s gone. No feelings at all. No intentional acts possible. That in and of itself should tell us something. It should probably tell us that it points to the high probability that without the brain the mind does not exist, and no one gets out of here alive.

But be that as it may. What else adds to our sense of self? The fact that we have a conscious component and a subconscious component to our mind. Again, I have written at length about this so I won’t go into great detail again here. Suffice it to say that the conscious mind is often thought of as the real us. But that is not really the case at all. The conscious mind is a mode of mind that can use tools like logic and reason. Not just to work things out and find better ways to act; but to educate the instinctive subconscious mind.

I often us the example of a person learning to ride a bike. At first you fall off while you get your balance and consciously deliberate with yourself as to how to move your body, balance yourself, and reach the break. As you get to know the bike, you learn new skills. Soon you begin to find that conscious deliberation about how to move is not needed. In fact, thinking about every movement becomes a hindrance. You begin to second guess yourself, and you will probably fall off again.

When the skills involved in riding the bike are firmly part of the subconscious, the subconscious has been educated by the consciousness. Consciousness then, is a tool of the subconscious, as the conscious mind cannot act quickly, and has no access to the inner workings of the body. The subconscious, once educated, can act instantly, and appropriately.

But as I say, there is no division between the conscious and subconscious. It’s just a way to talk about aspects of the mind/brain function.

All this to say that certainly the mind can be and is constantly altered by everything we do. There is no one part of us that is the true self. Rather we are whatever state our mind is in, and we act accordingly. It is not a matter of saying that if we eliminate all the things that alter our basic self then we will find who we really are. The self is affected by everything down to the quality of air we breathe, and changes states constantly. Sometimes only slightly. Sometimes those we love don’t recognize us. Are you who you were when you were a teenager? Probably not. But those years led to who you are now, for better or worse.

The mind is an evolving system. Change the conditions, change the truth about the situation. But while the system stays the same, the same set of rules continue to apply. In the case of humans, our subjective nature is a constant, and as long as it is there will be no way we can be accused of selfless acts. In human terms there is no such thing.

So, exceptions aren’t usually exceptions. They are either a complete change of conditions, which change the rule, or additions to the rule and therefore part of the rule, not exceptions to it.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is it true that for every general rule there is an exception?

Answer: Again, most if not all so-called exceptions are changes in the conditions the rules apply to or additions to the rule, so they are not real exceptions. A rule is a truth about a set of conditions. If you put your unprotected hand in a fire it will burn. But if you put protection on it may not. You have changed the conditions, you haven't found an exception. New conditions, new truth about those conditions, and therefore new/different rules.

Question: Is that rule its own exception? Every rule besides that one has an exception, which means that it has no exception besides itself.

Answer: Not exactly, it contradicts itself which makes it illogical. Besides which, it's false. Some rules have no exceptions. Changing the conditions the rule apply to changes the rule, it doesn't create an exception. Water boils at 212 F. But that only applies under specific conditions. At different altitudes and different purity of the water that temperature changes. But if you repeat your experiment under the exact same conditions your results don't change. Truth applies to specific conditions being true as long as they remain the same. Change the conditions you change the truth about the situation. You don't create an exception.

Question: The fact that the rule has no exceptions is the exception, thus the statement that all rules have an exception is in fact true?

Answer: No, it's not an exception, it's a logical contradiction. Besides which, it's not true. Not all rules have exceptions, and in fact, there's a case to be made for most exceptions to be a change of conditions, no exceptions. Change the conditions, you change the rules. Put your bare hand in a fire it will burn. If you put on an asbestos or some other fireproof glove and stick your hand in the fire, it probably won't burn. Is that an exception to the rule? No. You changed the conditions.

What is a rule? There are many definitions including laws, the length of time a king rules, rules of physics, etc. A rule is either something declared by the authority of some sort or a factual statement of how something works. You can't make an omelet without eggs. If I said you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, you might say: unless I use a carton of already cracked and pre-mixed eggs. You might say that's an exception. But if you just say eggs, there is no exception. And in fact, the fact that you found an exception means the rule was false. A real rule concerning how something works has no exception. If it does, it's not how the thing works, or the conditions considered have been changed.

Rules, in the context of this discussion, are in essence: truths. Truth is always relative to the specific conditions it's describing. Change the conditions, you change the truth about them.

Question: There is one exception to the rule that waves don't move matter. What is it?

Answer: Sound waves/vibrations move matter in the form of air particles which is how sound propagates, so that could be an exception to the rule. However, you could say water waves move matter too. They certainly don't go through matter like radio waves. Solar winds may be an exception too. They are a continuous flow of solar plasma/magnetohydrodynamic waves mixed with shock waves Hence, solar sails are possible.

. It's getting more probable that matter is made of quantum waves that act like solid particles, but aren't. Mass is energy, not matter. But it creates what we consider matter: an object that takes up space and has mass. Most waves have mass, like water or sound waves or solar wind waves. Each carries and therefor moves matter. But the matter it moves through isn't carried away by most waves.

So I don't think it's a valid rule unless it specifies the type of wave or waves we're talking about and the specific context of the rule in relation to those specific waves. If that's done, there is no exception to the rule. Otherwise, if we say there are exceptions, then the rule would be shown to be false stated simply: waves don't move matter. There's so much more to it, including the fact that the word matter is vague at best. A water wave or a shock wave hitting matter certainly can move it even if it doesn't carry it away. So, again, worded as it is, it's not much of a rule.

So, is it true that no waves move matter? No. So if it's true, then the rule has to be modified to explain the context/conditions in which it is true. Once context is specified, there are no exceptions.


Christopher on November 16, 2016:

"I before E except after C." Complete foreign (foriegn?) to exceptions.

Likewise, "when two vowels go out walking, the second one does the talking." That rule violates itself twice. In both "out" and "does," the sound of the two vowels are blended.

artblack01 from New Mexico on December 02, 2013:

Trcapro, yes but then its proven false be being true because then it has no exception, it's a meta contradiction.

Jay from Pittsburgh on December 01, 2013:

You make an interesting case but your argument is flawed at its very base. You state that the phrase itself must have an exception in order not to be proven false. Indeed this rule is it's own exception thus proving that it is in fact true.

Jhammin on January 21, 2013:

Brilliant summary of thoughts that I have been struggling with for quite some time. I think there is a natural tendency to reject the idea that we are "merely" a product of our surroundings. These days I am in constant amazement at the person I once was, who I have become, and how I will continue to change. Lately i have been interested in just the truth of our existence and how it may be recursive. I believe that as we come to terms with the fact that we are part of something so much bigger than what is normally considered the "self", our "self" expands and becomes something more than it was before. We are a small portion of the entirety of existence, existing within itself. I don't know why, but for me, that realization provides a substantial amount of peace and comfort.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 31, 2012:

This is quite a mental exercise, but an interesting one. Thanks for sharing your talent of logic.

artblack01 from New Mexico on August 18, 2012:

Great article on logic!

WhydThatHappen on August 18, 2012:

I love reading stuff like this because it reminds me of how little I know and how much there is to learn. Voting up and sharing!