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    Norms and Exceptions

    May 12, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Yesterday I mentioned one of my Number One Rules when it comes to reasoning about norms: Don’t reason from exceptions. If we reason from exceptions, we will end up a society without norms altogether for it naturally follows that in an imperfect world we will always be able to find at least one exception.

    There are a few different reasons why exceptions always find their way to the surface of the conversational puddle. Sometimes, we are just trying to find the boundaries of a norm. We are trying to discover if it is an Absolute Immutable Truth, or rather a helpful rule of civility within our own culture. Other times, we really are discussing a specific, personally known exception, and we want to assess how to handle the situation in light of the norm. And then there are the times when this is merely an attack on the norm itself, an attempt to use exceptions to abolish the rule.

    Such defensiveness may stem from the perception that establishing norms is an automatic judgment and condemnation of the nonconforming. This reveals cause for being careful when establishing norms, and not turning the establishment of normative principles into an activity of hyperlegislation and attempt to control our fellow man.

    Defining a norm is not a form of judgment, even though it may seem to be so upon initial consideration.

    Let me illustrate with a fairly non-controversial example.

    First, the norm would be: Parents should raise their own children. This is a norm that few would argue with, even if they had different definitions of how much time and interaction is required by the word “raise.” The idea is that parents shouldn’t farm out their responsibility.

    However, comma.

    I don’t find any fault {and I doubt you do, either} with the hearing son of deaf-mute parents being sent to live with his uncle so that he can learn to speak properly with his voice.

    So here we have an exception: the deaf-mute parents are unable to teach their son to speak, something of which he is naturally capable.

    We have a solution which does not conform to the stated norm: the parents are not raising their own child, but are having a relative raise him, for a time at least, so that he can be taught something they, by virtue of physical defect, are unable to teach him themselves. And the thing they are unable to teach him is not something ancillary, like gardening or playing the piano, but something essential to his manhood as a hearing person: speaking.

    To be sure, we wish those parents could figure out how to do this themselves. But let’s say they think this is the only way, and the uncle is a good, kind, God-fearing man. Could we not say that the parents are acting in the best way they can considering their circumstances? I do not think that the norm condemns them.

    Let me repeat: the norm does not condemn them.

    Moreover, their need to “farm out” their parenting for a time, so to speak, does not invalidate the norm. These parents would likely agree that the normative behavior is to raise your own child, and that to willfully refuse to do so is aberrant behavior. But their situation is extraordinary, and so is their response.

    It seems to me that this teaches a few things. First, norms do not necessarily condemn exceptions. Second, exceptions do not invalidate norms. Third, family {and also friends and church family} can help ease those who find themselves in an exceptional circumstance. Exceptions call for grace, wisdom, assistance, and, most importantly, love.

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  • Reply Brandy May 13, 2009 at 9:53 pm


    Greetings, and welcome to Afterthoughts! I really appreciate you leaving a comment…lots of times I don’t know who’s reading out there. I appreciate your kind words, also.

  • Reply Cory May 13, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    I recently subscribed to your blog, and I really appreciate your topics and how they cause me to think, ponder & reason. I so desire to increase my ability to think critically and intelligibly engage a needy and hurting world as well as train my children to do the same. I also desire to increase my love for people; that I be truly authentic, honest, & giving so how I live, talk, think and relate will mirror Christ.

    Thanks and God bless!

  • Reply Brandy May 12, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Hello, Flacius… 🙂

    I think I’d just make the distinction here that I said one should not reason from exceptions, not that one shouldn’t consider them at all. But in my mind that’d be a different post entirely. My personal opinion is that real-life exceptions should be considered by those closest to them. However, there would be room for all of us, I suppose, to consider ethical dilemmas now and then.

    It’s not that I don’t take it seriously. Like all people, I have encountered exceptions, and have even been an exception, but that wasn’t the point of my post. The point of my post is that exceptions do not establish nor abolish the norms while norms do not necessarily condemn exceptions.

    I think we have to be comfortable holding these two things in tension. Ideal standards have to be allowed to coexist with the weaknesses of a fallen world.

    Did that make sense or am I talking in circles? I am a little sleepy this afternoon…

  • Reply flacius1551 May 12, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    The problem is that if we don’t consider the possibility of reasoning from exceptions, we ignore the very real likelihood that people within the norm will decide that the exception is something that can be ignored or condemned, or that the people to whom the exception applies should just change their behavior to conform to the norm. I would think that as a homeschooling parent you would take this problem a bit more seriously than you appear to.

  • Reply Mystie May 12, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Excellent post!

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